England Under-20 head coach Mo Marley is set to unleash her young Lionesses on the World Cup this weekend when her side faces familiar foes in the shape of Korea DPR in France on Sunday afternoon.
After several camps both in England and abroad, Marley recently cut down her 35-player squad to the 21 who will go to France.
The players have already been in France for almost a week and preparations for Sunday’s encounter in Dinan now step up with the team moving to their official hotel on Tuesday afternoon.
Three of the players who made last week’s flight out of East Midlands are United States-based midfielder Alessia Russo, Manchester City’s new recruit Lauren Hemp, and Manchester United goalkeeper Emily Ramsey, who has just returned to the newly launched club after a year at Liverpool.
Ramsey is the youngest player in the squad and along with Hemp, two of only three players born in the year 2000. Both played in last summer’s U-17 European Championships and are making a big step up while Russo played at the U-17 World Cup in 2016 and last year’s U-19 European Championships in Northern Ireland.
Russo may now be a relative veteran of this squad but both Hemp and Ramsey, who will become Manchester rivals once the season starts, are both enthused by the challenge ahead of them.
“I’m very excited, it’s been a long time coming actually getting out there,” Ramsey said. “It’s been brilliant. Myself and a couple of others first came in a few camps ago and the camaraderie has been great. It’s been a different challenge and a step up but you can see the focus in this squad has only been the World Cup.”
Hemp added, “We’ve come quite far, the camps have been good building up to it, and it’s really exciting now to be in this position.
“Everything’s been moving quite quickly for me. I was with the U-17s last year but the experiences I’ve had joining this squad, they were a very strong group before I joined and it’s helped me improve being with them now.”
Nineteen-year-old Russo has already experienced the highs and lows of youth team football. The University of North Carolina student scored a last-minute equalizer against this Sunday’s opposition in Jordan two years ago but was part of a side that didn’t make it out of their Euros group in Northern Ireland a year ago.
“We look back at the Euro finals and there’s just a completely different feel this time,” she said. “We’re much more prepared, every game has become like a final because that’s how it is at the top tournaments.
“You can ask anyone in this team, it’s a different feel and not something you really notice until you’re around the team and I think a big part of it was the Royal Marines.”
The England squad was sent off at the start of the month to spend a few days with the Royal Marines in preparation for the World Cup.
While all players describe the experience as tough, it’s clear it had a positive effect on the squad in terms of team bonding.
“You can’t really put it into words,” added Russo. “It was really emotional and amazing and it’s very hard to describe the feeling. We didn’t know what we’d be doing, we were told we’d be something at 8 am and then they’d bang on our door at 5:30 am.”
Ramsey and Hemp echoed their teammate’s sentiment regarding the trip away, where staff were also encouraged to participate alongside the players.
“It was tough but one of the best things about it is that players and staff were there as one,” said Ramsey. “What we did, the staff did. I think we learned a lot about working with the girls that maybe we didn’t know so well but we have a camp after that and the togetherness was unbelievable. Going into the World Cup we’re always going to have reminders of that.”
New City signing Hemp added, “Seeing firsthand what they do and experiencing that, you never think you’d get the chance, not many people get to do that.
“We absorbed everything and took everything in and I think it’s really helped our togetherness as a group.”
Hemp, as well as Russo, is part of an attack and midfield that should be capable of out-scoring plenty of teams when the tournament kicks off this weekend.
Along with new Manchester City teammate Georgia Stanway, Liverpool trio Niamh Charles, Ali Johnson, and Rinsola Babajide, Everton’s Chloe Kelly, and Birmingham’s Charlie Wellings, every one of them plays first-team football in the top tier of women’s football and Hemp believes it can only be a positive for the squad.
“We’ve got massive depth in attack and we all have different skills and attributes. The depth within the whole squad really means we should have a very good chance. We’ve been working so hard, physically and mentally, in every area over the past few months.”
Russo’s form at UNC has been such that she’s received plenty of plaudits for the nine goals she scored in 18 starts for her new team during the past 12 months.
