Melbourne City's Rhali Dobson set to retire early: 'This is bigger than the sport'

There are few players more instantly recognisable, and perhaps unsung, in the W-League's history than Melbourne City's Rhali Dobson, who spoke to ESPN ahead of what will, unfortunately, be the final game of her career on Thursday evening.

Blessed with fierce pace and dogged determination, Dobson and the highly distinguishable ribbons that adorn her hair have been a ubiquitous presence across the W-League's history: The now 28-year-old a member of the inaugural Newcastle Jets squad back in 2008 and earning a senior international cap with the Matildas in 2014.

In 2017, a move from the Hunter to Melbourne City was completed and she has since made 45 appearances for the club -- becoming just the 28th player to bring up 100 W-League appearances earlier this season.

City's coming clash with Perth Glory, however, is set to write the final chapter in her career and sadly for both Dobson and Australian football, it's arriving sooner than the attacker hoped.

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She and partner Matt's coming challenge represents a far greater obstacle than anybody should have to confront; placing the travails of football and its preseasons, late nights and early mornings, knocks and niggles, and mental lows and highs into context.

Nonetheless, the emotional weight of her decision to step away from the W-League is still clear in Dobson's voice.

"I don't feel like I'm ready to retire but sometimes life makes those choices for you," she told ESPN. "But with everything going on it's a decision that has to happen -- because it's bigger than the game.

"Matt and I are very open about everything. He was diagnosed with brain cancer six years ago after a seizure on the soccer field when he was playing.

"He had brain surgery and that was successful and then he elected to stay on just having reviews with oncology after everything went so well the first time. Purely to help out from a research perspective, he's really good that way.

"He was having a checkup and they noticed a bit more activity in a very small area [of his brain] back in February.

"He underwent secondary, awake brain surgery on the 10th of March, which I was home for.

"Five days after his brain surgery he kicked my backside back down here to Melbourne, told me that I had to finish out the season, that I've got unfinished business and it was still normal as always.

"Then we got the news two days after I got back down here to Melbourne that the part that they took out -- which they got all of, which is fantastic -- had transitioned to a grade III brain tumour.

"So, he now starts aggressive radiotherapy until the end of May and then he'll start aggressive chemotherapy for 12 months.

"We've caught things exceptionally early, he's on the very positive end of the scale because of his age. He had no other signs or symptoms, it was for him a routine check-up.

"But ultimately, it is still brain cancer so I want us to have the opportunity to have everything life has to offer.

"This is bigger than the sport. He is my absolute world."

Now in her fourth season with City, Dobson returns home to New South Wales during the offseason, where she works as an occupational therapist. She then temporarily relocates to Melbourne during the season.

But this arrangement, the former Wauchope SC junior explains, makes attempting to continue a W-League career unviable as she seeks to support Matt through the daunting challenges that await the couple in the coming 18 months.

"I want to give him the opportunity to have everything he possibly can and I can't do that playing this sport," an emotional Dobson said.

"We don't have the luxury of being able to up and move our other halves. I can't financially support both of us playing soccer. That's a big difference between the women's and the men's game.

"We're in for a very rough 18 months but it's all going to be for the greater good. I want to be able to give him the opportunity, so we can spend time together, we can spend time with all of our friends and family, and we can look at having a family ourselves. All those things are just bigger than this game.

"It's a really sad moment for me but at the same time, it's also a step on a new adventure with Matt and I.

"I just wish he'd accepted my marriage proposal that I did twice the other week. But he just laughed at me both times! Who wouldn't want to say yes to me over video chat dressed in my fluffy unicorn pyjamas proposing to him?!? Who wouldn't say yes to that?!?"

Heading to Melbourne ahead of City's 2017-18 season, Dobson has been a part of two title-winning seasons and a premiership in Bundoora: including the invincible season of 2019-20 that culminated in a behind-closed-doors, Grand Final triumph over Sydney FC.

However, it's that first championship-winning season of 2017-18 that stands out to the attacker amongst her career highlights.

"People would say 'wasn't it your Matildas debut?' but for me, that season held so much blood sweat and tears," she recalled. "Just everything that I put into that season.

"[Then-coach] Patrick Kisnorbo was the one who held out his hand and contacted me at the start of that season with: 'We want you at City, you're the type of person we need at City.'

"For me that was a big thing, to have the most successful club and most prominent club wanting me.

"Winning that Grand Final, when that whistle went off, for me that was my favourite moment in my career."

Now City's A-League boss, Kisnorbo recalled the valued role that Dobson played during that campaign -- both on and off the field.

"She was very coachable but the important thing was she was a good person," Kisnorbo told ESPN. "When I bought her here to a new environment, she adapted well and you could see as time went on, she improved as a player. She played a valuable role that season.

"She is humble, honest and the game will miss people like her."

But while Dobson has tasted a fair amount of success on the field, she also holds the connections she has made with W-League supporters across her career with just as high regard -- bonds she consistently, gratefully and joyfully nurtured and felt reciprocated during her career.

"I just hope someone picks up in my shoes in making sure that they spend time with the fans after every game," Dobson said. "Give the fans and the club the recognition and the time that they deserve after every game.

"There's a lot of people who I will miss but I'm sure they'll still follow my new adventures."

One of Dobson's new adventures will be a trek from Sydney to McDonald Jones Stadium in Newcastle to help raise funds for the Mark Hughes Foundation -- a Newcastle-based charity that helps raise funds for research into brain cancer.

"I actually elected to do the full walk before any of this happened because we like to raise awareness and educate people around brain cancer," Dobson explained. "It'll definitely be something different, a different challenge because it's not just running around a pitch for 90 minutes!

"It'll be a great opportunity to meet a lot of different people on the way, a lot of people involved in the community and raise much-needed funds for research."

But before that odyssey can begin, Dobson faces one, last 90 minute run around a pitch at Frank Holohan Soccer Complex on Thursday night; Glory providing a bookend on a career-ending earlier than it should, but one that she can still be proud of.

"I've kept everything very quiet because I've wanted the girls to stay focused on the season and make sure that we finish strongly," she said. "I didn't want anyone treading on eggshells around me, I still wanted people to just treat me normally.

"We've done exceptionally well with that because look at this team now, we're gelling well, we're putting a performance out on the pitch.

"I suppose it's quite symbolic playing Perth Glory in my final game. They were the first-ever W-League game that I played as well."

You can support Dobson's fundraising efforts for the Mark Hughes Foundation here.