How would you describe the England squad’s preparations for the World Cup?
Very thorough. I think we’ve had a really good build up after qualifying – we’ve played a lot of different teams with different formations. We’re also in a position where maybe 50 or 60 percent of the squad went to the last World Cup, and it’s all about learning: What did you learn from winning the bronze medal? What got us to that point? What was the missing ingredient from the Euros? What’s it going to take to win the World Cup? So we’ve had lots of conversations, lots of debriefs after England camps to make sure that the camp after that is even better, and always looking to build on things so that we are ready for the pinnacle that is the World Cup. Hopefully we’re in a really good position to go and win it now.
Who do you see as being one of your toughest opponents in the competition?
You can’t look any further than the group stages because you don’t know what kind of path we’re going to take. We’d obviously say USA, as the world number one, but we might not even come across them until the final, or we may not even cross paths depending on how they get on, so we’ve just got to focus on our first game. Scotland is going to be such a difficult game for a number of reasons. It’s their first time at a tournament and, of course, it’s a home nation game so there’s going to be a lot of rivalry, a lot of emotion, both sides are going to be fresh going into it and wanting to make a good impression and get three points on the board. Ultimately, in that first game, if you get three points then you’re halfway to getting out of the group. So it’s all about that game. If we win that then we can look at starting to build momentum against Argentina, hopefully get another three points, and then take the Japan game as it comes.
The team achieved a fantastic (and to some people, surprising) third-place finish in the last World Cup. Is it tougher going into this competition as genuine contenders?
It’s been cool listening to talk outside our little bubble. Demi [Stokes] played in America, and some of the French players that she went to school with over there have been saying that their broadcasters have been putting England as favourites to win the competition, knowing we won the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year. We won’t get carried away with that, but it sounds like there’s been a ripple effect and that we are genuine contenders now. We’ve put ourselves up there to be shot at: we’ve got three bronze medals and have won some very competitive games recently that we couldn’t seem to win only a couple of years ago, so it does feel a little different going into this competition. I’m very proud to be in a group of women that are classed as potentially the best in the world.
But at the same time, when we spoke about the tournament in Canada within our group, we knew we wanted to go out there and try and win it. Not a lot of other people got that impression, I guess, because we’d never gone further than the quarter finals before, but in our little bubble we really wanted to go out there and inspire a nation and try and win the thing. And we fell short by a cruel twist of fate. So we have the same mentality this time, except now we can back it up by saying we’ve competed with (and beaten) some of the best nations in the world, which maybe we couldn’t have done pre-Canada. So it’s a bit of both. I don’t think we feel pressure in a bad way – the pressure we’ve put upon ourselves is to take and run with, and not be frightened of.
What do you think Phil Neville brings to the England squad as a manager?
That ruthless, winning mentality that he had as a player. I think he learned a lot – probably like most of the guys that played in that United team – about what it takes to win. I don’t think being England manager was on Phil’s list of things to do unless he thought he could come here and win it with us. He’s made that very clear to all of us, and that’s given us the belief and the bit between our teeth to say: right, let’s go out there and do it.
What’s a typical match day like for you during the World Cup?
It can feel quite long, if I’m honest, especially this year as all of our kick-offs are late. The worst thing for us is to be sitting round all day doing nothing, but you can’t really do anything else – it’s not like you can go out shopping, or go and sunbathe on the beach if the weather’s nice. You’re pretty restricted in terms of trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the game. So ideally for me, I’d wake up fairly late, probably between 9am–10am, breakfast would be around half 10am, then there’ll be a lunch at around 2pm. We’d probably get a chance to go out for coffee to see family and friends, and then we just chill. I’m not sure what it’s going to be like in France – sometimes we’ll have a ping pong table with a bit of a chill area where you can watch TV. Then it’ll be pre-match, get on the bus, and get those three points! After the match, it’s important to get all of our rest and recovery in, so we’ll get in the pool or whatever, then bed. The main thing is just always being ready for it.
What does it mean to you to represent your country?
I was like most kids growing up, it’s what you want to do as a footballer – pull on that shirt and represent your country. And to be able to say that I’ve done it at three World Cups is incredible. Jill [Scott] always says: you never know which match is going to be your last. And it’s so true – as much as you might have made the squad for years and years, it can still be taken away from you very quickly. So it’s a very proud moment to have my family’s name on the back of my shirt, walk out onto the pitch with some of my best friends – people that I’d class as family – and play the sport I love for the country I was born in. It’s the ultimate honour.
How do you think your upbringing in the North East prepared you for your career?
Really well actually! You just have to look at the national squads we’ve had – even this year, in the squad we’re taking to the World Cup, seven of the girls used to play for Sunderland: me, Jill [Scott], Steph [Houghton], Demi [Stokes], Beth [Mead], Lucy [Bronze], and Lucy [Staniforth]. I think the North East had a hot-bed for talent. We all played for small village teams, sometimes even against each other, then it culminated in the Centre For Excellence at Sunderland – where we all were coached very well by the passionate guys who played the game that we loved. So I think our upbringings geared us all up to be determined – we’ve managed to stick around for a long time anyway! Then again, I think that about any female footballer – I don’t think any of us have had an easy path. But I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve done it with the same people I started out with; me and Jill were both 13 when we were at the Sunderland Centre For Excellence together, and we’re 31 and 32 now, so it’s been amazing to be able to share that journey.
Unfortunately we don’t have that North East hub anymore – there’s no academy up there, obviously the WSL team at Sunderland got relegated, so it’s sad to see. I just hope the FA can look into those stats and make sure that those pathways aren’t dissolved just because of money. I think there’s more to look at.
How have you seen women’s football change since you first started playing?
It’s unbelievable. We used to go to games on the bus, play in kit that was handed down from the men’s teams, and the pitches were usually Sunday league standard at best – you were lucky if you even got on one. I remember one time we had to pick up dog poo because they’d let dogs on before the game! But we were still proud to go out and represent Sunderland and do what we could with the very little that we had.
So it’s changed dramatically. The girls that are growing up now are very lucky to be playing in the environments that they do. It’s hard sometimes to not sound too old and be like: you’re lucky, you get free boots and we never got that in our day! But it’s nice and easy for them now because that’s the way it should be – they should be treated like professional footballers.
What advice would you give young girls and boys starting out in the game?
That it is a hard journey, and that it will get harder. Not that it was easy for us, but we came from a small pot of players that were willing to stick it out. I had a lot of friends that dropped out of football at about 16, 17, because their parents said to them: “look, you’re never going to make any money from football, go and get an education”. And some of them were better than me! But they felt like they had to make that choice. I hope young girls and boys won’t have to make that choice again, because there is a clear pathway for them now and there is money to be made.
But more than anything, you have to love the game. You have to love it because you will never have a smooth ride in a footballing career. You’ll come across injuries, you’ll have managers that don’t like you, you’ll have teams that you find difficult to be in, but if you love the game enough and have that passion, you’ll find your way through it.