Rhiannon Roberts interview: Defender with the dragon heart – Life and rhymes of Betis’ Welsh warrior

Photo: Real Betis Féminas

In a competition boasting so many of Spain’s world-conquering best, Liga F is also awash with global talent – including North Wales and Lancashire’s own. A colourful twist in the career of Rhiannon Roberts has taken the Cymru defender to Andalucía, and in multiple ways, ‘Razza’ is off and running.

One of the constants through changing times in the women’s game in England, Rhiannon Roberts has felt the highs, and far more hits, along the way. A first in a senior career that began as a Blackburn Rovers teenager, the Wales favourite recently kick-started a club season overseas.

News of her switch to southern Spain with Real Betis was met with the level of well-wishing warmth befitting of a player who brings endeavour, modesty and humour in equal measure. She would waste little time in jumping on in, showcasing her burgeoning Spanish in videos for social media, and the recent Liverpool player is also operating under a partially-modified identity – to teammates, at least.

“They call me Razza (her longtime nickname), but it’s quite funny, because they either roll the R at the start, or they call me ‘Ratza’!”

Double R had them rolling in delight when she arrived at the back post like a seasoned striker to deliver Betis’ first league win of the season. Mid-September’s game with Villarreal was settled by the new number six, popping up after Carmen Álvarez had rounded the goalkeeper to slide home with the kind of gusto usually reserved only for her tackles.

A synced-up celebratory step with teammate Dorine Chuigoué (part of Equatorial Guinea’s 2011 World Cup team) capped off the match-winning moment. Perhaps ‘certified goal threat’ would be a deserved addition for the versatile defender to a CV already containing ‘emergency goalkeeper’ from her time at Liverpool.

As it was, she was just about spared the responsibility of stepping between the posts, though the plan was in place all the same, with then-Reds boss Vicky Jepson all out of back-up options. Razza’s services, though, were required as crisis DJ in the changing room – in case of emergency, break glass for Cher ‘Believe.’

“I got asked once whether I would actually take over, because the DJ was that bad! Again, I think this might have been Vicky Jepson; she said, ‘Razza, can you please do the music before games?’ because when I did the music, people were more up for it.

“They were good tunes that everybody knew, that everybody could sing along to; cheesy vibe, everyone happy, whereas other people put these ‘cool’ songs on, and half the team did not have a clue what the song was. So…that’s not gonna get you up for a game, is it?!”

Adapting to the situation has been called upon more than ever in her first move abroad. Betis are just the fourth club of a career largely defined by loyal service; a ‘career’ that for many years was not yet even that.

Playing in the National Division of the FA Women’s Premier League (pre-WSL) for Blackburn at 18, her grounding in senior football came with the likes of Kelly Smith running riot for the imperious Arsenal. When that was your introduction to the top level, what’s to fear about facing the Champions League-winning football machine that is Barcelona?!

She will have to wait until 28th January for that match-up, though even beyond Barça, it is a league that relishes any chance to prove how wildly underestimated it may still be in the debate around the world’s strongest domestic divisions. Razza’s Betis team is one containing Canadian-raised Jamaica international Tiffany Cameron (part of the recent World Cup), though she has not been the only one capable of easing the communication barrier since her arrival.

“I’d gone into player accommodation to start with, three of us in the apartment, and they all speak English, especially Paula (Vizoso), the goalkeeper, so she’s helped me settle in. There’s a couple of the other players who speak English, but at the start, they didn’t really speak it to me – now they’ve got a little bit more confident, they’re trying!

“But not a day is going past where I’m not logging into Duolingo!”

Betis have had their WSL links in recent times, with ex-Tottenham Hotspur co-manager Juan Carlos Amorós having a stint in charge, while former Spurs defender Lucia León and Razza’s one-time Liverpool teammate Rinsola Babajide also wore the green and white. As a club overall, the Andalucíans enjoy undoubted resonance with football followers around the world.

Straight away, me and (husband) Nathan (Rooney) just went, ‘Oh, Real Betis, it’s a really big club.’ It was the closest one to where he was working (as head coach of Gibraltar’s FCB Magpies), and I said I thought it’d be perfect, Seville, it’s an amazing city.

“I remember the green-and-white stripes, and it’s actually in my contract – I think everyone’s contract – that you can’t even wear red boots because of the Sevilla rivalry, which I am so excited for! I said to them, ‘If you’ve got a derby game, you want me in your team, trust me!’

“It was one of the first fixtures I looked for, because I’ve been in rivalry games so many times and I love it; the Merseyside derby, the Blackburn-Burnley derby.”

Although there was a detectable Lancashire flavour to the post-match victory message she shared in Spanish after the Villarreal game, Razza’s roots are over the border in North Wales, with family coming from Ruthin, Buckley, Mold and Saltney. Moving from Wales to Blackburn as a baby, Burnley later become home while she was in junior school.

