Rai earns historic cup win with Derby County Women on Manchester return

Kira Rai retuned to Manchester and delivered on her promise to change English football after helping Derby County Women win their first-ever national trophy.

Rai – who is Derby County’s number 15 and in her 15th year with the club – started the 3-0 win as the Ewe Rams beat Cambridge United to lift the FA Women’s National League Plate at Broadhurst Park, home of FC United of Manchester.

Eleanor Ashton scored a penalty, with captain Amy Sims adding a second, before a thunderbolt late on from Emily Joyce sealed victory to put gloss on the scoreline.

Derby winger Rai told Sky Sports News ahead of the final that the squad are all “proud to play for this club and fight for this badge. Ironically, Rai would become the first Derby County player ever to be booked in major women’s cup final following a mistimed first-half tackle.

Head coach Sam Griffiths said after the cup triumph she hopes winning a trophy can be a catalyst for long-term progress for the Ewes in coming seasons.

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Derby County footballer Kira Rai issued a rallying cry as she became the first women’s footballer to present an accolade at the Asian Media Awards

In October last year, Rai became the first South Asian heritage footballer, male or female, ever to present an award at the annual Asian Media Awards. Premier League legend Alan Shearer is the only other footballer to have been bestowed with the honour.

Before presenting the award, trailblazer Rai addressed dignitaries at the Manchester awards ceremony, including some of the most recognisable journalists from Britain’s South Asian community, explaining her role in driving change in the English game, alongside her football club and Sky Sports.

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Derby County Women's boss Sam Griffiths has writtn her name into club folklore
Derby County Women’s boss Sam Griffiths has written her name into club folklore

And just six months later, Rai who rounded off the scoring for her side in the Plate quarter-final, has now helped Derby County Women earn the first piece of major silverware in their history.

“It’s an incredible feeling. What a moment this is for Derby County supporters,” Rai told Sky Sports News after the final whistle.

Trailblazer Kira Rai talks tactics with Sky Sports News' Dev Trehan after making history with Derby County
Trailblazer Kira Rai talks tactics with Sky Sports News’ Dev Trehan after making history with Derby County

I’m just so proud to be a part of a squad and a group of staff that have written their name into Derby County’s history books.

So many people have played their part in building women’s football at Derby and helping us get here. We’re really grateful to all of them for paving the way for us.”

Asked what impact she hopes her winning a trophy with Derby might have on diverse ethnic representation in women’s football, Rai said: “It’s obvious there aren’t enough girls on the pitch who look like me. We need to see more, and more than anything I hope this can be another step towards changing that.”

Joyce told Rams TV after the game she was “buzzing” with her world-class strike.

She added: “I’m just so happy to get the win, especially for (our coach) Sam.

“Many of us have been with her from the RTC (Regional Talent Club academy pathway) all the way through, so it’s lovely to lift some silverware with her.”

Derby skipper Sims said: “I think there was a bit of an expectation for us to go and win the plate, but to actually go and do it is something else.

“It’s massive, we’ve not won anything since our academy days, so to actually get to senior level, get to play together and to actually win something with Derby is incredible.

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Derby County’s men also earned victory over Cambridge United at the weekend and need just a point from their last game to secure automatic promotion back to the Sky Bet Championship

“Hopefully the men can top it off with an automatic promotion as well but to win any trophy with Derby is absolutely incredible.”

The rise of Kira Rai

Kira Rai Derby

Rai started out at Burton Albion, before joining Derby County while still at primary school. She has played in every age-group side and is in her 15th year at the club.

The attacker has been sponsored by official Derby County supporters’ club the Punjabi Rams for a number of years now.

Kira Rai joins Sky Sports News' Dev Trehan at The Player Showcase ahead of the launch 2023/24 Team of the Season
Kira Rai joined Sky Sports News’ Dev Trehan at The Players’ Showcase hosted with Desi Ballers at the King Power Stadium last wek ahead of the launch of the 2023/24 South Asians in Football Team of the Season

Speaking to Sky Sports News, Rai, who featured in last year’s inaugural South Asians in Football Team of the Season, said she feels fortunate to have the support of everyone at the football club including the Punjabi Rams.

“It’s massive to have their support,” she said.

Team of the Season
Kira Rai featured on the left of a front three in the inaugural South Asians in Football Team of the Season

“Within Derby I’ve always been pushed, I’ve had a lot of support from the club, but then to have your own little community within a club is massive.

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A young Kira Rai tells Sky Sports News she feels lucky to enjoy the support of fans’ group the Punjabi Rams

“I feel that’s quite a unique thing for me to have and I feel lucky to have that. And obviously, being a Punjabi girl, having their support [is an amazing feeling].

