The airport ultimatum that led to an A-Leagues contract

MATCH PREVIEW: Canberra United take on Newcastle Jets in Round 6 of the Liberty A-League.

Cannon Clough did everything to get a professional contract – even worked on a farm – now it’s paying off in spades.

Cannon Clough is standing at the check-in desk at Brisbane Airport with a ticket to fly home to the US for a holiday in one hand and her bags in the other.

At the end of a season in the Queensland NPL, the defender’s parents back home in North Carolina are counting down the hours until she lands for a holiday.

But her immigration adviser is on the phone to warn that she may not be able to return to Australia if she gets on the plane, and her whole dream of playing professional football in this country is teetering on whether she decides to pass through security.

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There are tears, lots of tears, until she decides that, “I’m not going to get on that plane, I’m chasing something over here – I want to play in the A-League, I don’t want to leave yet!”

And this is why, four years later, Cannon Clough has more than 30 games in the Liberty A-League and is an automatic pick for Canberra United when they host Newcastle Jets on Sunday.

“Determined” is often used as an adjective for a footballer, but in this case “determined” included working in the heat of a Queensland summer on a farm to keep her visa so that she could have another crack at the professional game, even after injury.

At 28, Clough seems the sort of character to make things happen, which may explain why part of her degree was in entrepreneurism. As she says, her parents – in emphasising the need to achieve at school – told her that “you get to do what you love if you get it done everywhere.”

Clearly she took them at their word – securing top-drawer grades while playing both football and field hockey for her state, and then starring for the University of North Carolina at the former once she had to make a choice between sports.

“It’s just something both my parents have always placed a lot of importance on, for both my brothers and I,” she says. “(They said) you can kind of do whatever you want but you got to make it happen in the classroom as well.”

Cannon Clough playing for Newcastle, pictured with her family in March.

That’s why she had a plan well before graduating, aiming to find a place in Queensland’s NPL as a springboard to the Liberty A-League.

After a couple of false starts she moved across the Pacific to join Lions FC in 2019 and was quickly on Brisbane Roar’s radar, especially after being nominated for NPL player of the year. Somehow, though, between a knee injury, COVID and Australia’s immigration system, everything got rather complicated.

“It was just after my first season (in the NPL) and then I was figuring out how I was going to get another visa – I was kind of in with Roar but was coming off a knee injury so I didn’t end up getting a contract that year,” she says.

“But the coach was like, ‘Actually, I know someone that can help you with your visa’. So I actually moved out to Goondiwindi with a family, lived the farm life really, and worked really hard for three months.

“The family that I was living with, I guess the back story is they have a daughter that plays over in the Netherlands. So they’re very familiar with the ‘do what you can to play soccer’ idea and chase that dream.

“They had all sorts of backpackers there, building fences for different farms and things like that. And then I also had a little gig in a bakery as well, so it was pretty much just three months working my absolute tail off.

“I was watching A-League games and just being like, that’s where I wanna be, I love Goondiwindi, I love this family and this experience, but that’s what I want!”

Clough just need a break and she got it – in the form, perversely, of a global pandemic. Weeks after the trauma of deciding not to go home to visit her parents, COVID closed borders.

“I had been booked to go visit my family before the next NPL season, and just as I was at the airport the guy that had helped me with a lot of my visas called and was like, ‘Hey, your bridging visa hasn’t come through so if you get on this flight, you might not be able to get back in, I’ll leave it with you.

“So I ended up getting kind of stuck here but it was probably one of the best things that’s ever happened to me.

“Just trying to chase this A-League thing and then, coming off the back of that, actually getting a shot in the A-League.”

That shot came when Brisbane finally offered her a contract in 2021; since then she’s also had a season with Newcastle and is now loving life in Canberra.

But the energy that got her there hasn’t gone anywhere and she’s working in her spare time for an agency that – logically – helps Australian athletes get into the American college system.

“It’s a pretty cool space to be able to trial some of the things that I’ve learned, you know, whether it’s the marketing side of things or the actual business and working with people and the customer-client relationships.

“This is a good role for me because I have been through it and I can speak from personal experience.


“Some of the relationships that I’ve built over there are actually really helping me in this role. Some of my clients have been teammates so it’s pretty cool to be able to talk to a coach and be like, actually I’ve played with them so I can tell you anything and everything you need to know about them as a player.”

But the priority of course is the football, especially after working so hard to get here, and her third A-League club feels like a natural fit.

“Canberra has been a really good experience so far, and I think that a lot of people would be surprised to hear that coming out of my mouth because one of my biggest priorities has always been being near the coast, being near the ocean,” she says.

“But Canberra has been awesome – like the town, the city, really gets around the team. Our first home game, it felt so full in there. It felt like we had the backing of the fans and the whole community.

“Even just day to day, if you need something, they get around it. It’s a young team, super young team.

“So I’m really excited, we’re only at the beginning but Canberra’s been good. I think I’m right where I should be.”