As England kick off their European Championship campaign against Scotland tonight, The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt talks to midfielder Jill Scott about the Lionesses’ chances and the changes she has seen in women’s football during the last decade
Like many footballers of her generation, Manchester City’s Jill Scott has her own story of self-sacrifice. She signed for Everton in 2006, and her routine, for a player barely out of her teens, was relentless. There were gruelling commutes, twice a week, from her native Sunderland, for one thing.
“It was difficult in the beginning: you don’t realise how much driving takes it out of you,” the 30-year-old explains. “People always say to us, ‘Is the training harder now that you’re full-time?’ But it’s everything else around it that means I’m not driving all those miles, I can eat better, I can sleep better, I’m not getting into Sunderland at two o’clock in the morning and having to go coaching 9 ‘til 5. It’s just so much better now.”
With the Lionesses kicking off their European Championship programme today against Scotland, Scott says: “[In the England camp], we have a schedule that highlights switch-on and switch-off time. The fans and people at home only see us when we’re playing the games, but we can be away for three or four weeks at a time, and that’s just the tournament itself. Before this, we’ve been away three, four weeks with a few breaks, and I’m sure if we were on the training pitch every day we’d be dead by the time the tournament started. The time’s managed really well. I think that’s why you’ll see we’re in peak condition, and mentally refreshed – which, for me, over the years, is something that I’ve learnt is really important, to have that mental switch-off time.”
That is all far removed from Scott’s previous experiences, and it seems inconceivable that she is harking back to a time not that long ago. “When I started with England, we trained in a field where dogs chased you,” Fara Williams, a veteran of 163 internationals and now aged 33, told Louise Taylor of the Guardian last week. Scott is of the generation straddling the two eras. As if to emphasise the disparity, the Lionesses were in Valencia only last week, for what Scott describes as “a bit of a physical camp, in terms of training and weights. I just think that’s made us a bit more confident going into the tournament, because we seem in really good physical shape. That makes us have more belief.”
Measured, considered and eloquent, Scott recognises progress as most valuable where it has been wholesale. “To have full-time clubs, to have players at the age of 17, 18, being full-time with clubs, is amazing. Even looking at the Centre of Excellences and academies, I see the young girls coming in now and they’re getting ball contact four times a week. Up until the age of about 26, I was probably only having two ball sessions a week. To think how much their technical ability’s going to improve is really exciting for women’s football. Hopefully we can keep this going for all the young girls who are now starting to play football. We all know that change doesn’t happen overnight, but this has been an incredible journey.”
England’s more immediate journey begins in earnest today, starting against Scotland before they face Spain and Portugal. Escaping the group should not be too problematic. Manager Mark Sampson warned “this will be the most open tournament ever”, but nonetheless acknowledged his squad are “in a much better spot than 2015, in every area”. Sampson is a talented, tactically flexible, adventurous coach. Off the field, he has cultivated a climate of mutual respect and affection, and the squad’s closeness is clear.
“I think it’s been a main focus since Mark came in, and I think he’s been really successful in that side of it,” Scott explains. “He’s done a lot of work with us off the pitch, in terms of making sure we’re a together team. We’ve done a lot of work in getting to know each other better, lots of meetings, finding out what really makes people tick, what people like, what they don’t like. I think that just makes you closer to your team-mates. It means you can have an impact on them on the pitch if you can have a better conversation with them off the pitch.
“I think you’ve also got to remember that the majority of this squad, bar a few [nineteen of the 23], was at the World Cup in Canada, and being on the road for those five or six weeks definitely brought us together. It was a really interesting journey, an exciting journey, with a lot of ups and downs. If you share that with someone, it automatically brings you closer. We feel like we made a bit of a family out there in Canada and we can carry that on now into the Euros. The work that we’ve done off the pitch, getting us together – that’s the core of this team, and that’s what’s made us so successful. Mark’s really big on that.
“When people look at the World Cup, the way he changed the tactics, the way he used the squad, he was very clever. We trust in Mark and look forward to this tournament. I think you’ve seen that we can play in so many different ways. You’ve seen games where we’ve got the ball down and played through teams with our passing. But you’ve also seen that we can hit teams through on the counter-attack. If you come up against different teams with different strengths, it’s important that you’re able to adapt. I think that we’ve definitely prepared ourselves in the right way so that whichever opposition we face, we’ve got something.
