Melissa Lawley will always go down in the history books as the first player Mo Marley handed an England debut to, the Manchester City winger coming on for Karen Carney with half an hour to go in last month’s friendly against France.
An 89th winner for the hosts dented Marley’s first game in charge, but it’s an occasion Lawley will never forget, helped by the fact more than 20,000 supporters had packed themselves into the Stade du Hainaut in Valenciennes.
“I’d been training well and you sometimes have a little thing inside you that you might get that call,” said Lawley. “But when Mo said I was coming on I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, is this for real?’”
It was made all the more special given Lawley was the first debutante under Marley’s interim spell in charge, and the fact she was replacing former Birmingham City teammate Karen Carney.
Carney was the star name at Birmingham when Lawley joined the club as a teenager in 2013, and the forward admits she’s “always looked up to Kaz.”
“She helped me improve so much at Birmingham, both on and off the pitch, I appreciate that so much. Coming on for her was an amazing feeling and going on in front of 20,000 people was just a dream come true.”
It’s been quite a year for Lawley. The 23-year-old was influential in another successful season which saw Birmingham reach the Continental Cup final at the end of 2016, doing enough throughout the campaign to ensure Manchester City, their cup final opponents, signed her at the end of the season.
Lawley hit the ground running at the City Football Academy, scoring the crucial winner in the FA Cup semifinal against Liverpool that set up a Wembley clash against her former club in the showpiece occasion.
Lawley admits she has been surprised by how often she’s started for Nick Cushing’s FA Women’s Super League champions.
“When I joined City, I didn’t expect to start as many games as I have, I did think I’d be on the bench a lot more. Going there and playing so many games has been an achievement in itself, but we’ve added a few more players so it’s another new challenge going forward.”
While Lawley enjoyed her time at Birmingham, the move up north to Manchester has paid dividends in terms of her international career.
She was called up for two Euro 2017 warmup friendlies by former head coach Mark Sampson, and called up once again for the opening World Cup 2019 qualifier against Russia, before withdrawing through injury.
Her debut did eventually come last month, and Lawley says the move to Manchester City was about much more than just her football on the pitch.
“I think it was about moving out of my comfort zone and leaving home,” she said. “I’ve realized I’m mentally stronger, I’ve stepped out of that comfort zone and still been able to perform. I needed that next step to push me on, so training at Man City with the best has made me realize I need to keep pushing.”
In the space of 12 months, Lawley’s hard work, quality, and determination have led to her representing both one of the top clubs and top nations in women’s football, and the 23-year-old does feel it has been a reward for the effort she’s put in and sacrifices she has made.
“Becoming a footballer, you have to make those sacrifices, but being called up for England has rewarded those massively. The girls have made me feel so welcome and I’m so glad to be a part of this team.
“Playing for England is always a dream come true, I’m training with the best and that will only help me in my career and help me develop as a player.”
The Stade du Hainut will always live long in Lawley’s memory as the stadium where she made her Lionesses debut, but an appearance against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Friday night would be “extra special” for Lawley, as she describes it.
The game is being played in Walsall, just 20 miles from where Lawley was born in Kidderminster, and just 10 miles from Birmingham.
“Being able to play so close to home makes it feel that bit more special,” she said. “Hopefully we go there and put in a performance that we know we can and come away with the win.”
Lawley’s under no illusions that Friday’s match will be easy given England faced Bosnia-Herzegovina during qualifying for Euro 2017, only recording narrow 1-0 wins both home and away.
“We know they be hard to break down, but we’ve got so much quality and our aim is just to go out and get the two wins. Mo has told us to go and do what we do best, but stick to the game plan.”
Though the forward is still a relative newbie in the Lionesses setup, she’s been joined by two more new faces this week in the form of Manchester City teammate Keira Walsh and Arsenal’s Leah Williamson, and Lawley has been particularly impressed by Walsh since becoming her club teammate.
“When I was at Birmingham I was a No. 10, so I would come up against Keira. I kind of knew what she was like before joining Man City, but training with her day in, day out, you can see she’s a big prospect for England.”
Lawley added, “Keira and Leah have both come in and fit in really well, they already know a lot of the girls but they’ve done really well and trained really well.”
Looking further ahead, the 2019 World Cup in France is very much a realistic target on Lawley’s horizon.
She’s now a fully-fledged member of the squad, has made her debut, and is working with a coach she’s more than familiar with from her time with the England youth teams.
“I think for me, working with Mo again is a bit more special. She’s a good coach and she helped me a lot in my development both on and off the pitch, so for her to be giving me my first England cap was extra special.
“Getting called up, you’re always buzzing. But I’m a realist, I know how good these players are and I can’t get complacent or else they’ll take my position, and I don’t really want that!”