Playing for Sunderland, 16, Bronze would come down from Alnwick once a week to train on AstroTurf. “We didn’t have a club kit, so Jill [Scott]Half [Stokes] and I used to take off the England kit and train with it. We had a lot of stick for that, people called us “great timekeepers”. I used to train in a t-shirt that I got for free from a magazine,” she said.
When Bronze returned to England in 2009, she worked in a pizzeria to make ends meet. “We did it for the love of the game,” she said.
This new generation of players has only known football as a job, but there is still a lot to do. Domestic crowds fell by 33% last season and one of the motivating factors for England to host the European Championship this summer is to increase numbers. Although attendance figures have soared in recent years, players still earn relatively little with an average salary in the WSL of around £30,000 a year.
Beth Mead was six years old when she first tried football in her village of Hinderwell, North Yorkshire. “I was the only girl. I remember the coach telling me to be careful in my first session because the boys were quite tough,” she said. “When my parents came to pick me up afterwards he said, ‘She can come every week, she’s rougher than all the boys.'”
“Actually, I think the girls are missing now”
The Arsenal and England star joined Middlesbrough academy, but even with her talent she didn’t always feel welcomed by the game. “The opposing team and parents laughed at me and boys who were my teammates because they had a girl playing.”
“My dad always tells this story of this big tough boy playing against us one day and there was a 50-50 ball for us. Everyone started laughing when I went to pick him up on the touchline, there was a rally and a cry of pain and crying. My dad was worried then, but I got up and dribbled the ball and he was left in tears. I don’t think they ever cared about me after that.
Mead studied sports development at university, and although she admits to finding it difficult to balance study and football for Sunderland, she is now grateful she persisted. “Actually, I think the girls are missing now. I have something to lean on when I’m done and you don’t make the kind of money the top male players make. I’m going to have to find a job when I’m 30.
Lauren Hemp – tipped to be England’s star at this summer’s tournament – recalls following in her older sister’s footsteps and trying out football, usually with boys. “I remember how difficult it was for the boys when they played against the girls – they used to have a lot of stick when we were playing well or taking the ball past them. getting beat up by a girl… ‘I used to hear a lot of comments like that,’ the Manchester City striker recalled.
Now the 21-year-old happily tells herself that there’s an all-girls team in her home town of Norfolk, “so the kids don’t even have to worry about those kind of silly comments anymore”.