“It’s like you have your own community behind you and you want to be an inspiration for them, but they are also an inspiration for me. They highlight and show football in a South Asian setting is normal.”

Fleet-footed winger Rai is the first Punjabi player ever to pull on a Derby County shirt and score at Pride Park Stadium.

She worked with Sky Sports News journalist and FA Level 2 scout Dev Trehan to devise and deliver the Seeing is Believing girls’ football initiative in 2021, designed to encourage more South Asian female participation in the game.

Rai also agreed to have her story showcased as part of the world’s first exhibition documenting the journey of South Asian heritage women’s footballers in the modern English game.

The display was launched at Stamford Bridge and has gone on show at Wembley Stadium, as well as at community hubs across the country.

English football's first turbaned referee Jarnail Singh and his sons Sunny and Bhupinder join Kira Rai at Wembley Stadium to celebrate the launch of the first timeline and exhibition of South Asian heritage female players in the modern English game (Photo: Dev Trehan)
English football’s first turbaned referee Jarnail Singh and his sons, PL match officials Sunny and Bhupinder, join Kira Rai at Wembley to celebrate the launch of the first exhibition of South Asian heritage female players in the modern English game

It is currently on display at the Wolves Museum at the club’s Molineux Stadium and has now been seen by tens of thousands of people, raising positive awareness about South Asian trailblazers in the women’s game.

Britain’s first turbaned Sikh Member of Parliament, Tan Dhesi, visited the showcase last year at Singh Sabha Sports Centre in his home constituency of Slough.

“Everyone is very proud to see it hosted at Singh Sabha Slough Sports Centre, which is a major hub of activity for young people, especially those of South Asian heritage,” Dhesi said.

Tan Dhesi timeline
MP Tan Dhesi visited the groundbreaking showcase at Singh Sabha in his Slough consituency

“And when they come along and see this exhibition, they now have role models [that they never knew existed] that they too can aspire to be like and emulate. They can go away thinking ‘if she can do it, why can’t I?’.

“Representation matters and it does not matter what sphere that is in. It’s wonderful to see the advances that South Asian heritage female players have made, particularly in the last decade.”

Speaking at the inaugural Women’s Copa Del CL charity tournament at St George’s Park, former England international and non-independent director of the FA Women’s National Board Eartha Pond hailed the timeline as a celebration of “greatness” in the game.

“I played with a lot of South Asian players, even from grassroots level at 14. They have been playing and I just don’t think it has been captured,” she said.

Hanaah ward Trehan Rai Singh Savage
Derby County legends Hannah Ward and Kiran Singh Savage join Dev Trehan and Kira Rai in support of next generation talent Riya Mannu, who was aged 15 at the time

“So it’s great to see the showcase, very, very pleasing. It’s just about celebrating, there is so much greatness within the game, and it’s not just about diversity in terms of colour, it’s also about diversity in terms of mindset, experiences, and cultures. That’s what Britain brings.”

The first-of-its-kind timeline features 20 current and former players from South Asian backgrounds, with Rai and West Brom starlet Mariam Mahmood making a dual entry after a historic game at The Hawthorns last year.

Sky Sports exclusively revealed in 2022 that West Bromwich Albion Women would be hosting Derby at The Hawthorns.

And in November of that year, the pair both netted in just the second ever women’s game played at the famous stadium, which has been home to West Brom’s men’s team for 124 years.

Mahmood: Our stories matter

“It’s great to feature in the timeline alongside Kira,” said Mahmood. “Seeing us feature on the boards shows how far we have come, but also shows how much further we have to go.

Education and bridging the gap in knowledge about South Asians in football remains a major issue. Our stories matter and I hope this raises positive awareness and encourages more children, particularly girls from South Asian backgrounds, to take up the game and enjoy playing football.”

Blackburn Rovers midfielder Chandarana said: “We can now see all the great things that these girls have achieved and continue to achieve, and it’s great to be a small part of it.

“I hope it gives inspiration to many more, to show that a career in football is possible for women from the South Asian community.”

Rai added: “To feature alongside some fabulous South Asian women as part of the history of the English women’s game is a matter of huge pride for me, my family and my football club.

“We know women’s football is not as diverse as it should be, and I want to play my part to help change that. I hope this inspires the next generation and gives talented girls who look like me the belief that they can also make it in the game.”

British South Asians in Football

For more stories, features and videos, visit our ground-breaking South Asians in Football page on skysports.com and stay tuned to Sky Sports News and our Sky Sports digital platforms.

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