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Published 28 February 2023 9 min read
England Women's Senior Team

Mary Earps' grassroots story

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Mary Earps

The England goalkeeper, newly crowned as 'The Best' goalkeeper in 2022, discusses her journey from West Bridgford Colts to starring for the Lionesses at UEFA Women's EUROs

I first started playing football around the age of eight. My brother and my dad were kicking a ball around in the garden and I wanted to join in because it looked fun and that was the beginning of a love story.

From there I would train with my brother’s team but I wasn’t allowed to play for them in matches so I would just go to training every now and again. When I was around ten, the dad of one of my friends at school set up a local grassroots team called West Bridgford Colts and then I played for them.

When I was growing up, girls didn’t really play football in the park or on the street where I lived. My brother would go to the park but he was two years younger than me. So then when he was around the age of six and I was eight, we started playing in the garden and would then go around to the park when we were old enough to go on our own or my dad would take us.

Mary Earps made her WSL debut at Doncaster Rovers as a 16-year-old
Mary Earps made her WSL debut at Doncaster Rovers as a 16-year-old

When I was at school, that was when the street or park football became more of a thing because at lunchtime you would be running around, getting the early bus to school to play headers and volleys with the boys and things like that. 

My Mum would be so upset with the amount of shoes I would get through in a school year, especially in the summer because there was a guy in my year who really loved goalkeeping as well so we used to kick the balls to one another and we used to play two-touch, stingers and all the school games you would play growing up.

When I was younger, my Mum and Dad were keen to get me involved in all types of sport and activities, so I used to do dancing as well, I did badminton, judo, swimming and my parents gave me free rein to select what I wanted to do. It gave me a real appetite for, first of all, athleticism as a whole and fitness and exercise, but it also allowed me to find out what I really liked. That as a whole helped build my confidence because for example I remember having a ‘pop goes the weasel’ solo in dancing – it was a singing and dancing solo and I was around the age of 11 or 12 - and when you can sing ‘pop goes the weasel’ in front of random strangers at a dance festival, then it is a lot easier to command and give instructions to your defenders.

I remember growing up that a lot of the girls didn’t like talking on the pitch or shouting – they didn’t want to be heard, they didn’t want to be embarrassed, whereas for me it was part of the game to shout at the team and tell the defender that, for example, there was a player on their right shoulder. That was one of the biggest differences because I was prepared to get stuck in and embarrass myself, if you like, for the love of the game and the love of the sport.

I was around the age of 14 when I started playing for Leicester City and that was the first time I took football more seriously. Back then it was a centre of excellence, rather than the RTCs (Regional Talent Centres) we have now. I had previously been on trial at Derby, which was the only other centre of excellence in my area, but they rejected me. 

So I played locally until the age of 14 and when the Leicester trials came up, I went for it and I got in. It was just brilliant. 

It was not until the back end of university that I started thinking I could become a professional footballer, so around 2016. That was the first time that I didn’t have school or university to balance with my football and I decided to give it a go whole-heartedly.

16 Jul 2022 25:13

Mary Earps on Lionesses Live connected by EE

Goalkeeper joins the crew on England's daily show during UEFA Women's EUROs

I was graduating and I was going to go into a graduate job so I thought I might as well go down the footballer avenue because if it doesn’t work out, then I can always fall back on my degree. I just felt it was an opportunity that I didn’t want to waste. 

I think now people have to choose if they want football or their education when they get to that older age, which is a really tough decision because I definitely think you should have both. That was the time that I thought I can’t do both and I was going to have to make a choice. I thought it looked like there would be more opportunities being made available and you look at where the Women’s Super League is now…

It’s so funny because I was having dinner not too long ago – I can’t remember who with but I think it was Katie Zelem, Fran Kirby and Jess Carter – and we were just talking about how Fran and I are a little bit older and those two had not had jobs outside of football but we had, so we talked about how different our journeys had been.

I made my WSL debut for Doncaster at 17 and it’s weird how everything falls into place because everything around that age seemed to happen really fast. I was playing park football until 14, then I joined Leicester City’s centre of excellence and started playing better teams. Then I spent a couple of years there with Leanne Hall and started to see that there were some really good players playing the game and obviously she used to be the England goalkeeper so she showed me a new style of training and a new appetite for training and I loved it. 

At 16 I moved to Nottingham Forest to play more regularly in the Premier League but I played on and off, so I ended up moving again because I wasn’t playing as much as I was told I was going to. So when Doncaster were interested in me, I thought I might as well try my luck to see if I can get some game time and try to really challenge the goalkeepers who were there at the time. Helen Alderson, who was England Under-23 goalkeeper at the time, was there and I was still in the under-17s but halfway through that season, I ended up becoming the number one at Doncaster. 

The England goalkeeper in action for Bristol Academy in 2014
The England goalkeeper in action for Bristol Academy in 2014

It is funny that without certain things happening, I would not have taken those steps. 

That summer I was just moving on to my A-Levels, I had a job in the cinema, a job at a kids’ toy shop, two coaching jobs and I worked with my dad’s business, where I was doing some telesales work for him. I had quite a few jobs to pay for my boots and petrol basically. 

I used to get expenses with Doncaster but there was no real money in the game back then. At first I had not passed my driving test so I was relying on my local team-mates for help. There was a girl who even drove from Southampton up to Doncaster and used to pick me up on the way. It is mad how the game has changed since then.

We would train two or three times a week. At the beginning, it was Tuesdays and Thursdays and the game on a Sunday. I would be at school all day and then would drive to a hotel to drop my car off and someone would pick me up or my parents would take me. I was 16 when I joined Doncaster and then turned 17 halfway through that season but it wasn’t until I was nearly 18 that I was fully driving.

It is hard for kids now because you feel like you are going to miss an opportunity if you don’t do everything to do with football but I think it is really important that kids keep up with their education. Football is brilliant, the best sport in the world and that is why they call it the beautiful game, but you have to think about your longevity for the future as well.

If you can get a degree, get you’re A-Levels and get your GCSEs, then that will hold you in really good stead to be an all-rounder and it gives you something else to focus on. There are some real ups and downs in football and you can have bad games and injuries, so you need something else to keep your brain ticking over and you need something to fall back on if everything doesn’t go to plan.

I think it also takes the pressure off things not going to plan. If you only have one option, then it all becomes about the one option. But if you have two or three, then you start to feel like ‘I’m going to pursue this with my whole heart but if it doesn’t work out, then I know I have some security there and some safety’. That is a really nice feeling.

It is different when you are a kid but as an adult, your parents aren’t going to be there to bail you out your whole life and you have to fend for yourself at some stage – and for some people they might not have parents to fall back on. So it is really important you make your decisions with a wise head. It is really easy to get wrapped up in short-term success but you have to look at the long-term picture. It is all about making decisions and everybody is going to make the decision which is best for them but I would definitely champion staying in school and getting your education. I know football is becoming more professional now but if you can do stuff in the evenings, go to Open University or study on the side, there is always things you can do to give you different branches in life and I would definitely encourage that.

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