One of New Zealand's top young female footballers is taking a unique path to the top. Michael Burgess finds out why she'd rather train with the boys.
Macey Fraser looked down at her legs and smiled.
Sitting in her Whitby lounge room in May, the Young Football Ferns star could almost count the bruises after a tough, physical session training with a boys' team.
The bumps and knocks hurt, but it was the physiological impact that was bothering her more.
She reflected on her decision to turn down a spot with New Zealand Football's development programme in Auckland and thought about her family back in Rangiora.
Could she really do this? Was it such a good idea?
"During the first couple of trainings, it was mentally so tough … I felt like I wasn't good enough, wasn't up to their standard," says Fraser. "I had to get used to the play and gain their trust so they would actually pass to me."
Fraser is something of a football pioneer.
One of the brightest young prospects in New Zealand football, she has eschewed the usual pathways for female players and instead opted to train with boys at a private academy in Wellington.
It's borne out of a desire to be in the best environment to develop her game and eventually forge a professional career.
Fraser has previously spent time at the Football Ferns Development Programme based in Albany and was part of this year's intake.
But she has decided to go her own way, joining the Ole Academy after lockdown.
"I'm learning so much," Fraser told the Herald. "I'm not just playing for other people, what they want to do, I'm doing it for myself. Ole has made me so much happier playing football and I feel like I have developed a lot."
For someone so young – Fraser turned 18 in July – it shows impressive foresight and determination.
Football Fern Michaela Robertson (23) linked with the Wellington Phoenix Academy last month, becoming the first female there, but that was a decision based more on logistics, due to her work commitments, and partially arranged by New Zealand Football.
Fraser played a central role in the thrilling 2018 Fifa Under-17 World Cup campaign, starting in five matches as Leon Birnie's team claimed third place.
Among football folk, she has long stood out for her technical skills, part of a new generation that favour finesse over function.
If all goes to plan, Fraser could be part of the Football Ferns in 2023, with the Fifa Women's World Cup on home soil.
"It's awesome," says Fraser. "I can't believe it will be here. I will just keep pushing because no one knows what is going to happen."
Her path towards Ole began in January, when she attended some casual summer sessions with fellow former Young Football Ferns midfielder Maya Hahn, who has since switched allegiance to Germany.
"It opened my eyes up to what I had been doing for the past year," says Fraser. "I hadn't had coaches that actually wanted to push me. I thought, 'I can't keep going through the motions, I want to get somewhere'."
But the decision wasn't easy.
Almost all her former national teammates were part of the FFDP, an initiative started in 2017 that sees 25 current or potential Ferns based at a central hub, with specialised coaching and high performance support.
It was designed as a bridge to the professional game and there has been some success, with eight graduates gaining overseas deals.
But the decision to cocoon players away from club football has been contentious, and this year, the FFDP squad is not playing any official games.
For Fraser, aside from training with familiar faces, being with the FFDP would mean more chances to impress the national coaches.
"It was tough," says Fraser. "Basically, all the girls in my age group were going. And all my friends were living together, and they wanted me to move in with them. "
"But I knew if I was looking to where I want to be in the long run, Ole is the best thing for me. I felt like I would regret it so much if I hadn't gone."
Fraser doesn't see herself as an pioneer but is fiercely determined.
"I wouldn't say I have always gone my own way but this was something I felt would affect my football more than anything."
Once Fraser arrived at Ole, the process of settling in was helped by an unusual accommodation arrangement, as she lives with the grandmother of another player at the academy.
"Everybody laughs when they hear that," says Fraser. "They gave me a few options, the dormitory. But I liked Sandra. She has taken me in and we are like family now."
Fraser began training with one of Ole's under-17 groups, comprising boys aged from 14 to 16.
"After the first couple of trainings, I came home and there were bruises all over me," says Fraser. "I was a bit shocked. [But] Sandra told me to toughen up."
But the main adjustment was mental rather than physical, adapting to the geometric patterns of play, constant movement and ball retention at the heart of the Ole way.
"At first, it was mentally so tough," explains Fraser. "I felt like I wasn't good enough, wasn't up to their standard, but I just had to get used to the play and gain their trust so they would actually pass to me. Now that's happened, I feel like I'm thriving."
Ole Academy's director of girls and women's football Tory Schiltgen remembers Fraser's sink-or-swim moment.
"Right away, I think she was like, holy crap, this is a different way of doing things," says Schiltgen. "She had the basic instincts, so has adapted quite well to the style. She started seeing the game in a totally different way, which is challenging her at the same time."
