This story begins with a knock on my front door when I was six years old. It was Calvin, my next-door neighbour. He wanted me to come out to play football.
The court where we lived, in Toxteth, Liverpool, had a circle of houses, and in the middle there was a grass verge where the boys would play football. Most of them were in their early teens, far older than I was, so I guess I should have been intimidated! But that day, when I first stepped out on the grass and got picked to play for one of the teams, something just clicked inside my head. I felt like I belonged. I felt secure. I felt ready.
I felt as if this was what I was meant to do.
After that I was the only girl in the group, and it stayed like that until I was 16. Perhaps that’s why my etiquette was never the best! I’d be hanging out with my cousin Sheldon, my two brothers, Kyle and Delroy, and some other boys from the court. My mum would say that every time she looked out at the grass verge, she would see me slide-tackling the boys or them slide-tackling me! When we weren’t playing football, we were doing other sports. My neighbour Marcus had a massive garden, and he built these giant ramps where all the boys would go with their BMX bikes. I wanted to go, too. But I didn’t have a BMX bike.
My mum, Jo, had bought me a bike for Christmas two years earlier. She was a single parent, working three jobs to take care of four kids — my two brothers, my twin sister, Kelsey, and me — and she always made sure we had what we needed. But this time there was a problem. The bike was a Barbie bike!
I had no idea why Mum had bought it, because she knew I didn’t like Barbies. Every time she put me in a dress, I would run upstairs to get changed. In almost every photo I have from when I was five until I was 15, I have a football top on. I have a tracksuit on. I have shorts and a T-shirt on. Mum even said that she was going to put me in an all-girls school because I needed to be more girly!
The bike was pink, of course, and built for a five-year-old. White handlebars, pink tassels coming off the wheels at the back, Barbie stickers all over. “You are a girl,” Mum told me. “You’ve got to have some things that are girly!”
So I said, “O.K., no problem.” And then I decided to style it up. The stabilisers had to go, because the boys would laugh at me. I also knew that their bikes had stunt pegs at the back. I couldn’t fit stunt pegs on mine, but at least I could make some noise. So I put a drinks carton through the back tire, which made it go, “VROOM! VROOM! VROOM!”
Soon this tiny, pink bike was flying up and down the ramps alongside all my friends’ BMX bikes. My mum would just look out the window and laugh. She always tells me, “Yeah, from that moment I just knew that sports was going to be for you.”
I was blessed to be able to play football with the boys, but being the only girl could be lonely. If the boys were not around I would sometimes play football with my cousins, or Kelsey — but they would only play because I forced them to. I had no one else! I would put down jackets or shoes as goalposts, and then one of them would be the keeper and I would kick balls at them. Then they would get bored and run off. “Girls don’t play football,” they would say. “They play with dolls. They play with Barbies.”
When I first stepped out on the grass and got picked to play for one of the teams, something just clicked inside my head.
It was always the same argument. Kelsey and my cousins would say, “It’s not a female sport.” And I would say, “It is! It doesn’t matter if you have long hair or wear pink. Girls play football!”
And they’d be like, “No, no, no, they don’t.”
Then one day when I was eight years old, I watched a movie that Mum had bought me. It was about Jesminder, or Jess, as she is called, an 18-year-old British Indian Sikh living in London with her family. She loves football, but has only been playing it with some boys in a park. Then one day she meets Jules, who invites her to join a local women’s football team. Jess loves playing for the team, and the two become friends. But they both have mothers who want them to be more traditional, more girly. Both are encouraged to quit football. And they both refuse.
They just love it too much.
Watching that movie was the first time I had seen women’s football so public, so … accepted. It was like, Wow … women’s football … it’s out there. There are actually girls other than me who play.
I went back to Kelsey and my cousins.
“Look! Look!” I said. “Girls do play football! It’s not just for boys! It’s not just for boys!!”
They were like, “Yeah, but it’s a boys’ sport! It’s too rough!”
And I’m like, “It’s not. Look! Look! Watch this with me!”
