Alessia Russo: My journey from grassroots football to becoming an England international
Alessia Russo discusses how she went from playing for West Farleigh and Bearsted to being part of the Lionesses' World Cup squad in Australia
My earliest football memory is going down to my local team, West Farleigh, with my mum, dad and brothers. I was too young to play on the boys' team but I would just knock a ball around on the side of the pitch and was waiting until I was old enough to join.
So West Farleigh was my first team, but I didn't stay there for long. I then moved on to Bearsted FC where I played for both the boys’ and girls’ teams. I'd play for one on a Saturday and the other on a Sunday – it was at Bearsted where I began to play more regularly and with people my own age.
At that young age, I would play anywhere – my position was wherever the ball was. I often played in midfield as I wanted to be on the ball as much as possible and then as I got older, I transitioned to the ten, the wing or as a nine.
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Where I lived in East Farleigh, Maidstone, we were on this little close where there was a park at the end of the street… well you couldn’t really call it a park as it was just a strip of grass that was only about 20m long.
But every day after school, I'd rush home, drop my bags, change clothes and go play football there until my mum called me in for dinner. I just played as much football as I could and wanted to play as soon as I got home.
I would also play at my primary school, East Farleigh Primary School. We would play every day on the playground with those sponge balls, which you couldn’t get much power with! They were so rubbish!
We were allowed to play with a proper ball in P.E. though, which we would always be buzzing about.
During primary school, we had a tournament called the Mini World Cup with other schools from the area, which was either five-a-side or seven-a-side, and you had to have a certain number of girls and boys on each team.
Everyone would get assigned a country and we were assigned South Korea and we won the tournament. My school was tiny, with not many pupils and we would compete against the bigger schools so nobody expected us to win so that was definitely a highlight of school – we were all buzzing!
Then when I moved to secondary school, St Simon Stock Catholic School, I was able to play with whatever ball I wanted. I'd play in the yard with the boys, always remembering to bring in trainers as I wasn't allowed to play in my school shoes because my mum would go nuts because of me ruining my school shoes every week.
I joined Charlton when I was eight or nine but I still played at Bearsted. I stayed at Charlton for a few years and then was scouted for a trial at Chelsea, so I was there from under-12s until I was 17, when I then joined Brighton for a short spell.
Growing up, I was always intrigued by the American side of football and how successful they had been in the past.
I loved watching any kind of football when it was on, and America were consistently winning on the world stage at that point in time.
So with me wanting to broaden my horizons, and experience something new, when the opportunity to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill came up after I'd visited the school, it was too good an opportunity to turn down.
The school, the facilities, the coaching, the players – everything was amazing. Once I'd seen it all first-hand, I knew it would be the right step in my journey.
Things went really well for me in North Carolina. I won a lot of individual awards and was part of the All-Star Team. I felt like I fitted in really well over there, and as soon as I got playing with the team, I felt comfortable. I was learning and improving as a player, so when the games came around, I felt like I could perform.
Me and Lotte Wubben-Moy being out there at the same time was a bit by chance and a bit planned. Lotte was also considering going out there, but she was talking to other schools and wasn't sure so it was a little bit more of a last-minute decision for her, in that sense. Whereas I had always had my heart set on it.
We visited UNC together just after our Under-17 World Cup and we both fell in love with the place. It was a special journey to be on together, and it's something we still talk about today, relishing those memories.
When I think back to my early days, I loved nothing more than having a ball at my feet, whether it was in the garden with my brothers, in the park with friends, or with my grassroots team.
I loved playing, getting muddy on the pitch, scoring goals, and just having fun with everyone. My earliest memories of football were really positive and made me fall in love with football even more.
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