As Nikita Parris prepares for her tournament debut with the Lionesses, Katie Whyatt catches up with the Manchester City striker to discover her journey from Toxteth to Holland and the European Championship
Nikita Parris remembers vividly the moment she found out she would be spending her summer in Holland with the Lionesses at the European Championship. “I was actually in bed,” she begins. “When we got told, it was, like, eight o’clock in the morning. I was still sleeping – I’d been up all night, to be honest with you, in and out of sleep, thinking, ‘Oh, when’s this eight o’clock going to come?’ By the time it came I was fast asleep, and I got a text off Alex Greenwood. All she said was, ‘Congratulations, mate – me and you will be playing on that pitch together’. And I was, like, wow. I was just made up. It was more relief than anything.”
With the Euros now just a fortnight away, and women’s football in England is still riding the wave of its watershed bronze medal at the World Cup in 2015, Parris is one of four players set to make their senior tournament debuts this year. The inevitable insularity and pace of tournament football might provide little time for 23-year-old Parris to reflect on a journey that has already taken her from playing park football with her dad, brother and twin sisters in Toxteth, to Holland, via an FA Cup final at Wembley with Manchester City. Her Euros call-up marks the culmination of more than a decade spent inside the England set-up as she went through the age groups; she even sat her GCSEs while at an England camp – “it was weird – our invigilator would just be one of the coaches, making sure we were facing forward, not interacting with the others.”
England enter this summer’s tournament among the favourites and Mark Sampson has already publicly hailed his squad as potential champions. “I like his family vibe,” she says. “I like how he treats everyone like he would his own family. We have great conversations and as a team we’ve been pushed to make sure we have honest conversations with each other. We’re going for gold – that’s our target.
“Everyone’s like family. We’re real close. Eight of us have come from City so we already have a special relationship with each other. But ever since I’ve come into this team in the last year I’ve felt right welcomed. They’re all like my big sisters – everyone wants to help me, give me advice. We’re really close. I’m the banter queen – I’m the youngest, so I’m the one who’s always being mischievous and causing them all problems. Fara [Williams] and Jill [Scott] call themselves my mums because they’re always looking after me.
“I’d like to just feature in the games. I know it’s my first tournament, but I’ve also got to push everyone, and I’ll be working to my maximum to make sure every player’s ready. There’s no other forward that’ll work harder than me, so our defenders will know that if they’ve dealt with me in training they should be able to deal with their opponents.”
Parris joined Everton Ladies’ Centre of Excellence at under-12 level, made her senior debut at 16, graduating to the first team the following year. In 2014, she netted 11 goals in 19 games, but could not halt Everton’s ailing WSL 1 form: they finished the season without a win and were relegated to WSL 2. Parris, though, still commanded a slew of individual honours: shortlisted for the PFA Women’s Young Player of the Year and the WSL Team of the Year. Her stock rising, Parris had legitimate international aspirations and made the life-changing decision to move to Manchester City on loan the following January. She was rewarded for her vision, making her senior England debut in June last year. Such focus betrays a striking steel, but Parris is also the picture of humility, infinitely likeable and chatty, and it was clearly a great wrench to leave a club she holds so dearly.
“It was a hard choice to make, to be honest,” she says. “I’d been at Everton for the past twelve years and they’ve given me everything. They’ve done everything for me. Mo [Marley, the former Everton Ladies centre-half, later manager] was like my football mum – she picked me up for training for the majority of the time, and she and Keith [Marley, former manager] took me home. Andy [Spence, former assistant manager and current manager] used to do extra sessions with me to make sure I worked on my fitness on a Saturday morning, out of his own time. They’ve done a lot for me, so it was a hard choice – but I knew I had to make it to progress in my career. And they did understand – I spoke to Mo a lot before I made the final decision, and she was like, ‘Do what you think’s best for you’. They’re always there to support me. They were the first people to text me [after the Euros squad was announced]. As soon as it came out, they were just texting me, like, ‘Congratulations – all the hard work has paid off’. And I just texted back, saying, ‘Youse made it easy for me because youse were always there’.”
That Parris speaks so warmly of Everton is unsurprising, and it becomes obvious family is dear to her. Her older sister is boxer Natasha Jonas, who made her professional debut the same day as this interview took place. “We were very competitive. We were always pushing each other to do well, but when it comes to getting the food out the pot, we’re both bashing heads to get there first.” Jonas won a football scholarship to St. Peter’s College in New Jersey. “I think I was so young I can’t even remember it,” Parris says. “When she left, I was six. I remember her leaving and she wasn’t there very long – she was back with the injury she had, her ACL. My dad used to take us all to the park, and if you didn’t join in, you’d just left sitting on the bench. We all joined in. Even my twin sister, Kelsie – she was a footballer until she scored that many own goals she didn’t want to play anymore. They’ve always been there for the journey, the whole journey. Everyone in my family – my uncles used to take me to training, my mum used to stand in the freezing cold and rain watching me train.”
Parris’s ambition is evident, but there are moments when the football-daft eight-year-old, cutting her teeth in an under-nines team managed by her next-door neighbour, shines through. “My idol growing up was Julie Fleeting,” gushes Parris of the Scottish striker who spent nine years at Arsenal. “I loved Julie Fleeting, and Rachel Yankey. Julie Fleeting scored that many goals in the FA Cup final that I lost count – she wouldn’t be in the game for 80 minutes, then she’d score the winner. Then Yanks, up and down the wing with that left foot – she was my idol. I spoke to Yanks after the FA Cup final. She was in the stand, obviously she’s pregnant now, and we were just having a conversation about the game and stuff, and it was just a surreal moment – because she was always my idol. She was one of the first opponents to come over after my first game for Everton, [and say] ‘Congrats on your debut’. I was, like, wow – I was 16.”
Parris was still in school when she came to the attention of England, and would enter training camps armed with extra homework and the best wishes of teachers who offered one-to-one tuition after school to help her catch up, should she need them. “It was a mad time for me at that age, but I always knew I wanted to play football, so I was willing to do anything to play.
“You get older, you go to senior school and you see the big gap between 14 to 18 year olds, the big drop in participation,” she explains. “But it’s massive for young girls to stay in sport. I feel like that’s because, when you get to secondary school, you get so comfortable doing your homework that you forget about going out, forget about socialising, because you’re so determined to do well in your education. But you’ve got to try and stay as fit and healthy as possible. I always just wanted to play football. Girls’ football wasn’t professional at that point, but I always hoped that one day it would be. In school, when you’d write what were your aspirations for the future, that would always be it: to be a professional footballer. Or a PE teacher. It was always something to do with sport.”
Inevitably, the Lionesses head to Holland with a dual agenda. Concerns about visibility will always run in tandem with events on the field. Players feel the responsibility for growth keenly, duty-bound to keep bolstering the sport’s profile, and like most Parris observes a cultural shift since the 2015 World Cup. “Everyone was talking about the Norway game, when Lucy [Bronze] scored that screamer,” she recalls. “Ever since then, everyone’s watching the FA Cup final, everyone’s watching the WSL on the red button. That was a massive deal for me because I remember the times when the FA Cup final was on TV and not many people would be watching it. I wouldn’t have anyone to talk to, to talk about the game with. But now I do. I have a lot more people.” That might be an understatement.
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Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles