Ellen White: ‘It is a real privilege being a role model’
England Lionesses' all-time record goalscorer discusses the growth of women’s football and the ‘pretty insane’ feeling of seeing children in Ellen White shirts
The term ‘role model’ is used frequently within football but when it comes to Ellen White, it can be applied with absolute certainty.
England Women’s all-time record goalscorer, yet selfless. Recognised as one of the best strikers on the planet, yet humble. Someone who has worked tirelessly to reach the top, yet appreciative.
White’s career has spanned one of the most transformative periods in the history of women’s football so when it comes to talking about the growth of the game, the Manchester City striker can speak with authority.
When White started out playing in a ‘Mini Ducks’ programme ran by her dad Jon in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, at the age of five, there were no professional women’s leagues on these shores.
Like many in the England squad, she initially honed her skills playing in a boys’ team, Aylesbury United, where she reportedly scored more than 100 goals in one season.
It is hardly surprising, therefore, that her talents had caught the eye of Arsenal by the age of eight.
Three-hour round trips to the Gunners’ Centre of Excellence training pitch, underneath their famous old ground Highbury, twice-a-week meant the William Harding School pupil received some of the best training available at the time, not to mention the continued coaching from her dad.
So by the age of 16, White was ready to make her mark on the women’s game and after joining Chelsea, was the club’s top scorer for three seasons in a row.
Everything was going to plan but after a move to Leeds Carnegie in 2008, White suffered the first of two serious knee injuries she would endure during her career.
The terms ‘resilient’ and ‘model professional’ are used regularly by those who know White so when she returned to fitness, the striker was better than ever and helped guide Leeds to the 2010 FA Women’s Premier League Cup.
A month later, White would make her England debut against Austria at the age of 20 and unsurprisingly she marked the occasion with a goal.
White’s ability to deliver on the biggest stage became a feature of her career, scoring a stunning goal at her first World Cup in 2011, finishing joint scorer at the 2019 World Cup and bagging another six at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
But like the majority of players in White’s generation who represented their country, the striker initially did so whilst still having a day job and was unable to become a full-time professional until her mid-20s.
White explained: “I was a sports development officer for Arsenal so I went into schools to do festivals, promote women’s football and try to get more girls involved at a grassroots level, which was really fun.
“There are so many more girls playing football now. The Weetabix Wildcats programme has been great for that as well.
“I was having to go to the gym before work, then train after work but there are so many people who have had to do that and I feel very lucky that I have been able to become a professional footballer and do this as my job. I feel lucky that I have been able to do that.”
White breaks record against Latvia | Pitchside
Get pitchside access to the Lionesses' record-breaking victory against Latvia
Anyone who knows White will know luck had little to do with it, as someone who has always worked tirelessly on the pitch and off it to be the ultimate professional.
But the Manchester City star is acknowledging she is one of many players in the England squad who have lived through a defining era of women’s football in this country.
Now, young girls are growing up knowing professional football is a viable career option and with millions of fans watching the Barclays FA Women’s Super League and other competitions every month, as part of TV deals with the likes of BBC and Sky Sports, the game in England is going from strength-to-strength.
White said: “I have seen it where I have worked alongside playing as well and I know a lot of players who are now retired that had to give up so much of their lives as well and work full-time, play for their club and then play for the national team.
“Now to see the amount of exposure that the game is getting, the amount of boys and girls wanting to play football and watch women’s football, the brands and the sponsors involved now, it is moving in the right direction and I feel like I have definitely been able to view it and see it get bigger and better and people get more interested.
“Having more visibility has been the big thing for us. People easily being able to access women’s sport and women’s football.”
White’s reliability, determination and talent has meant in recent years it has felt like a matter of if, rather than when, she would break England’s all-time goalscoring record.
And on Tuesday 30 November 2021 in Doncaster, White did just that when she scored a hat-trick against Latvia.
But it is a sign of the former Grange School pupil’s personality that she was reluctant to discuss the possibility before it happened, instead focussing on her team-mates and speaking so glowingly about the woman who held the record before her, former team-mate Kelly Smith.
White said: “Kelly was a phenomenal player. I was lucky enough to play with her at England and also at Arsenal. To watch her in training and to be her team-mate, playing for England alongside such a talented footballer, was a dream for me.
“She was a number 10 whilst I was playing and I would literally make a run and the ball would already be there because she was always two or three steps ahead of everyone. Her vision and her ability, and her football brain, was just far above everyone. It was crazy.
“She is a real legend and I have so much respect for what she did in the game and how she scored the amount of goals and recorded the amount of caps she achieved. She was someone that I definitely looked up to and I was really lucky to have played alongside as well.”
Smith, one of the true icons of women’s football, spoke of how ‘it couldn’t happen to a nicer person’ ahead of White breaking the record.
As for White, she believes the likes of Smith and many others have not always received the recognition that they deserved.
When asked about her other role models growing up, the 32-year-old said: “I obviously looked up to Karen Walker. She was phenomenal. Some of the goals that she scored were insane. It is hard to comprehend for us what the women before us did and achieved.
“Carol Thomas has just been inducted into the Hall of Fame and it was lovely for us to be there when Sue Campbell gave her the award for being in the Hall of Fame for what she achieved, and I don’t think it is spoken about or we know enough about those players that achieved what they did for England.
“It is amazing what they did and hopefully we can keep doing what we can do: playing for England and be really thankful for what they achieved as well.”
When it comes to inspiring the next generation, White is one of many current England Lionesses’ players leading the way.
White’s dad Jon continues to coach his granddaughter’s team in Aylesbury and told the story recently of how an opposition player produced his daughter’s trademark celebration after scoring, something he absolutely loved.
The sight of White circling her fingers around her eyes – a celebration inspired by Cologne's Anthony Modeste - is seen on pitches around the country every weekend.
And White said: “It is pretty insane really. It is lovely and I feel really lucky [to be a role model]. It is a real privilege being a role model.
“It still feels a bit weird at the same time but boys and girls running around with shirts on, being a Lioness, it is amazing to see.
“They have smiles on their faces and they are having fun and that is the main thing really, seeing them enjoying themselves.”
The England women’s senior team are playing three matches across the country this month as part of the inaugural Arnold Clark Cup.
England Women v Canada will take place at Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough on Thursday 17 February, England Women v Spain will be hosted by Norwich City’s Carrow Road on Sunday 20 February and England Women v Germany will be at Wolves’ Molineux Stadium on Wednesday 23 February.
Tickets are available from £10 for adults and £5 for under-16s and can be purchased from here.