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FA Women's Plate: Kira Rai says 'there are no favourites in a final' as she dreams of historic Derby County cup win after 15 years at club

Kira Rai says she's proud to fight "for the club and the badge" ahead of a shot at history after 15 years at Derby County: "We know we need to turn up on the day. If we do that, then hopefully we'll get the luck we deserve. Β But nothing is a given. There are no favourites in a final."

Kira Rai, Derby County
Image: Derby County trailblazer Kira Rai dreams of glory in historic cup final

It's her 15th year at the club and Kira Rai is gearing up for the biggest game of her career and a cup final with Derby County.

The Ewe Rams travel to Broadhurst Park on Sunday, home of FC United of Manchester, where they contest the Women's National League Plate final against Cambridge United, bidding to win their first-ever national trophy.

"In many ways, it's everything you dream of," Rai tells Sky Sports News.

Kira Rai joins Sky Sports News' Dev Trehan at The Player Showcase at Leicester City's King Power Stadium ahead of the launch 2023/24 Team of the Season
Image: Kira Rai joins Sky Sports News' Dev Trehan at The Players' Showcase hosted with Desi Ballers at 'Your Game, Your Way' at the King Power Stadium ahead of the launch of the 2023/24 South Asians in Football Team of the Season

"As a young girl, I used to dream of playing in big games, and the Plate final is just that. It's a chance to make history with Derby County. But that's all it is right now - a chance.

"Our head coach Sam (Griffiths) and her staff have us training well and preparing the right way just as they have done the whole season.

"We know that we need to turn up on the day. If we can do that, then hopefully we will get the luck we deserve. But nothing is a given. There are no favourites in a final."

Burton-born Rai, who featured in last year's inaugural South Asians in Football Team of the Season, joined Derby as an U10s player and is like part of the furniture as a one-club woman.

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"It's a bit crazy when I think that I've spent much more of my life with Derby County than without," she says.

Team of the Season
Image: How the inaugural South Asians in Football Team of the Season shaped up last year

"My family are Derby County fans, and I'm proud to play for this club and fight for this badge - all of us are.

"I guess for all of the girls who've grown up here at Derby, winning on Sunday will be extra special. We've been a part of something together for many years now and we want to cement that and keep growing the game.

"But we're not going to get carried away and we're not going to look too far into the future.

"We're getting ready to go toe-to-toe with a very good Cambridge United side, who have just won a local derby. It's an equally big occasion for them. They will also be coming to Manchester to get a result."

The women's team have the chance to get the party started early in Derby, with the men enjoying a barnstorming season in their own right.

They are three points clear of third-placed Bolton, occupying an automatic promotion spot in League One with two matches left to play, as they target a return to the Championship.

"Paul Warne and the players have been fantastic," admits Rai.

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Highlights of the Sky Bet League One match between Derby and Leyton Orient

"I know they're behind us this weekend and the women's team are cheering them on every step of the way. We're desperate to see them back where they belong in the Championship. We're one club here at Derby County."

The football club has indeed become a beacon of hope for Derby - as have official club supporters' group the Punjabi Rams, who have actively supported Rai since she was a teenager.

Kira Rai Derby

Co-founder Pav Samra told Sky Sports News that Rai inadvertently became a "gateway" into women's football, with the Punjabi Rams stepping in to become shirt sleeve sponsors before the club went into administration in 2021, securing the team's immediate future.

Members of the group now also sit on Derby County's women's football board and form part of the matchday operating team.

"It's absolutely tremendous to see Derby County in this final," Samra adds.

"It's truly remarkable after all of the challenges the club have faced in recent seasons.

"As a Punjabi Ram, it's fantastic that one of our role models could hopefully appear in a historic cup final for the club.

"We hope Manchester is turned black and white at the weekend."

The group have been celebrating Vaisakhi with Derby County since last weekend, with the Indian harvest festival a particularly auspicious time of year for some of the group's fans as it marks the birth of Sikhism as a collective faith.

The club posted a Vaisakhi greeting across club channels, with the men's first-team manager Warne proudly wearing a Punjabi Rams badge for his pre-match news conference ahead of the home clash with Leyton Orient.

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Founder of the Punjabi Rams official Derby County supporters' group explains the significance of the Vaisakhi festival and why it is important to work with the club to mark such occasions

Travelling fans from Leyton Orient's Punjabi O's had a chance to spend some time with their Derby counterparts before the game.

Punjabi Rams dhol player and local cult hero Amo also led both sets out of players out on to the pitch ahead of kick-off, with the Indian drumbeats creating a cauldron of noise in a 3-0 win for Derby.

Samra added: "People don't always see the progress, but it's great that they can at Derby County. We're proud to play our part in that."

The rise of Kira Rai

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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

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.

Speaking to Sky Sports News ahead of Vaisakhi three years ago, Rai 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.

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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

"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.

"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."

Rai has since gone on to become the first Punjabi player ever to pull on a Derby County shirt and score at Pride Park Stadium.

She worked with scout and Sky Sports News journalist 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.

Roop Kaur Bath is featured in the first timeline capturing the journey of South Asian heritage female players in the English game
Image: Roop Kaur Bath poses alongside her entry in the first-ever timeline capturing the journey of South Asian heritage female players in the English 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.

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 earlier this 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
Image: MP Tan Dhesi visited the groundbreaking showcase at Singh Sabha in his home consituency of Slough

"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.

"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

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