UTD Unscripted: The impossible dream
Every kid has dreams of what they want to do with their life.
The problem I had was that there was no way for me to make mine happen.
For as long as I can remember, I’d always played football, starting in the garden with my older brother. I always knew I could play, always knew I had a talent, but I probably didn’t know how talented I was because I just played.
We lived in a cul-de-sac in Essex and the boys always used to pick me in their team, we’d put jumpers down for goals and we’d play. There were no girls’ teams where I lived. There was one boys’ team but in those days you were told that girls couldn’t – or shouldn’t – play football, so I just played in the street with the boys. I knew I could control a ball, pass a ball and all of that. I was more than capable of holding my own with them.
It was the same at primary school. We used to have free time at lunch and I’d spend my time playing with the boys on the field. The caretaker used to take the football team, and he happened to see me playing with the boys one lunchtime and he asked me to join the boys’ team. I jumped at the chance and that was my first real experience of playing football in a team. It was just boys everywhere – it was very, very rare that there would be girls playing for other teams.
Then, unfortunately, we left Essex, moved house and I had to leave all that football experience behind. We moved to Morden – end of the Northern Line – down south but I just kept playing. I used to drive my mum mad. I’d be kicking balls, breaking pots, killing plants, leaving marks on the windows and stuff.
I used to go over to the park with my brother and cousins and play. Mum looked around for a team for me to play for – I think to get me out of the garden, if I’m honest – and she took me to this local team. They trained in the secondary school around the corner from my house and it was a boys’ team. I was the only girl. I remember walking in and being absolutely petrified, but at the same time walking in and thinking to myself: It’s just a game of football.
I’ll never forget my first training session in the indoor sports hall at the school. The boys didn’t really want to pass to me. They didn’t think I’d be any good. It took me to go get the ball and go round a few of them to make them realise I was quite good.
I then played for that team for a whole season – I was about 10 then – and the manager was really good. He was the father of one of the boys. My mum worked a lot, she was very rarely home, so he used to pick me up and take me to training and games. We played in Tolworth Boys’ Little League. I played for them the whole season and I was the only girl in the entire league.
That came with its challenges.
You had to go already ready to play because there were no changing facilities. You don’t want to get changed because you’re embarrassed. You have to go home muddy because there’s nowhere to get changed afterwards apart from the toilet. But I loved it. For the first two or three months in particular, nobody would mark me. I played attacking midfield at that point, so I scored loads of goals.
Believe it or not, I used to get quite a lot of abuse off parents, rather than kids. It was completely legal for me to play at that age, but it was a boys’ league and I was a girl. I was actually quite good, and I think that’s what they didn’t actually like. If I tackled someone, it was like: You’ve been tackled by a girl! Well… yeah.
I was playing for my five-a-side school team too, which was also all boys, and I loved every opportunity to play. Unfortunately, there was a rule around playing mixed sports after the age of 11, so the minute I turned 11, I was banned from all the teams I’d been playing for. Obviously, I was devastated, but it ended up kind of working in my favour.
When I was banned, these girls’ little leagues starting popping up and there was this one round the corner that I could walk to. Previously, because my mum was working so much, my grandad had taken me to football, but he was always late. Once I could get to training myself, I was never late, always on time. We trained once a week, if that, and we played games.
I’ve got to be honest… I hated it.
I loved playing with the boys. That was my biggest challenge, that’s where I learned an awful lot because you had to move quicker and toughen up. That made me a better player. This girls’ league wasn’t the challenge I wanted. I scored 108 goals in one season.
It wasn’t great, but it was the only form of football I could get at the time. We won the cup, won the league… and even though I hated it, by playing there, by turn of fate, things went my way. There was a guy who came to watch all the young players to see if there was any talent. He was the Chelsea Ladies manager at the time. He collared my mum on the sidelines and said he’d love for me to come down and train with them. I remember at the time – I was 11 or 12 – thinking: This is amazing.
I remember we had to pay for our subscription fees at the beginning, then £3 on a training night, £5 on a matchday. It doesn’t sound a lot, but it was a problem because we literally did not have a lot of money. We really struggled. My mum was like: “I’m not sure we can afford for you to go.”
