IQRemix from Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]
England left back Alex Greenwood admits she and her teammates have to “inspire the next generation of young girls” whatever happens when the 2019 FIFA World Cup kicks off in France on Friday night.
Phil Neville’s side opens their tournament campaign with a match against rivals Scotland in Nice on Sunday and Greenwood is embarking on her second World Cup and her third major tournament overall at the age of 25.
Greenwood will compete with Demi Stokes once more for the left back spot in the England team come Sunday as the Lionesses look to go a step further than the bronze medal won in Canada four years ago, but Greenwood has her eyes set on what the team can do off the field as well as on it and admits things could explode this summer if England “achieve what we set out to achieve.”
Greenwood said, “Regardless of winning games, sometimes you have to be a role model. You have to inspire the next generation of young females to come through.
“You can do that in plenty of ways other than winning football games. But for me, if we’re successful that will change the game in my opinion. It will be transformative for the women’s game in this country — it will change it forever.”
Women’s football has changed a lot in the four years since England last went to a World Cup and aside from a huge uptick in expectation after a narrow semifinal defeat followed by a bronze medal in Canada, the game is growing constantly around the world, particularly close to home for Greenwood.
But there’s an ongoing battle to change the perception of the sport to the masses, with social media still regularly awash with negative and at times sexist comments aimed not only at the sport in general but often at individuals themselves.
England teammate Karen Carney received threats on Instagram earlier this year and Greenwood describes the culprits as “small-minded” but accepts “you’re never going to get rid of them.”
The 25-year-old said, “I still see it on social media all of the time. Does it bother me? No. Not really. I see it. I laugh. I think it’s funny. It’s just how it is. We can’t look at that. We can’t control people’s comments. All we can control is what we do — winning matches. My concern is not that man who thinks I should be in the kitchen. My concern is a little girl who should be playing football. So that doesn’t bother me, but if the little girl isn’t inspired, then I kind of feel we’re failing.
“That little girl now is not going to have to play in a boys’ team. She will be able to play in a girls’ team. I came though at a very good time. The girls before me did all the ground work for us to come through and play. Yes, I played with boys’ teams, but there were girls’ teams available. I chose to play with boys’ teams because the standard was simply better — physicality reasons, technical, tactical, and it’s helped me now. When I was coming, though, I ran rings around girls’ teams because I was better than then but I think the girls’ game has moved on now.”
Four years ago Greenwood was the youngest player on the plane to Canada, now she speaks like an experienced pro and the captain that she has become for Manchester United in the past 12 months.
The Liverpool-born defender left her home city behind last summer to join former club and country teammate Casey Stoney at the relaunched United side, taking a step down into the new FA Women’s Championship for a season, a decision that many felt may have jeopardized her spot in the national team.
But Greenwood has thrived, playing a key role and leading her side to both promotion and the title, the team scoring 98 goals along the way.
“Every game we’re expected to win, which is pressure in itself,” she said, regarding United’s campaign. “Teams will make it difficult for us and that was always our challenge. People can say what they want about the Championship but it’s a competitive league in its own way and brings problems in its own way.
“You might not see that from a score line sometimes, if we win 6-0, but there are things away from the pitch, little things they do when you come into the ground where they try to put you off. The changing room isn’t as nice as it should be, maybe. I get it. I would do the same if I was the opposition to us, absolutely. Durham was the most difficult place we went. They play in their own certain way which is sometimes difficult to play against. It helped us in the long run.”
Greenwood will embark on a first in her career next season, captaining a team in the top division of women’s football, but can’t escape the fact she’s grown up down the road in the home of the club’s greatest rivals.
The defender admits there’s been plenty of “banter” from friends and teammates but also says moving to United has been the best decision for her career.
“Obviously, there’s got to be hasn’t there?” she said, regarding banter from friends. “I’m from Liverpool and I can’t hide that. I’m going to get banter. I can’t hide my accent. I’m from Liverpool and I’m proud of that. I’ll give 100 percent for whoever I play for and it’s the best decision I ever made, signing for Manchester United, so I actually love it.”
It shows the level of perfectionism former England captain Stoney has laid on her team, so much so Greenwood admits the team were “disappointed” to fall two goals short of 100 goals for their debut league campaign.
But on the flip side, Greenwood is one of only a few players who can come into the World Cup for England off the back of a league success, along with Arsenal duo Leah Williamson and Beth Mead.
“Winning like that breeds confidence and when you’re winning with England as well it just grows and grows and grows. I’m also realistic, that the games aren’t going to be like they are in the Championship. I’m totally aware of that. I’d be stupid to think any different. But I also know how hard we work away from pitch and we’ll be the best prepared team, like we are at United.”
Off the Pitch
It’s not just Greenwood who has enjoyed a successful year either. Her long-term boyfriend, Sheffield United’s Jack O’Connell, was also promoted to the top tier of the men’s game after the Blades beat Leeds United to the second automatic promotion spot in the Championship.
The pair live together in Manchester and Greenwood admits she had to keep her cool and not get overexcited at the prospect of a double promotion after she secured the title with Man United before O’Connell’s own promotion was confirmed.
“We’ve haven’t really seen each other!” she said. “It’s been an amazing season for both of us and I’m really proud of what he’s achieved.
“It was job done for me and it was a little bit difficult then. I obviously didn’t want to speak about [Sheffield United] promotion but it was so close to happening so I had to just be as normal as possible, keep the week as normal as possible — for him, more than anyone. We have routines through the week and I tried my best to stick to them for him until it was confirmed for him. Until it was, we couldn’t switch off. There was a temptation to say at one point — you’re up — but I knew he didn’t want to hear it so I just let him focus and concentrate. That’s what he did and it paid off.”
Growing up in a football-obsessed city like Liverpool, it’s no surprise Greenwood like many others settled on the sport in pursuit of a career.
She attended Savio Salesian High School, the same school as Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher and the same school now United teammate Mollie Green would also attend a couple of years down the line.
“I think Liverpool’s got a sport culture,” Greenwood admitted. “You come from Liverpool, you have a choice. You play sport or you don’t! Football, boxing, whatever it is, it’s a sport city.”
She added, “I’ve never experienced negativity from the boys. It was very positive for me. I played up with them and they treated me like a little sister. They didn’t push me away. Not being disrespectful, but probably because I was just as good as them, if not better than them. So for them it was, ‘why would we push her away? She’s as good as us.’ I maybe have a different story to other people but I never struggled or suffered, being a girl. If anything I got respected more because I was a girl.”
Now attentions are fully on England and specifically Nice. The Lionesses fly out to the French Riviera city on Tuesday to begin preparations for Sunday’s opener against Scotland, where Greenwood could come up against current club teammates in Kirsty Smith and Lizzie Arnot.
Her only World Cup experience so far has been a good one and she has a medal to show for it, and she knows only too well what it will mean if she betters the feat this time around.
“It’s my second one and the first was unbelievable so if it beats that, it’s going to be incredible. The only way I do that is by winning it and I go there with the belief we can win.”