Fraser trains from Monday to Thursday, for up to two hours, with games on Saturday. There is also gym work and recovery sessions, while her schedule is topped up by extra work with a sprint trainer, as she aims to improve her speed and acceleration.
"It's all right, it keeps me distracted," says Fraser, who misses her friends back home in Rangiora.
Her football journey started with backyard battles against older brothers Kane and Luke. She impressed for Waimakariri United from an early age and her abilities were soon evident to a wider audience.
Fraser was selected for the NZF talent acceleration programme and was part of the Mainland Pride extended training squad as a 13-year-old.
That put her on the national pathway and Fraser was the youngest member of Birnie's squad in Uruguay two years ago, just a few months past her 16th birthday.
Now it's time for the next step and she is following her own trail.
"In the past, playing at Waimak and Cashmere Tech. I felt like I was going through the motions," says Fraser. "It would be good trainings, but I wouldn't be put in any uncomfortable positions, whereas at Ole, I always am. I have to think much more about what I'm doing."
"No sloppy stuff is accepted, we're always training at high intensity.
"We always play good football, and if someone kicks it long for no reason, that is not acceptable. I'm learning every training."
Fraser admits she felt some pressure to be part of the FFDP.
"Definitely there was," says Fraser, who was part of the programme at the start of the year, before returning home when lockdown started.
"Most girls who are under the New Zealand framework are a bit pressured to go to Auckland because that's where they run everything."
"It's a bit sad that you are expected to go. But in the end, they have to pick the best players, so I am trying to be the best player I can so they have to pick me.
New Zealand under-20 coach Gemma Lewis, who is also in charge of the FFDP, declined to be interviewed for this story.
Some tension between NZF and private or club academies is nothing new.
Wynton Rufer was mostly kept outside the tent during the peak years of his Wynrs academy, while the outspoken Declan Edge was also generally ignored despite the myriad footballing talents he developed.
For a time, there was a frosty relationship between the Phoenix and NZF, though it is much improved now.
Things reached their nadir during the reign of former NZF technical director Andreas Heraf, who wanted a bricks and mortar development facility in Auckland, to bring everyone north.
That idea seemed to ignore the presence of the likes of Ole, which has been running since 1997 in Porirua. Edge joined Ole as technical director in 2012.
They boast an impressive list of graduates, from Ryan Thomas and Tyler Boyd, to Elijah Just, Callum McCowatt and Nando Pijnaker, who has recently signed with a Portuguese first division club.
The rapport between NZF and the country's academies seems much better now. NZF chief executive Andrew Pragnell and All Whites coach Danny Hay have tried to improve relationships with the various stakeholders and take a pragmatic approach, knowing the end product is paramount, regardless of the method of manufacture.
Schiltgen feels there is room for everyone.
"It's not a matter of right or wrong, it's just different, a different approach for things," says Schiltgen. "[The FFDP], they are trying to develop players to go and play overseas but their approach is different in how they do things."
"A lot of work is being done in New Zealand, putting time and resources into the women's game. It's not for a lack of effort; it takes time and energy to make those seismic shifts."
Schiltgen is excited about the future of their women's programme, which started in 2017.
"It's opening up Pandora's box," says Schiltgen. "We want to let Maya and Macey and some of these older women learn how to be creative, have fun with the ball and understand what creative football really looks like, where there is not a lot of prescriptive answers."
Fraser has been playing for the Western Suburbs women's team on the weekends but will soon link up with an Ole under-17 boys' team, playing in a Capital Football competition, which will extend her even more.
The Western Suburbs women have struggled – their young team has won only two games – but Fraser and Schiltgen believe the weekly training volume is of greater importance.
Fraser's ultimate goal is to play professionally, with some overseas trials next year, while the Fifa Under-20 Women's World Cup next January is also a target.
She's been impressed with the next generation of female talent coming through Ole.
"They are so smart," says Fraser. "They know you can rip up teams by doing one-twos, playing the easy pass. You don't just have to kick it long. It's such a good pathway for girls."
Schiltgen believes Hahn and Fraser will be trailblazers.
"There are going to be more that follow suit," says Schiltgen. "There is going to be some big shifts in the women's game, maybe a little bit more trust given to what some of the clubs and academies are doing because there is some really good stuff happening."
"Right now, the women's game is still very much controlled by the [national body], and that development pathway is heavily dependent on the federations. It's not like that in the men's game at all."