“There’s that cliché of taking one game at a time, but I really believe that we have a squad good enough to win [the Euros]. We’ve just got to make sure we’re in the best possible shape. We’ve got a great mixture of experience and youth, and you can really feel that there’s a buzz about the camp, which is really positive.”
Inevitably, the events two summers ago in Canada colour the conversation. The tournament will always feel like a seminal moment for women’s football in England, cementing the Lionesses’ place on the main stage. They were heartbreakingly close to reaching the final. With just seconds to go in the semi-final against Japan, Laura Bassett’s sliced interception smacked off the underside of the crossbar to re-route the Lionesses to the third-place play-off.
“It was one of those where it didn’t sink in, to be honest, because it happened so late on. And then, suddenly, you’re not going to the World Cup final,” Scott recalls. “It’s a lot to take in in a matter of minutes. I haven’t really reflected on it too much, but just thinking about it, I remember straight after that game, [Mark] kind of just let us go through the emotions ourselves. The next day, he gave us the complete day off. ‘Go and have the time with your family and friends’. I think he managed the situation really well. And looking back, I think without that day we wouldn’t have got the bronze medal. That’s why that bronze medal is not just a reflection of us as players, but the group as a whole, because I really believe if we hadn’t managed the heartbreak of that semi-final we wouldn’t be sitting here now with a bronze medal.
“To then know we were playing Germany a few days later, the performance that we put in on the back of that was incredible, and one of the games that I can say I was so proud to be a part of. Because, mentally, we were on the floor after that semi-final. It’s great to show we had that ability as a squad to pick ourselves back up. I’m sure that’s something we can always look back on, to say we do have great mental strength and what we’re capable of doing.
“I still don’t think we know the whole impact of it now, really, because of the time difference. We knew it was going crazy back home, but because it was so far away, it’s hard to get a sense of it. We were getting a lot of messages, but we didn’t witness it first-hand. But [we] definitely [did] after coming back, seeing how many more girls are now interested in football. The amount of times people come up and say their daughter now plays football, and it was on the back of that World Cup in Canada, it’s great to see the impact it’s had.”
Legacy will always be a talking point. WSL attendances swelled by almost a third in the aftermath of the World Cup, and two years on, changes are being felt in other ways. In 2016, Toni Duggan became the first Lioness to amass 100,000 Twitter followers; earlier this month she signed for Barcelona in what feels like a landmark transfer.
“Obviously, it’s a good opportunity for Toni,” says Scott. “I think she said that her aim is to win the Champions League. Barcelona have done well in that tournament over the years so it’s a good move for her. Hopefully, she can go there and have a good season, and if players have aspirations and feel that they want to move on, then credit to them.”
What about female coaches and female referees? “I think that’s getting better all the time. But I don’t want to be one of these people who says it should be female coaches and referees because it’s a female sport. I’ve said that in any line of work it’s the right person for the job, whether that’s male or female. I’ve been lucky enough to play for male and female managers and they’ve all had an incredible impact on my career. It’s good to see more females getting involved in the game, but I think [it’s about] whoever’s right for the job and those roles – refereeing, coaching or managing.”
Before they set off for Holland, the Lionesses went to Kensington Palace for a reception hosted by Prince William. “He’s just such a lovely guy, really down to earth,” says Scott. “He really takes an interest in the women’s game. He was just chatting about the World Cup, just wishing us the best of luck. He said, ‘Does this feel like your best chance of winning something?’ And I think the girls were very confident in saying yes. He does know a lot about women’s football. Prince William’s always supported us as a team and hopefully he’ll just carry on supporting us. And hopefully we can do him proud, as well as the rest of the country.
“It’s been great to see how much media interest we’ve been getting, especially over the last few years. But I think we, as players, are quite grounded. We just want to win football matches and if good comes from us winning with more girls taking part in the sport, that’s great. As I said [during] the World Cup in 2015, when we step put on that pitch we know we have a responsibility for the women’s game as a whole. It’s not like we’re just stepping out on to that pitch for ourselves – we want to get women’s football out there and we’re always challenging ourselves to do better.”
For the Lionesses, there seems to be a particular kindship and empathy for the young girls following their exploits. “From as young as I remember, from the age of six or seven, I always had a ball at my feet,” Scott recalls. “I can’t remember that not being the case. I think I did always want to play for England, but even now I have to pinch myself sometimes that this became my reality. I think it’ll be a case of when your career’s finishing, sitting down and being like, what the hell happened?”
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