Lucy Bronze was kicked out of an all-boys team as a kid… now she’s among the world’s best

It was something Lucy Bronze said when the dust had settled that reminded you how football sublimity is nearly always underpinned by the hard yards, the precious extra minutes on the training ground.

The 27-year-old England defender was discussing the rocket shot that powered her team to the World Cup semi-finals when she threw out, matter-of-fact: ‘It was something we kind of worked on this morning, just quickly.’

The last minutes of preparation counted, as did Bronze’s deep sense of personal conviction that she would score from that set-piece manoeuvre. The plan had been that Keira Walsh would strike the ball from Beth Mead’s short corner but Bronze felt it would be her night. They agreed that she would take aim instead.

Lucy Bronze has been a standout player for England at this summer's Women's World Cup

Lucy Bronze has been a standout player for England at this summer's Women's World Cup

Lucy Bronze has been a standout player for England at this summer’s Women’s World Cup

Bronze scored a sensational goal at a well-worked corner in the quarter-final win over Norway

Bronze scored a sensational goal at a well-worked corner in the quarter-final win over Norway

Bronze scored a sensational goal at a well-worked corner in the quarter-final win over Norway

England defeated Norway to reach the World Cup semi-finals and were inspired by Bronze

England defeated Norway to reach the World Cup semi-finals and were inspired by Bronze

England defeated Norway to reach the World Cup semi-finals and were inspired by Bronze

Bronze revealed in the aftermath that England’s senior players have been putting the coaching team under pressure to help them improve their set-piece work. ‘We’ve grilled them a lot,’ she said.

These small details count when — like her — you belong to a generation of women players who have had to fight every inch of the way. She is by no means the most outgoing member of this team but it seems more than appropriate that her second middle name — her mother’s maiden name — is Tough.

Her mother Diane, a maths teacher, describes how her daughter, who was born in Berwick-on-Tweed and grew up on Holy Island, faced that familiar obstacle of being barred from the game she wanted to play.

She was the best player in the boys’ ranks at Alnwick Town, where her former coach Ray Smith describes her curiosity and ‘only having to tell her once, where as I had to tell the boys 10 times.’ But FIFA regulations forbade her from playing after the age of 12, leading her mother to conclude athletics might be worth a try instead. Smith pleaded with the family to take her daughter to a senior women’s team.

After finding the three-hour round trip to Sunderland too much, Bronze settled on Blyth, still more than an hour south, where there was a girls’ team.

Bronze and her team-mates break the barrier between coach and player and demand more

Bronze and her team-mates break the barrier between coach and player and demand more

Bronze and her team-mates break the barrier between coach and player and demand more

They are always challenging the staff and their set-piece routine on Thursday was the result

They are always challenging the staff and their set-piece routine on Thursday was the result

They are always challenging the staff and their set-piece routine on Thursday was the result

Sandra Orr, one of the founders of Blyth Town Sports, said: ‘You just needed to see her once and you knew what she was: formidable, strong and talented. Parental support from her mother was second to none and it has all culminated in a world-class player.

‘I knew I had seen our first England shirt the first time I saw her. I don’t want to say she played like a boy, but she did. Always a strong girl, tenacious, but always had this engine.

‘Her mum knew Lucy was special and was determined that she didn’t go into dancing or anything else. She made sure she continued with football. She found her a team. She fought the FA. They weren’t for turning so they came to us.’

Three years later, when Lucy had fastened on to the notion of playing for England, her mother called Mick Mulhern, one of the coaches back at Sunderland. Mulhern asked for her child’s name and remembered the 12-year-old. ‘He said, “She doesn’t need to come to trials, she’s in the team”,’ Bronze recalled recently. 

‘What struck me first about her was that she was wearing glasses when she played,’ Mulhern told Sportsmail. ‘We wondered if that was safe for her. But it quickly became clear that she was comfortable on the ball, an athlete with great pace.

‘I thought, “We’ve got a player here”. There were times when I thought she was deliberately slowing down for someone to challenge and then speed up after she had ridden the challenge. She was that strong. 

Bronze is among a generation of talent who had to fight for every inch to make it in the game

Bronze is among a generation of talent who had to fight for every inch to make it in the game

Bronze is among a generation of talent who had to fight for every inch to make it in the game

She had to leave an all-boys team in her youth due to the rules despite being their best player

‘She was quiet and shy but that didn’t matter. It was obvious to me that she was very intelligent and she had a thirst to improve. She would go to the United States every summer on soccer courses and she had a hugely supportive family.’ 

Bronze, says her mother ‘knew nothing at all’ about football but she has clearly been a monumental influence. ‘I used to go to my mum all the time and say, “It’s not fair, other people have new football boots, my brother always beats me, I can’t play with the boys…” she said. ‘She’d always reply, “Well life’s just not fair — you just have to keep working harder”.’

Even after she had been a part of the England Under 19 squad that won the European Championship in Belarus 10 years ago, Bronze was juggling playing for Sunderland with a job at Domino’s pizza.

She won a soccer scholarship at North Carolina University before moving to Everton, Manchester City and now Lyon.

The world has changed for girls in the place she left behind. Alnwick Town have a girls’ and women’s team. But it says everything for the invisibility of the women’s game that for years Bronze did not even have a female idol.

Phil Neville has hailed Bronze and believes the England star is the best player in the world

Phil Neville has hailed Bronze and believes the England star is the best player in the world

Phil Neville has hailed Bronze and believes the England star is the best player in the world

‘Then when I found out women’s football existed, (Arsenal forward) Kelly Smith was the one,’ she reflected. ‘She was the best ever, and that was all that mattered to me.’

She speaks with the assurance of a player who has done the hard yards to get where she stands today.

‘Four years ago I might have been a surprise to everybody else but not to me,’ she said.

‘I knew I had the capabilities to step up and play for England in a World Cup and I’ve done the same in this World Cup. I’ve still got a lot of things I’ve got to work on. I’m still striving to be the best player I can be. It’s the same as it’s always been in my career.’

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