The manager, who I’m still in contact with now, was a volunteer. There was no money in the game then and he did the job for nothing, but he basically let me play for half-price. So he took the money out of it and let me play. He also picked me up all the time because he didn’t live far from me. We trained Friday nights, sometimes Wednesdays, played Sundays. It was a senior team; there was no junior team attached to Chelsea at that point. I went training and everybody was at least seven years older than me.
I felt like a little lost person.
Until I got on the pitch. Then I was free.
I was a footballer. I could just play.
About two months later I got another letter asking me back for another trial because the FA wanted to have another look at me.
That was a lightbulb moment.
I didn’t have flash boots. Didn’t have flash kit. But I knew what I was capable of doing on the pitch. I told myself: I’m gonna go back and give absolutely everything. Run more than everyone else, get on the ball, make things happen. At least then I can’t look back with any regrets.
Second time around, I had a really good trial and got selected for England U16s. I went on one camp and after that they moved me straight up to the U18s. I started playing for England. At that point I left Chelsea because they weren’t in the top division and Arsenal had approached me. They were by far the dominant force in English football, so I went there, which meant I left home and moved into one of the houses that Arsenal provided. We didn’t get any money; they just provided a house for us. We trained three times a week, if not twice, played on Sunday and I worked for the club in the men’s laundry department. I did that so I could earn a bit of money to play.
It was always just a hobby that I loved and even when I started playing for England, we still didn’t get paid. We got expenses when we went on trips, but I had to take unpaid leave from my job to go to the World Cup. The money was irrelevant to me. It was completely irrelevant. I played the game because I love the game. How many people can pull on the shirt, sing the national anthem at the World Cup and play in front of 40,000 people? Money doesn’t come into that.
It’s different now, but I feel really proud of the era that I’ve been a part of, because I always had a full-time job. When I was 16, I was working at McDonald’s, sat in the drive-thru window earning some money while I was at college so I could pay for my petrol to get to football. I worked in a betting shop because they had really good hours that worked around my football. They weren’t open on Sundays at the time, not like now. I didn’t have to start till 12pm, so because we used to train 8pm till 10pm, by the time you’ve gotten home and had something to eat, you’re not up too early the next morning. I’ve been a gym manager, so I could manipulate my time to have Sundays off.
When I was 17, nearly 18, I made my full international debut for England and obviously it was a whirlwind for me because I was travelling all over the world then, seeing places I’d have never been able to afford to go and see. The manager who was my U18s boss at the time was also the senior manager, so she took me into the seniors at quite a young age. That doesn’t happen now; you don’t make your England debut at 17 or 18. We did it then because it was literally U18s to seniors, with no team in-between.
I remember when I first got my England shirt. I got that shirt through somebody else having an injury, but I was like: Right, this is my window of opportunity. I’m never, ever taking my foot off the gas. No-one is gonna have this shirt.
I knew it had the potential to change my life.
I was relentless in everything I did. I studied the game. I was a coach from a very young age – I’d started at 17, so I’d already been learning about the game in different ways… I was never quick as a player, so I needed to be able to read the game really well. It paid off.
When we played the Euros in 2005 up in the north, I was one of only three players who didn’t play a single minute. I remember after that tournament, I was so angry, but I was angry at everyone else when I needed to look at myself and realise that what I was doing still wasn’t enough. I promised myself that no matter what, no matter what my talent, I was going to outwork everybody, to give myself a chance. So I stepped it up even more, became one of the fittest players in the team, worked hard in every single session I had. I had literally no days off.
I went on to get 100-and-odd caps and the manager who didn’t play me in 2005 gave me the England captaincy. I think when you earn people’s respect, it means so much more. When you’ve earned the right to play, it means so much more. I was never, ever the most talented player in any of the teams I played in, but I was the most hard-working and that got me a long way.
I was a coach at the David Beckham Academy when I was a player at Charlton, which meant that when I was preparing for the 2007 World Cup, I was leaving my house at 4.30am every day to go and train from 5.30am till 7.30am, go and shower, start work at 8.30am and do a full day’s work.
I get that work ethic from my parents, I think. They instilled that in me from a very young age and I’m glad. Sometimes you don’t have to look beyond your parents for role models. In football terms, I didn’t have a role model growing up because there just weren’t any. There was no example to follow. My dad was an Arsenal fan, so I watched them a lot. At that time, Ian Wright always seemed to play with a smile on his face and he always looked like he enjoyed what he was doing. He made me love the game because he looked like he loved what he was doing. As a kid, I was always like: I’m gonna play for Arsenal. But obviously you never saw a woman, so you knew that you just couldn’t. It wasn’t on the telly, wasn’t in the newspapers; you couldn’t see it anywhere. There was no visibility for the women’s game at all, but that didn’t change the fact that you had a talent that you knew you wanted to do something with.
