England's Jess Park tells her grassroots story
From her early days playing football in a friend's back garden in North Yorkshire to reaching the professional game, Jess Park takes us through her journey
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I grew up in a place called Brough, which is just outside of Hull and I do have such fond memories of it all.
While I can’t remember a specific moment when I first discovered football, I do recall how I started kicking the ball about with my best friend, which was playing in parks and at his house.
His dad was a guy called Conleth Campbell and he was the coach at a newly-formed boys’ football team at the time. He must’ve seen something in me, as he asked if I could just come down and train with them.
The team was called Elloughton Blackburn Swifts and even though it was U7s, I think I was about five or six when I first went along.
Conleth was great for me, he made me love football because even though I was a girl playing for a boys’ team, he’d always play me and just tell me to go out there and have fun.
I went to the first session with them and I just loved it. It was everything I wanted to do – just play with the boys.
But then, you get to a certain age when you can’t play with the boys anymore and to be honest, I found that quite hard at the time.
It was all I’d known and I just didn’t really want to leave my boys’ team and move into girls’ football as there wasn’t a really local team. That was just because I’d never done it before, so I didn’t know what it would be like.
But I remember my dad, who always supported me loads, saying to just go and train with once to see if I liked it and if I didn’t like it, that’s fine and we’ll find another way.
I still wasn’t sure about it, and then he said that I’d get a new football training kit if I went. I was like ‘oh, my own training kit? Alright, yeah, I’ll go then!’
He actually me persuaded me through that, because I used to love wearing my football kit all the time back then.
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It was a good job he persuaded me too, because I went along and had my first training session with them and I absolutely loved it.
I was about ten or eleven when I looked to go and play in a girls’ team and it was the Hull College centre of excellence. I was there for about two years before I moved to the North Yorkshire centre of excellence, which then became York RTC when the different girls’ pathways were being set up at the time.
That was when I started to learn more about positional aspects of the game and being more tactically aware. It wasn’t like we had a set position at that time but that was where I started to learn about the positions and the different demands when you’re in and out of possession.
I remember they were big on teaching that before they let us play, but of course, all I wanted to do was play and would ask why I had to learn all of that.
But now, looking back, I’m so glad I did because you do need that knowledge as you grow up.
The first time that I heard about Manchester City’s interest was when I was 14. I was still playing with my friends and having fun at that time, so at first I didn’t really believe in it.
I was enjoying my football, I was in the England set up and I was just focused on what I was doing at the time.
But a year or so later, just before I turned 16, they wanted me to take the next step and develop a bit more.
Everything was set up for me to go there and play for the development squad. I could’ve stayed another year at the RTC but when I knew about playing in the development league, it was something I had to do.
It was a very competitive league and a big jump, but it was the best decision really. For the first half a season, I would travel to Manchester after school to training, either on the train or with my dad.
When that season had finished, they said they wanted me to come to train with the first team at the start of the next season so that was when I had to move away from home and over to Manchester.
It was something that had been spoken to me about when I was in the development squad and I knew that it might happen, but when it did I was so excited about it and couldn’t wait to get going.
It's a massive thing moving away from home that young, and it’s mad to look back on because it is a big thing to do, having that responsibility of being on your own.
I still speak to the boys I started out with….it was my best friend’s dad and we still chat here and there and I always get messages from so many of the coaches that I had growing up and at school.
It’s nice to keep in touch with people to let them know how I’m going and I wouldn't change a thing about where I came from or how I did it.