“It’s business as usual,” Saints defender Laura Rafferty says with a smile. 

On Saturday, Southampton face Wolves with promotion to the Championship on the line but Rafferty is relaxed. The pressure on this team is real but Rafferty is just excited about the dream she’s living as a Southampton native and lifelong Saints supporter.

READ MORE: Enjoy the Daily Echo and Saintplus free for 30 days in our subscription deal

“Growing up in Southampton, I always had James Beattie on the back of my shirt,” the 26-year-old continues. “I was in town the other day and I saw a little boy with ‘Rafferty number 6’ on the back of his shirt. In town, not at football. I saw it and I got emotional. Because I’m so connected with the club - nothing makes me speechless as I’m sure you can tell, I love to talk - but that got me. I was just like ‘wow’. 

“We’re not even where we want to be yet so the fact that everyone is buying into us, is a credit to everybody involved. There’s nothing I love more than this club and it’s been like that since the age of three years old. So I do feel very emotional towards this club - it means everything.”

It’s been quite the odyssey for Rafferty to get back to her hometown, but there’s an air of destiny to her story as she reunited with her beloved Saints for what could be a defining season in the club’s modern history.

Daily Echo: Laura Rafferty warming up at St Mary's. Image by: Stuart MartinLaura Rafferty warming up at St Mary's. Image by: Stuart Martin

READ MORE: Subscribers can now enjoy ad-free access to the Daily Echo's new app

Joining the Saints academy in 2006, Rafferty stayed for eight years but with no real opportunities to step into the professional game she departed for WSL Chelsea.

After three seasons in West London she moved back to the South Coast with Brighton but a devastating ACL tear in 2019 cost her 18 months of action. Finally returning last season on loan with Bristol City, Rafferty showed that she still has plenty to offer making 17 WSL appearances while appearing in all four of her side’s Continental Cup matches.

In the summer of 2021, Rafferty arrived at a crossroads when she was released by Brighton. Sometimes though, things just click and work out perfectly. This was one of those rare occasions. 

After applying for and receiving promotion to the National League South, there was no question about the level of ambition associated with Saints Women, something that was reaffirmed when Rafferty joined in July.

“It was definitely the best decision I’ve ever made in football,” she says with her trademark grin. “I’ve been at different clubs but nothing’s quite the feeling of your actual home. And obviously I know the people at the club - Martina, Marienne (Spacey-Cale) and speaking to the club we just had the same ambitions. For me, it was a no-brainer.

READ MORE: Meet the Saints U18s who won the Premier League South

"I just turned 26, I saw what they want to do, I’ve been in an environment - the WSL - where I feel like I can bring good experience to some of our players. We have a very young team and I’m still learning a lot from everybody else. It’s been good and like I said, it just compliments each other well.”

“Coming into the club at the start of the year I knew exactly what was expected of me. I was keen to come in and hit the ground running and so far I think I’ve done quite well with that. But I think there is responsibility - I’ve been there with Chelsea, we’ve won the FA Cup, won the league, I’ve been to the Champions League. 

“I’ve learnt a lot from top players and I think coming into these one-off games that’s one of the things I can give back - being able to manage games, understand the fluidity of the game, when to speed it up, when to slow it down.

"But I think I’ve definitely tried to take a bit of responsibility in that sense but we’re all very accountable. We all are. But me as an older player -  I never thought I’d say that - I think I can take that pressure off the younger players, I can deal with that. But in saying that we’ve got young players who are absolutely stars of the show so I take responsibility where I can but so does everyone else - so there’s no pressure.”

Pressure or not, victory against Wolves would crown a season that will live long in the memory. In late April they beat Huddersfield Town to win the National League League Cup and just one week earlier they were confirmed as National League South Champions against Portsmouth at St Mary’s in front of a record-breaking crowd of 5,145.

“You couldn’t actually write it, I don’t think! There was no chance in the world we thought we could’ve actually won the league against Portsmouth at St Mary’s. That’s three things that as a Saints player, Saints fan, someone who lives in Southampton, that’s a dream.

