Rebekah Stott’s return after cancer gives Melbourne City a win before even kicking a ball

Rado Vidošić pauses to adjust his glasses, the Melbourne City coach trying to buy himself a bit of time as he searches for the words to best articulate what’s running through his head. A day before his team open their season against Canberra United, he is conducting media duties via Zoom before he puts his side through one final training session prior to heading to the airport.

Nominally, this is a pre-match press conference open to all but, as was frequently the case during the 2020-21 season, it has turned into a one-on-one between the pair of us; it’s difficult to draw a crowd when you no longer have half the Matildas squad in your starting XI.

Nonetheless, such circumstances do allow for a more in-depth conversation; giving the 60-year-old time to engage in some introspection before answering the question on Rebekah Stott, whose start against Canberra on Friday marked her first professional football match since her diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in early 2021.

“Rebekah Stott… that is the highlight of my coaching career,” Vidošić says. “I’ve had 36 undefeated games with Brisbane [Roar] and I’ve worked with Ange [Postecoglou]. Coached [Alessandro] Del Piero. I’ve won the FFA Cup with Melbourne Victory and now, here with City, I’m a part of a fantastic organisation.

“But to be part of someone’s life journey to defeat the illness that she has had, to come back and to see her – how dedicated she is to the sport, to the women’s game, and how much following she has got and how much people adore her… I think, for us, that is the winning season.

“If we don’t achieve anything else this year, just by helping her to get back on her feet and to achieve whatever dreams that she has in front of her. I think that is the winning right here.”

Fortunately for Vidošić and the rest of City’s A-League Women side, they did not have to wait long to ensure that the 71-cap New Zealand international’s return was not the only win of 2021-22: they downed Canberra 1-0 at Viking Park thanks to an 80th-minute strike from 18-year-old debutant Holly Mcnamara.

After initially anticipating playing around 45 minutes as a holding midfielder, Stott ended up getting through an hour of football and, as her side began to take control of the game in the second half, was unlucky not to grab an assist or even a goal.

It had been 135 days since she received the welcome news that she was in remission, 294 days her initial diagnosis was confirmed, 348 days since she last appeared in a professional football match with WSL side Brighton and 622 days since she played for Melbourne City, but she was back doing what she loved.

Stepping back for a moment, it must be reinforced that beyond its undoubted inspirational aspects, Stott’s comeback is one that carries very real footballing implications for the current ALW season and beyond. Now the record holder for appearances at City, her form, whether it be delivered as a screener in front of the defence or after a shift into centre-back, will be key in determining if her club is able to return to finals after a disappointing 2020-21.

And as she progresses and builds form and fitness, she is likely to return to the international fold with the Football Fern.

Though her comeback is a triumph of spirit and she has gone above and beyond in her efforts to serve as a figure of hope and support through her work with ‘beat it. by Stotty’, it should not be lost that it is one that has required just as significant a physical commitment as a mental one.

Unless one has actually gone through chemotherapy, it’s difficult to properly articulate how physically draining its lingering effects can be, the haze that can descend upon one’s thoughts, or the sapping effect it can have on motivation in regular life – let alone during attempts to get to the physical level required to play professional football. She has worked bloody hard.

“There were a few setbacks when she couldn’t do much,” Vidošić said. “We had to look after her. I think this is her 11th week. We [at first] worked with a smaller group with her, four or five players, and you could see that she is working hard but still struggling.”

Through all the challenges – the early starts, long days on the track, doctors’ visits and even days where simply getting up and going for a walk feels like climbing Kilimanjaro – Stott has persisted. And in doing so, she has achieved something that is simultaneously an intensely personal triumph and one that can be shared in a manner that’s meaning, again, is difficult to comprehend unless you have experienced it.

Upon my own diagnosis with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2008, there were two terms I distinctly remember Google searching for while I lay in my hospital bed. The first was “Hodgkin’s lymphoma mortality rates”. No surprises for guessing why. But the second was a more personal search – “athletes with lymphoma”.

At just 16 years of age, I wanted to find stories of others that had not only survived the journey that I was about to commence, but that had been able to return to sport in the aftermath. I wanted reassurance that my body wasn’t going to be destroyed by what it was about to be put through. I wanted something, anything, that I could use not just as a goal but, in working to stay healthy, take any small control I could against a cancer that for the most part would be fought on my behalf by doctors, nurses, chemotherapy, and radiation.

So when I discovered that Mario Lemieux and Jon Lester had both overcome the disease and returned to play it came as a welcome relief – despite my lack of interest in ice hockey or baseball. I could do it.

Now, Stott can be that figure for a new cohort of those diagnosed with lymphoma, a disease that commonly occurs in adolescents and young adults. Every kick of the ball, tackle made, and minute played can demonstrate that not only can you survive, but you can also thrive.