What happened for me after that was more than a dream. I still haven’t properly stopped to look back on what I achieved as a player. When people read my achievements out to me, it’s like they’re talking about someone else. I never, ever imagined that I would walk up the steps at Wembley to lift the FA Cup. That was incredible. One of the best days ever. I honestly didn’t think it would be possible and I made sure that on the day, I just savoured literally every single step up towards the Cup. I’m going up, thinking to myself: I’ve been here and watched men’s cup finals and I’ve always wondered what this would be like.
It wasn’t possible.
To be there, doing it, you are living the dream you never thought could happen.
To go to China and Germany and play in World Cups, to go and captain your team in the home Olympics in front of 72,000, these are times when you just think wow.
Getting an MBE was special for my family, for people who have helped me get to where I want to. I always say that you never, ever, ever get anywhere without support around you. I was very fortunate with that.
I do say that you measure yourself on your achievements, but I measure myself on how I left the game and now what I’m contributing to the game. Now, as a manager, I want to change the future of the game as well.
When I took the United job, I said at the time that I thought we could change perceptions of the women’s game and I wasn’t talking about on the pitch when I said it. I thought that with the size of this club, its global scale, the reach that it has, if we get it right then we can increase attendances, change perceptions, get more people watching the game and grow the fanbase. It’s no coincidence that every time we want to play, there are talks with broadcasters about airing our games. That’s because people want to know about Man United. We want to do things the right way. We want to grow it organically. We want to develop the players and people in our group. I think we’ve made a decent start.
We’ve still got quite a way to go, though. If you look at attendances, that tells you that. If you look at newspaper columns after a match, we might get the odd sentence. We’ve got some way to go. That’s not just football. Look at all the boards across top companies, look at demographics. There’s a long way to go in society, but if I look at where we were and where we are now, it’s a world away. We are in the best place ever, I think, in terms of women’s football.
I’m envious of these players making their way in the game now. What a place to be. If you genuinely have a talent along with the application and drive, you can be a professional footballer. You can earn a living out of the game. Everything is here for you – especially at this football club – all the resources are there. You can go play and live a fantastic life. You still have to make choices – and I call them choices rather than sacrifices because it’s not a sacrifice to play for your country or for Manchester United – you have to make choices where you don’t go out on Friday night, you miss weddings or whatever. That’s hard, missing things, I get that, but the things you get from football, people can only dream of having.
On a personal level, my perspective has changed since my kids came along.
My mum always used to say to me: ‘You don’t know what it is to be a parent.’ She was right. I get it now. I worry about everything. I daren’t let them fall over, when they need to fall over so they can learn how to deal with the fall. I don’t think you actually know what love is until you’ve had a child and you genuinely would give your life for them. It’s unconditional love. When I come home after a game, win, lose or draw, they don’t care what the result was. They just want to give mummy a cuddle. That gives me perspective all the time.
As you can imagine, football is big in our house, very big. I’m sure there are times when I just need to shut up and it probably drives my partner Megs mad at times, but it is my life. I wouldn’t be where I am without football. I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. My kids know all the girls at United, they’re very much part of it and they were mascots before the Arsenal game. The girls are role models to my three now. I think that’s important. They’re very good role models for kids to look to.
Yes, I’m very motivated to help change the game, but everything I do now is for my kids. To provide for them, yes, but also I want my little girls to grow up with the same opportunities as my little boy. I’m not going to lie: I think football is slightly behind society, but I think if we’re going to head towards equality and equal opportunities, football can pave the way for that, even if it’s just for visibility. They need to be able to see and believe in equality.
I’m not just talking about setting an example for girls, either. If they can be role models to boys too then we normalise the game, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. That boy might grow into the young boy who plays football in primary school and encourages his sister or his friend, who’s a girl, to play. He then turns into a teenager who encourages his sister or friend to play. He turns into a dad or a teacher, somebody who runs a girls’ football team or takes his girl to football. It would be wrong for us to think that it’s just girls we need to target. It’s the same rules for everyone.
Now, everyone is allowed to have the same dream.