It wasn’t always about football for Lauren Hemp, which might seem odd given that by 18 she has already reached a pinnacle: playing for Manchester City, representing England at an Under-20 World Cup, and bagging several high-profile personal accolades along the way.
The 18-year-old herself admits she was a sporty person growing up, as was her sister, Amy, and her parents Kevin and Julie.
Lauren was first introduced to football at age five when she used to have to tag along to football training/matches that Amy played in.
She would join in at the end of training sessions and would get stuck into tackles, more often than not getting bundled on the floor by the older boys, but getting straight back up again with a smile on her face. According to her parents, she didn’t have a pair of football boots, she did it all wearing crocs!
Even breaking her elbow after being pushed off a trampoline by her sister at the age of six didn’t dampen her enthusiasm and she would still run around with a cast running down the length of her arm. Quite simply, Hemp was falling in love with football.
“At first, I didn’t think much of it,” said Hemp. “My sister was the one who started it off and I joined in a bit, it was from there I kind of realized it was something I didn’t mind doing. I went to some sessions with her and trialled for Norwich; it was from there I sort of fell in love with football.”
Growing up in the small market town of North Walsham in Norfolk, Hemp was very family-oriented and it’s clear she still is, and football at the time as much about being with those close to her as it was about any thoughts of a potential career.
“I could spend the weekend with my sister playing football and mum and dad could come and watch. My parents were quite sporty too so it became a very family thing.”
Hemp quickly began to rise through the ranks. At the age of eight she was playing in a boy’s football team and from the age of 10 to 15 she was part of the Norwich Centre of Excellence until its closure.
Between all that, she had been selected to represent England at U-15 level at the age of just 13, but when the Norwich Centre of Excellence closed down she had a decision to make: join another boys team or give up football completely.
She joined North Walsham Boys U-16s and also spent a year with the Norwich City Elite Boys team, before the decision came at 16 about whether to pursue a career or give the game she now loved up for good.
“I had to decide if it was something I had to do,” Hemp recalled. “It was a massive step for me because I didn’t like being away from my family, thinking about it would make me want to cry and when I was younger if I was away from home with teams I’d want to go home.
“I wanted to do it but I never thought I would, it was only really a few weeks before I realized it was actually going to happen, that I was leaving behind my family and starting a new life. It turned out pretty good to be fair.”
That’s not an understatement. It’s not even three years since Hemp joined Bristol City, who had not long been relegated into the second tier of English football, what then was FA WSL 2.
Managed by Willie Kirk, the Scotsman gave ample opportunities to young players as Bristol secured promotion back to the top tier, with Hemp making her debut against Watford toward the end of the season, scoring in a 4-1 win.
After an impressive breakout season in FA WSL 1, where she scored seven goals for a struggling Bristol side, including a strike nominated for goal of the season against Arsenal when she’d only just turned 17, all of a sudden, the teenager found herself coveted by the top clubs in the country.
“It’s all been quite quick,” she admitted. “I still remember going to Bristol and everything since then has been a rush. It has been massive for me, especially the time at Bristol and being noticed by Manchester City, you can’t turn down an opportunity like that.”
And she didn’t. At the end of the season it was swiftly announced Hemp would join the 2016 FA WSL champions and could sign professional terms once she turned 18 in August last year.
From being an unknown 18 months ago, Hemp was now a professional footballer, training and playing with the likes of England captain Steph Houghton and it’s made some tough decisions all the more rewarding.
“There’s a lot of sacrifices I’ve made and my family have made. I’ve been out of my comfort zone, you come here with senior players I don’t know and you come into an environment where everyone knows each other and you’re coming in as the 18-year-old girl, it’s scary. In a way, I’ve thrived on the pressure and it’s made me who I am and made me more confident in myself.”
On her decision to join the club, she added, “Once I found out they were interested I came here and saw the facilities and knew I’d be playing with a lot of players I could look up to, players I saw on TV and thought, ‘Wow, I want to be like you one day.’
“Actually playing in the same team as them is amazing. Just training with them makes me a better player and knowing I could come into this environment was something I couldn’t do. When I was really young I didn’t think about it much but in recent years I’ve known about these players more and sometimes it’s still surreal being in the same room as them, it hits you that it’s actually real and every time I’m on the pitch I let it just sink in and take in the moment.”
Hemp wasn’t a complete stranger though. She’s spent a lot of her recent England youth days with City teammates Georgia Stanway and Ellie Roebuck, all three going to the U-20 World Cup in France last year, while she’s also been a regular in the U-19s with Esme Morgan.
“The fact I’d seen Ellie and Georgia come through — Nick [Cushing] has given opportunities to them and he’s really supportive, if it wasn’t for him and the other coaches I wouldn’t have the chances I do.”
Having just turned 18 during the tournament, Hemp was thrown in at the deep end when Cushing chose to start her away at Chelsea on the opening day of the FA WSL season. After playing all 18 games for Bristol last season and every one of England’s World Cup games in the summer heat last year, Hemp’s hamstring injury in the Champions League against Atlético Madrid was perhaps no surprise.
“It was hard because as I started getting into my stride I got injured and I was out for a few months,” she said. “I’ve started to find my feet now. I’ve got some games under my belt, got a few goals, and I’m just trying to do my bit for the team. It’s a massive step up coming here, the difference in intensity, but the players have been fantastic and that’s been massive for me.”
This week has in some ways already been one of the best in Hemp’s career and it could get better come Saturday afternoon. Twenty-four hours before we sit down at Manchester City’s Etihad Campus, Hemp found out she was going on her first senior England camp to the SheBelieves Cup in the United States and at the weekend could play in her first cup final as her side looks to take back the Continental Cup from Arsenal.
“I haven’t been in a final before and especially with this team, it’s very special,” Hemp admitted. “We’re going into it very confident, we’ve beaten Chelsea and Arsenal in recent months so we’ve got momentum. We’re looking to put in a good performance and we’re just hoping to get the result we want.”
On her SheBelieves call where she will train with the team for the full camp but won’t be eligible to play in the games, Hemp says the experience will be huge for her.
“I’m really excited about it. I’ve spoken to Phil [Neville] and he’s really positive about it. There are players I look up to, I’ve seen them on TV and been to their matches, so to learn from them, whether it’s over breakfast or on the pitch, I’ll just give it my all and hopefully make an impression.”
Again, she won’t be a complete stranger. Stanway is now a regular in the squads and goalkeeper Sandy MacIver, another of Hemp’s England youth teammates, has also been called up for the first time.
It’s one of many moments over the past two years which have justified Hemp’s decision to go all in on football and leave her family behind to move firstly to Bristol and then to Manchester.
Her exploits at Bristol last season earned her the PFA Women’s Young Player of the Year award — previously won by now senior-capped players such as Leah Williamson, Beth Mead, and Jess Carter — as well as England’s Young Player of the Year.
There’s no doubt someone who has admitted to missing home when she was young will still miss her family and they’ll miss her, but they’ll be at Bramall Lane this weekend to watch her in a cup final.
“They’re all coming to watch so it’s the first time I’ll have seen them in a while,” she said as she smiled. “I think they came to the West Ham game, which fortunately I scored in.”
Hemp admits so far every decision she’s made has been the right one, now it’s about progression with the lure of England hosting the Euros in 2021, which if she continues developing at her current rate could easily be her major tournament debut for the senior team.
“I didn’t know at the time those decisions would work out,” she said. “I just did it and hoped for the best. If things didn’t work out then at least I’d given it a go but if I didn’t give it a go then I’d never know.”