It was her uncle who took Razza and her brother to Wrexham games, which she credits for sparking her feeling for the sport, while next-door neighbour Phil can lay claim to kickstarting their Blackburn Rovers fandom. While the Racecourse Ground and Ewood Park both represent a substantial part of her footballing affection, music has been another permanent fixture along her way.

“There’s so many songs that take me back to different parts of my life and career, it’s unbelievable. Eminem (with Rihanna) ‘Love the Way You Lie’ was Under-23s camp with England, and ‘Fly’ (Nicki Minaj featuring Rihanna), I remember that from the World University Games in China.

“Then when I listen to ’90 songs, it takes me back to being in the car, behind my mum in the back seat – listening to Eternal! That’s probably the first cassette, the first music I had – it must have been my mum’s, but I must have just taken it! – and I think my first CD was probably Spice Girls.”

Back in 2016, her choices were openly called into question on this site by a Doncaster Rovers Belles teammate. Current Aston Villa defender Maz Pacheco, 18 years old at the time, said the following: “Anyone is welcome to put their music on, as long as it’s not Razza – she’s a bit retro with her tunes.”

Seven years on, Razza gets the right of reply.

“She’s spot on, because they used to laugh at me all the time. When Carla Humphrey came on loan to Doncaster (from Arsenal), she must have been about 19, I took her under my wing; she used to call us sisters, but I knew my place, I knew that I was the mother!

“I’d be like, ‘Carla, have you ever heard of this? It’s a classic,’ and she’d go, ‘No, I’ve never heard of it.’ Honestly, in the car, I introduced her to so many good songs.

“I love a bit of ‘90s; that’s probably what Maz Pacheco was saying! I love a bit of cheese, indie, ‘80s even, a bit of soul.

“Love a bit of Tom Grennan at the moment. I’ve got such a broad range of music; anything, as long as it’s not today’s r&b, because it’s no MC Hammer, is it?”

There is instrumental and vocal flair tucked away in the Betis squad alone, with aforementioned goalkeeper Paula Vizoso playing guitar, while Tiffany Cameron is a long-time mic controller, even releasing her own material. On a Wales camp, meanwhile, Razza gets her golden ticket to the Liverpool midfielder with the magic keys.

“Yeah, Ceri Holland is brilliant on the piano; she’s come from a musical family. I think it was the American camp (for July’s friendly in California), there was a piano in the food room we were in, and one night, we just sat there, me and her.

“It must have been about half 10, 11 o’clock, and we sat there for about two hours and I just listened to her, it was brilliant. I just kept recording her!”

Another of her esteemed former Reds teammates, though, might not be ready for mainstream success just yet, despite her considerable captaincy qualities!

“I think it must have been a Christmas do, in Liverpool, we went to a karaoke bar, and Niamh Fahey picked this random song that nobody knew. It must have been an Irish song, it was about ten minutes long, it was terrible, and she cleared the bar!

“She absolutely cleared the place, and then…the DJ cut her off. The singing might not have been that bad, but the choice of song – terrible!”

With a coaching background dating back almost as far as her time in senior football, Razza has recently been taking advantage of the siesta-infused downtime in Spain to work on modules towards her UEFA A Licence. Making use of a lull in the action in 2020, however, had an alternative ambience.

“I had to learn a bit of the guitar in lockdown, so I picked up a few things, but Spanish has taken over for me. I could do Oasis ‘Wonderwall’!

“All you need sometimes is four or five chords, there’s so many songs with that!”

Ceri Holland’s live lounge apart, Razza has made attending a soul-and-jazz night in Seville part of her wish list. In these interviews, though, the budget is unlimited, and the rules of time count for nothing.

So, what if she could guarantee herself a ticket for any act, from any era?

“Well, it wouldn’t be anyone recent; it would have to be a real, iconic band, like Queen, Stone Roses, the Beatles. If not, someone like Whitney Houston.”

The day she first stepped into her own performer’s alter ego (of sorts) is etched in her memory. It is the on-field alias that has taken root in much of her life overall – barring perhaps her marriage certificate.

“My first girls’ team was Under-12s at Burnley, and the girls were saying, ‘Your name is too long to say on the pitch,’ so they started firing different things at me: Rhi, Rhye, and all this stuff. Then they said ‘Raz, Razza,’ and I said, ‘Yeah…I like that!’

“That was it then, and I can’t believe I’m in my 30s and I’m still getting called Razza! My mum always says, ‘I gave you a lovely Welsh name, and you call yourself Razza…’

“It’s really funny (in the Wales team), because you’ve got Raz, Haz (Angharad James), Caz (Carrie Jones) – all it takes is someone to say A and a Z and everyone turns around!”