I slipped the video cassette into the VCR. They watched 10 minutes, then they walked off. It had no effect on them at all.
But it had an effect on me. I played that video so many times that it started to go blurry. You know, the silver lines would come up on the TV. I was devastated. I was like, “Muuum! It’s broke! The thing’s broke.”
She’s like, “Well, you’ve played it that many times, it’s probably run out of the … the thingy.”
I’m like, “How can it run out?! You can rewind it, press play, go forward, how can it run out?”
She’s like, “Just leave it for a while.”
I’m like, “It doesn’t work like that, Mum. Doesn’t work like that.”
As I grew older everything I did had to do with sports. On Saturdays, when Match of the Day was on, nobody was allowed to touch the TV. I’d be watching Thierry Henry run down the left and curl the ball into the far corner. I’d go on YouTube and study Ian Wright. I’d watch the women’s FA Cup final, for me the biggest game in the greatest competition on earth. My mum would be shouting me in off the street, going, “Nikita! The game is about to kick off in 15 minutes!” And I’d come running like my life depended on it.
I particularly remember the final in 2004, when Julie Fleeting scored a hat trick to lead Arsenal to victory over Charlton. She was my heroine. I absolutely loved her.
On Sundays I would play for my local team, Kingsley United. I’d sprint down the left trying to curl the ball into the far corner. Sometimes I’d imagine myself playing in the FA Cup final, scoring a hat trick like Julie Fleeting.
Doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it?
When I played for Kingsley my mum would come to watch. One day when I was 10, a woman walked over to her. Her name was Mo Marley and she was head coach of Everton Ladies. She told Mum that I had talent. She wanted me to play for her team.
When Mum told me about it, I said, “No! I’m not leaving!”
Haha! I must have looked crazy to turn down a chance like that. But I am a strong Liverpool supporter! What did she expect me to say?!
Seriously, though, the reason was that I didn’t want to go into the unknown. Toxteth was my sanctuary. It still is. An outsider would probably call it a deprived area — no opportunities, no jobs. But what we did have was an abundance of love and support. The community was multicultural, and everyone was made to feel welcome. I felt safe in Toxteth. I had the court, the bike ramps, my family and my friends. And I didn’t feel like I had to play football. I did it because I loved it.
By the time I was 12, though, I had outgrown the local team. We would win league after league, and I was better than most players there. So when Mo came back and invited me for a trial at Everton’s Centre of Excellence, the club’s academy program for young girls, I agreed.
The training was at Walton Hall Park. I had never seen so many girls play football in one place. I was like, Wow, women’s football is growing. It was so, so strange. Sure, Mo had explained that women’s football was on the rise. I had nodded along, going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” But to actually see it? Wow.
Toxteth was my sanctuary. It still is.
For once I was nervous. I kept my head down and kind of just waddled about. But when I was introduced to the various coaches and to my teammates, I felt more confident. Soon I became part of the club. Mo came to have a huge influence on me as a player and as a person. So did her husband, Keith, and Andy Spence, who were also coaches at the club. At one point I became good enough to get a call to an England under-15s camp at Loughborough.
Again I was nervous. I had never been away from home for two straight nights. On the morning I was leaving a chauffeur in a black BMW came to pick me up. Never seen one of those in my life. I was like, “Is that … just for me?”
The chauffeur was like, “Well … yeah.”
But the real problem was that my mum had been in charge of my outfit. To this day she can’t handle it if what you wear is not all the same colour. “It has to be matching,” she’ll say. One Christmas when I was 17 she actually dressed up Kelsey and me in pink tops, pink leather cowboy skirts and cowboy boots. What we had on I will never know. It was a monstrosity, absolutely. I was like, “Mum, don’t put them pictures out! Don’t show anybody them pictures!” We looked like two pumpkins. Two little, pink pumpkins!
Of course, Mum will try to defend herself. She’ll go, “Girl, that was the style back then. That was the style.”
And I’ll be like, “No, Mum, that was not the style.”
She’ll say, “Yeah it was. And it has to be matching.”