One of only six players in the squad who went to Jordan two years ago and also went to Northern Ireland last year, Russo is one of the regular squad members but isn’t underestimating the challenge despite facing two of the same nations from their group two years ago, Brazil and Korea DPR.
“Under 20s is such a big step up from the Under 17s but the experience is kind of similar,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of meetings, the ones of us who went to Jordan have spoken about how things will be different. The Euros weren’t as good as we expected but maybe that was pivotal for us. If we were to go through plain sailing to the World Cup we might not know how bad things feel when it goes wrong but we’ve had that hit now.”
On the U.S., she added, “It’s been a great experience. I’m always away from home so on camps I’m used to that now — you can speak to your parents through Facetime! I think I’ve got about eight family members coming out though!”
Seventeen-year-old Ramsey’s targets for the tournament are quite different. The Manchester United goalkeeper is competing between the sticks with U-20 regulars Ellie Roebuck and Sandy MacIver and is under no illusions as what to expect over the next couple of weeks.
But whatever happens, Ramsey is looking forward to the experience and says she will take plenty away from France whether she features or not.
“I’ve been learning going into it and taking on what the squad learned from the Under 19 Euros last year and for me personally, it’s been brilliant. I can [have] this experience, even if I don’t get any minutes, I’ll still get so much out of it. We’ve had the chance to blend in.
“As a goalie you never know what can happen. You don’t know what Mo’s thought process is and you don’t know what will happen across the games. You have to be prepared to start, prepared to come, and prepared to sit on the bench. I’m just going to play it by ear and if it means just being a supporter and helping the team, I’m fine with that.”
Players haven’t just been working hard with the Royal Marines over the past month, they’ve also had a special few special visitors to provide a couple of pep talks ahead of the tournament.
England head coach Gareth Southgate met the squad to hand out their international caps after returning from Russia while Hemp’s new Manchester City teammate Jill Scott also popped down to St. George’s Park to pass on her experiences.
“They’re still my role models,” said Hemp. “For them to come and talk, especially Jill who’s been in our position, it’s inspiring. It shows us we can do it if we put our minds to it.”
Russo added, “Gareth just said to us to never fear making a mistake. Try new things with set pieces and attacks, never be scared. He talked about playing out from the back and to be brave, how can you be different from everyone else?”
Shortly after the Euros the squad were also asked to present to the group which current players were their role models and who they aspired to be like in their position.
“I said my role models were Lieke Martens but also Toni [Duggan],” said Russo. “I like how she always presses and goes forward, they’re both great players.”
New Journeys after the Tourney
Hemp and Ramsey will both embark on new adventures when they return from France with Hemp splitting off into the blue side of Manchester and Ramsey returning to the red side to work under former Liverpool teammate Casey Stoney.
Both have already spent a brief time working with their new coaches and both are grateful for the chances they’ve had to make the moves possible.
“It gives me confidence and belief but at the same time it’s a drive,” said Ramsey. “If those coaches see something in me then I’ve got to prove to them it’s worth investing time in me. With England, I’m just going to get out of it what I can do.
“Being back at United has been brilliant, it’s what I always wanted to achieve when I was younger. I’m excited to take that forward but right now I’m just thinking about the World Cup.”
Hemp added, “Without my coaches and support I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now. You need those people to advise you, they’re your main source and I wouldn’t have been able to grow as much as I have the last few years without that.
“I’ve got respect for all my coaches, especially Willie [Kirk]. He believed in me and gave me the opportunity, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t have been able to show what I could do and I wish him all the best at Man United.”
But for now, the attentions of all three, plus their 18 teammates, turn to Korea DPR on Sunday. The U-17 and U-20 champions are rightfully one of the favorites and Marley’s side will have to be at their best to get a result.
“We’ve been preparing for so long,” said Russo. “I think Mo said we were on our ninth or tenth week of training so it’s been a pretty intense summer. Each step has been a development for us leading up to the World Cup, now it’s time to show that on the world stage.
Ramsey added, “We have a tough group but you have to beat the best to be the best. The main thing from Mo has been our professionalism, togetherness, working hard, and putting our game plan in action.
“If it’s not going well we have to work it out as a team, it’s not going to be a dictatorship, it’s about everyone.”