Ahead of the 2019/20 Women's Super League, COPA90 caught up with four of Chelsea’s Lionesses. We talked season ambitions, London rivalries, and playing at Stamford Bridge.
It’s a sunny summer’s day at Chelsea’s Cobham training ground. There’s a relaxed atmosphere about the place; little noise other than the odd bluster of wind and the lazy hum of one groundsman’s lawnmower.
It’s calming, almost tranquil. You’d be forgiven for thinking this was just another run-of-the-mill pre-season session. But it’s not.
Manager Emma Hayes and Chelsea F.C. Women are finalising preparations before their WSL curtain-raiser. This weekend sees The Blues take on London rivals, Tottenham Hotspur – an occasion which will be marked by a full house at Stamford Bridge.
“I think there’s something really special about a London Derby,” goalkeeper Carly Telford tells COPA90. “We know how much it means to the fans. Once you cross that line you bleed blue. For us, there’s no way other than winning.”
"There’s something really special about a London Derby."
As a proud Northerner, Telford’s had to learn about the importance of the London Derby from others. “Drew Spence is one of the most passionate people about the Chelsea-Spurs Derby. The day is marked out in her calendar!”
Picking up on football’s ins and outs is nothing new to Telford. In fact, it’s something she’s had to do from the very start, falling into a career in net rather than choosing it. “When I went to my first ever girls’ trials, it was freezing cold – proper Northern weather – and my mum chucked a goalkeeping top on me.”
“When I got there, I trialed as an outfield player but the coach said to me “oh do you play in goal?” I panicked and said yes because I didn’t want her to not want me anymore. So I went in goal and I never came back out.”
Chelsea have quite a large Northern contingent at the club, and former Sheffield United youth Millie Bright is another who prides herself on keeping clean sheets. “I want to be unbeaten in the league.” The England defender states, looking ahead at her goals for the season. “From a defensive point, I think we’ve got the ability to do that here.”
"What the club’s done for this game is incredible. It shows how far we’ve pushed on."
Bright can’t wait for the WSL to start. She split her short summer break between holidaying in Mexico’s Riviera Maya and spending some quality time at home with her family and horses. She’s an ex-professional show jumper, so time back at the stables is very important to her.
Now back in training, playing at Stamford Bridge is a point of real excitement for her. Bright sees it as something of a watershed moment for the women’s game.
“It’s going to be an amazing turnout,” she grins, alluding to the near 42,000 fans who have tickets. “What the club’s done for this game is incredible. It shows how far we’ve pushed on. Not just in the women’s game, but as a club – what they’re willing to do for us to push women’s football.”
Last season ended in bitter disappointment for Chelsea as the club came third in the WSL, missing out on Champions League qualification, and finishing the campaign trophyless. But with little separating them from Man City and defending champions Arsenal in terms of quality, there’s a lot of optimism around the place.
“Last year going without a trophy wasn’t good enough for us, the players, staff…no one would say it was good enough last year.” Fran Kirby says, visibly determined to right last season’s wrongs. “We want to win everything. We want to win The FA Cup, the WSL and the Continental Cup.”
"We just want to make sure we continue this momentum and grow."
Kirby returned to training following her second World Cup with the Lionesses. Now a relatively senior member of the team, at least in terms of experience, her focus lies solely on the WSL opener against Spurs.
“Everyone understands the importance of a London Derby. It’s the same when we play against Arsenal in the WSL. We’ve played Tottenham a few times now, in the Continental Cup and The FA Cup, and you always feel like there’s something else in the game.”
Kirby grew up in a family obsessed with football. Alongside walking her beloved dog, Cody, and getting stuck into a good Netflix series, the game consumes almost all her time. Thierry Henry was her hero growing up: “I had his shirt on my wall, I used to watch him all the time. I’d watch him on YouTube then go out into the garden and try to copy his goals.”
The Chelsea forward has a penchant for strikers, and classes teammate Bethany England as one of her closest friends. England, who was recently called up to the Lionesses squad for the first time, believes her and Fran help push each other forward.
“There’s always an element of competition in general in a team, but I think it’s healthy competition. With me and Fran being such good friends, it never comes between us. When we’re on the pitch, we’ll get the job done then away from the pitch, we’re just Beth and Fran, having a laugh and walking our dogs.”
"I’m privileged that I’m living this dream now. It was worth all the hard work."
The route to the top of the women’s game hasn’t been an easy one for England. “I think my biggest challenge was when I was in college, trying to balance my A-Levels, training, and, as everyone knows, I used to work in a chippy – doing the nightshift over the weekend, starting at 10pm and finishing at 6am.”
Operating on two or three hours of sleep before a match was a weekly reality for England. Away from the confines of prestigious men’s academies, she worked relentlessly to get herself into the position she’s in today. “I’m privileged that I’m living this dream now. It was worth all the hard work before it.”
There are thousands of stories out there like England’s, giving you a deep admiration for the women who sacrificed so much growing up in order to play professionally. Now, after the barnstorming success of the 2019 World Cup, women’s football is once again ready to step forward, with clubs competing in the grounds of their male counterparts.
“We just want to make sure we continue this momentum and grow.” Kirby says determinedly. “Sell out Kingsmeadow, sell out all the arenas we play in. That’s the ambition for us as players. We need to do everything we can on the pitch to make that happen.”