Rachel Daly tells her grassroots football story, from Harrogate to the highest level
The England star now plies her trade for Aston Villa in the BWSL, but find out how she learnt her trade on the pitches of her hometown Harrogate, North Yorkshire before her journey took her to the USA
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I was playing for the boys’ team of Killinghall Nomads, based just outside of Harrogate, and we had a match against a team up in Middlesbrough.
No-one could believe that I was a girl. I used to have really short hair and people would think I was a boy. I remember there was a local report on it as I was banging in hat-tricks and stuff at that age.
I was the only girl playing for the boys’ team at that time, but there were never any issues because I’d been playing with all of the boys for years before that anyway.
That’s how it started, from as early as I can remember, I always used to kick a ball about with the other younger siblings when I was watching my brother and my dad’s games for Killinghall Nomads.
It’d be half time and we’d all run on to kick around with the subs and eventually most of those boys would be my teammates when we were old enough.
My dad Martyn and brother Andy, who was three years older, would practise in the back garden at home with me and I’d also play in the street with the other kids.
At junior school it was the same, we had a mixed team of girls and boys, so I’d play for the team and I think there were two girls involved.
I was always one of the best players on the team, so going from a boys' team into girls' football was strange, because the standard was different as so many of the girls hadn’t really played before.
There were never any issues around me being a girl, which is nice when you hear what some of the other girls might’ve had to put up with.
Harrogate’s quite a small town, so you quickly got to know everyone and the other girls who were playing for the other teams.
Maybe the odd time, when the other boys realised I was better than them, they might go in a little bit harder but that was all a good learning curve for me.
I was just so proud to play for them at that age, it was such a big deal and at this stage, I was playing for three different teams and it was all good practise.
Once I’d started at Leeds though, I think my development really ramped up. Most of the girls in that team were similar to me, in that they were playing for a girls' team on a Saturday, then a boys' team on the Sunday and would then train and play with Leeds in the week.
We were all in the same boat and we were playing three or four games a week and getting proper coaching, whereas in those days at the clubs it would often be someone’s dad running it.
Once I got to high school, I met Mike Sweetman who played a really big role in my development. He really believed in me, when I didn’t want to do PE with the girls playing netball, he’d let me play football with the boys.
I remember racing back home from school to get my boots and get ready for training with Leeds. I literally had to run home from school, so that was helpful for my fitness and all of those things start adding up.
From those days kicking around at my dad and brother’s games, it just shows how quickly it can all happen.
So it's nice to be able to pay tribute to both my dad, who passed away in 2021 to leave a massive hole in our lives, and my brother as they've undoubtedly been big influences for me growing up with their support and guidance.
My step-dad Jim was a big help too, as he used to drive me all over the country to play. He didn’t play football himself, but his love for my love for the game gave him a passion to see me do well. He took me here, there and everywhere and dropped everything to make sure I got to games.
My mum Louise has also been a huge part of my support system. Every single England game I’ve played in – she gets there early so she can wave at the bus and all the girls when we get off!
My first experiences with England came when I was at Leeds too, and that’s when the pressure started to mount really.
I’ll always remember taking my GCSEs in Switzerland while we were at a EURO Finals with the WU17s team, and that’s when you start to put the pressure on yourself because you want to be selected all the time.
That’s when you realise that it’s more than playing for your high school or your club, it feels like the start of something big and it took me to a level I never thought I’d experience.
I was playing for Lincoln Ladies a few years later, after I left Leeds, when I thought to myself that it was make or break time really – I’ve either got to go and make something of myself or stick with what I was doing.
I just thought that I wanted to go back to continue my education and football and experience something new, so made the choice to leave Lincoln and go to college in America.
It was such a whirlwind, to go from Harrogate to a place like New York City for college.
I feel like it’s shaped me as a person, as I went to a city and country I’d never been to in my life, where I didn’t know anyone and didn’t have any family of friends.
I remember watching 'Bend It Like Beckham' when I was younger and doing something like this. And I learned so much from going out there and the amount that you have to do to balance your work studies and your football is insane so I learned a lot about myself.
In the end, I was over there for nine years playing for what was a large chunk of my life before returning home last summer to join Aston Villa…but when I was that little girl playing in Harrogate, I never thought that it would bring to where I am now.
Daly's dream debut
We take a look back with Rachel Daly at her first start for the Lionesses senior team