It is with those Cymru counterparts that she has chased what has long since become her career’s holy grail – the national team’s first major tournament. With the ‘building blocks’ she credits previous boss Jayne Ludlow for, the squad are now two-and-a-half years into the tenure of successor Gemma Grainger, and seemingly closer than ever before to that precious prize.

Twelve months have passed since their World Cup play-off decider against Switzerland in Zurich, an evening when Razza opened the scoring, only for the scarcely-plausible cruelty of a Swiss winner at the end of extra-time. When pain eventually subsided enough to make way for perspective, it was a qualifying campaign they could look upon as offering more reason for hope than any previously, capped off by record-breaking home attendances (15,200 the most recent, v Bosnia and Herzegovina in Cardiff).

This year has brought the next phase, including one of the glitzier entries into the team’s on-tour scrapbook. That came in July as they headed for California, and a friendly with a then-world champion USA side in San Jose.

With Wales star Jess Fishlock turning helpful go-between (as a longtime OL Reign teammate of Megan Rapinoe et al), Razza and her Red Army traded mementos and stuck around for photos with their opponents after the final whistle.

“I think before the game, we knew that it was going to be a big spectacle, because it was their big send-off for the World Cup. We don’t really swap shirts for games, and I think at the end of our careers, a lot of us will regret that, that we’ve got a pile of the same shirts.

“It is always nice to keep your shirt from Wales, or if you’ve had a good game or scored, but it was just a good opportunity to swap shirts with some great footballers. I think Jess had about 20 printed off and swapped with everyone!

“I swapped shirts with Rose Lavelle, and she put mine on and went, ‘Ah, it’s baggy!’ And I put hers on and went, ‘(gasp) It’s tight!’”

A WSL promotion winner with Donny Belles (2015) and Liverpool (2022), wholehearted sincerity has been the hallmark of her career. The memories remain of Wales’ number five in the goalless draw away to England in April 2018, dazed but no less determined after suffering a nosebleed when catching a stray one from her goalkeeper Laura O’Sullivan! It was a performance of collective desire and resolve, and had it been for goal-line technology, just maybe the sweetest of victories.

Taking her career to Spain this summer was a jump she felt was unmissable. In truth, the prospect alone of a full-time, two-year contract once seemed the stuff of fiction.

She was pursuing teaching when offered her first professional deal in football in her mid-20s, a contract she recalls losing later down the line due to Donny Belles’ financial struggles – coinciding as well with signing a mortgage on her house. While she would continue playing for the Belles for a few months, it is a story indicative of the women’s football landscape she and so many others had known; characterised by instability, and the need for an alternative and more-reliable source of income.

“I lived in a hotel for one of the years in Doncaster so I could complete my PGCE, because I wouldn’t have been able to do my teaching and the football, with the travelling. But even further back than that, I actually lived with my grandma in North Wales, I think it might have been 18 months.

“I managed to get myself a job at M&S Bank in Chester, but then I got myself in at Doncaster Belles, so I had a shift from about 6 o’clock, and I think I managed to get out for about 3. I’d spend about three hours travelling over to Doncaster, train, three hours back, and then up the next day, and I had to juggle my shifts around so much, and they were great with me.

“Blackburn and Burnley were as well when I worked there in the community; sometimes you’re not that lucky, you know? You know what’s strange when you go full-time?

“I was so used to being so busy, and then you get this free time and you’re like, ‘Well…what do I do?!’”

Although she has flown south for now, she notes with a laugh that she is actually ‘a bit of a homebird.’ The homecoming feeling is one she will this week get to fall back into the arms of – even if it comes mostly in mainland Europe this time.

The 61-cap defender is part of the Welsh squad for the upcoming UEFA Nations League matches with Germany (in Sinsheim on 27th October) and Denmark (in Viborg four days later). Eight years since she was the new kid, she is asked how she would sum up the significance of the team in her life.

“Well, I would just say that I count down the days until camp, all the time. We all have so many things going on in our lives, and when we’re together, we’re like a little family; everyone would run through a brick wall for anyone in that team.

“Everyone’s so excited to come to camp, every time, and as soon as everyone arrives, the smiles on everyone’s faces…but then we know that we’ve got to work hard when we’re there. It just comes so much easier when you’re enjoying yourself at the same time.”

The final honour here is reserved for one of those cherished teammates, and a player who became much more than just someone to practice a robust challenge or two on in training. Wales’ all-time leading scorer bid farewell to playing at the end of last season, with nobody feeling the loss quite like roommate Razza.

Asked who from her career she would choose to record a song cover with one day, there is only one choice.

“I would definitely have my bestie, Helen Ward; she loved to belt out a ballad in the room, all the time. She didn’t even care who was next door, or how loud she was getting, and we used to always walk over to training as well singing Westlife and that.

“So, I’m gonna go with Helen Ward, and we’d probably do a Westlife cover.”

To catch each of these interviews, you can follow: @chris_brookes

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