I’ll be like, “No, Mum, it doesn’t work like that. Doesn’t work like that.”
All of this meant that when I was sitting in the black BMW on the way to the England training camp, I was wearing a pink tracksuit. Every item was pink. When I got there I saw that all the girls were wearing football kits from their respective clubs. Oh, wow. I’ll never forget the day. They were looking at me like I was a piece of tinsel or something. Like I was illuminating the whole place!
We were going to play two games against France. On the training ground we did defensive drills, where the coaches told us how to press and which way to lead the defender. I was like, Wow, football’s changed. I used to play for the love of the game, but now it was all about tactics and structure. At Kingsley I had played as a defender, midfielder, striker, even goalkeeper. Now I was just a central striker. It was all a little overwhelming.
Towards the end of the camp I met Hope Powell, the manager of the senior England women’s team. She was like, “How do you think you’ve done? Where do you think you need to improve?”
And all I was thinking was, I can’t wait to see me mum. I had just been at my first international camp and all I could think about was getting back to Toxteth!
I just said, “Well, I think I did O.K. … I mean, I did score.”
And Hope was like, “Yeah, but there’s so much more to football than just scoring. We have a lot of work to do, Nikita. But don’t worry, you’re in the right place.”
I just said, “O.K….” and left. When the car pulled up in front of our house, I jumped out and gave Mum the biggest hug in the world.
Thank God I was back. Thank God I was home.
After that, I kept going to England camps every other month. I learned so much in that period. I knew I had to work hard, especially after what Hope had said. Soon I made the Everton first team. Then one day when I was 16, Mo came over to me. The FA was creating a new top division for the 2011 season called the FA Women’s Super League, and a lot of teams had applied to be in it. Now Mo was saying, “Nikita, the FA is forming a league of eight teams and we are one of them. We have the backing of the club to make a push and really change women’s football. So next year, the league will be semiprofessional.”
I just went, “What does that mean?”
Mo said, “Put it this way: You’ll be training a lot more times a week. Everything will be provided for you. And you’ll have a long career in football, because now girls can dream of being a professional footballer.”
At first I didn’t really comprehend it. I must have looked silly, because all I said to Mo was, “O.K. … so when’s the next training session?” I was just thinking about the next step!
Over the next three years, as the women’s game kept growing, we were one of the better teams in the league. But in 2014 everything went wrong. We had an inexperienced squad, and in every game we would do something stupid — silly mistakes, bad tackles, red cards. There is such a fine line between winning and losing, and every time we seemed to be on the wrong side. I remember going home every day crying, thinking, We’re getting relegated. How is this happening?
We didn’t win a single league game all season. In the end we did get relegated.
I was absolutely devastated.
The only positive that season was our run to the FA Cup final. When we walked out onto the pitch, I began thinking about all the finals I had watched as a kid. I could hear my mum calling me in off the street. And although we got battered by Arsenal, I was so grateful that I got to experience that moment with the club I had played for since I was 12 years old.
At the same time, though, I felt the moment had come to move on. So in January 2015 I joined Manchester City on a loan that I would make permanent a year later. In 2016, we won the league. And in 2017 we made the FA Cup final.
This was the first time I actually had a realistic chance of winning it. We were facing Birmingham City, and we knew we had a great team.
Had Calvin not knocked on my door that day, maybe none of this would have happened, you know?
In the end, we won 4–1.
As we celebrated with the trophy, I did not realise how big a moment it was. Much later I would go, This is incredible! I won the FA Cup! Just like Julie Fleeting! I really felt like I had made it to the top of the women’s game. But right there and then, my mind just went back to the court in Toxteth. It went back to Calvin, the movie, and the Barbie bike. And I just remember being so happy that everything had turned out the way it had.
’Cause had Calvin not knocked on my door that day, maybe none of this would have happened, you know? Had Mo not seen me play that Sunday, maybe I would still be at Kingsley United.
Had the boys not accepted me in the court, maybe football would be just a hobby now.
So it’s hard to say what would have happened. But would I have quit football? No chance.
I just love it too much.