"We had so many fans that came and showed their support. That was a day that was very special but we had to remain very professional in what we were doing because ultimately it’s not over. And I think if we were satisfied with that then the ambition wouldn’t be enough for the playoff date. That’s the biggest thing for us right now. So as lovely as it was, it will only be amazing if we do take that next step.”

Daily Echo: Saints celebrate scoring against Portsmouth in their title-clinching match. Image by: Tom MulhollandSaints celebrate scoring against Portsmouth in their title-clinching match. Image by: Tom Mulholland

Rafferty, her fellow players and the club itself is far from satisfied. Promotion is what they are demanding from themselves and even then, they have no plans to stop. But amidst the intense focus on the job still at hand, Rafferty allows herself a moment to contemplate just how special this year has been.

“I was a baby when I was in the academy! I was a child and I didn’t know women’s football was even going to be a professional thing. For me it was always a hobby. But looking at the ambition of the club, the structure behind us, the backing from the whole entire club, there’s no reason why the young girls coming through - like I was - can’t now dream of playing for Southampton as a professional side. 

“So yeah, it’s fantastic the opportunity we’ve been given and to if I’m honest, I think personally I do have that extra bit of fire in my belly in terms of I know what this could do for a lot of young players as well as the girls in the club and everyone associated with it. So yeah…it’s exciting!”

A hugely impressive personal campaign for Rafferty saw her win Fans’ Player of the Season at the club’s recent awards night although she concedes that any number of her teammates could have taken home the honour.

“I didn’t expect it! If you see the footage I actually look really shocked, that was probably the most amount of messages I got; ‘you didn’t expect that did you?’ No, not at all! Because everybody’s been fantastic and you could have picked anyone in the team. I’m very honoured that they picked me for it because listen, I love this club.”

Speaking earlier this week, Wolves manager Dan McNamara labelled his side as “huge underdogs” and while there is no doubt some mind-games to his message, Southampton are favourites.  And it's not by accident or by bluff. Saints are confident because they know the quality they have and the qualit they’ve already displayed.

“We’ve had very good cup runs. We won the league cup where we got to face a northern side which was very eye-opening for us in terms of what that could bring and we know what it is like to play it cup games. We had Bristol at St Mary’s and that was a massive occasion because that was a Championship side in the FA Cup at St Mary’s - that was hte first time I’d ever played there in my life. And we managed to pull through.

"That’s where the profesionnalims is the biggest part. We know we’re a good side - there’s no doubting that. But on the day anything can happen and you need to understand what could happen, what you want to happen. We have our game plan like we always do and we have to execute that like we have all season.”

Eight years is a long time. It’s a lot longer in football. Southampton Women have changed drastically since Rafferty left and she has as well, going through incredible highs and ridiculous lows but maturing along the way as a footballer and person.

It’s hard not to feel the entire eight years away from her club wasn’t always leading back to this moment. The chance to lead this new era of Southampton Women into the Championship at the end of a campaign that won’t ever be forgotten.

“The whole club is very together and we’re lucky to have that. We’re very lucky. I’m sat here with a huge smile on my face the whole time! So I’m very happy here and everyone around the club is fantastic, everyone behind the scenes is amazing. And this is what we need to do. We need to go and win that playoff for everyone and we’ve definitely got the fire in our belly to go and do that.

“I know there’s a lot of people coming with us and I just can’t wait to see everyone’s face and hopefully we can make it a worthwhile journey for everyone.”

A message from the Editor

Thank you for reading this article - we appreciate your support in reading the Daily Echo.

Subscribing to the Echo means you have unrestricted access to the latest news, features and Saints coverage - all with an advertising-light website.

You will also have full access to Saintsplus, your new home for Southampton FC tactical analysis, features and much, much more.

Don't take my word for it - subscribe here to see for yourself.

Follow the latest breaking news in the Southampton area by joining our Facebook group - Southampton News - Breaking News and Incidents

Follow the latest court and crime news on our dedicated Facebook group - Hampshire Court and Crime News