Speaking on the day the tournament officially gets underway in Paris, both Nikita Parris and Leah Williamson are eager for the talking to stop and the football to start after such a lengthy buildup for both.
The emotions of being picked for their first World Cup will have sunk in now they’ve been in camp for more than a fortnight but despite now being in Nice for 72 hours, both are still just waiting for Sunday evening’s game to come around.
Parris, who did go to the European Championships two years ago, said, “Preparation has been two years in the making, we’ve gone through ups and downs in the journey but we’re here and ready to go and it’s an exciting spectacle against Scotland.
“Many of you will call it a derby but to us it’s another game, an important game to get our World Cup journey off to a flier and get that ‘W’ on the board.”
Williamson, who is set for her first major tournament of any kind with the senior team, added, “I think a lot of us have felt like that for a while, which is almost good because you’ve had all this time to perfect things. Even the fact that there’s just one game on tonight, I feel like it’s ours, I’m so excited. I can’t wait.”
The side is so ready for Sunday’s game that head coach Phil Neville canceled Friday morning’s planned training session to give his side some recovery time and to guard against any fatigue or injuries before the game.
The squad will have one more training session on Saturday afternoon and Parris admits the side is certainly “pumped up” with less than 48 hours to go to kickoff.
“Ultimately, you train how you play,” she said. “That’s everyone’s mind-set in our team, it’s competitive and everyone wants to win a game whether it’s five-a-side or head tennis, it doesn’t matter, we all want to win. Hopefully, that mind-set helps us win games.”
Calm and Collected ahead of the Opener
Ironically, despite being two of the least experienced players on the squad when it comes to World Cup experience, neither of them appear to be feeling the pressure.
Williamson is generally a calm and collected figure anyway and while Parris may always be found buzzing around and being the joker of the pack, the new Lyon forward admits she doesn’t feel pressure at all.
“I don’t feel pressure,” she said. “To me, it’s just another game. Eleven players, a grass pitch, regardless of which side you are on, it’s important you win the game and I’m as competitive as anyone and I want to win every game whether it’s a Sunday league tournament, five-a-side or a World Cup qualifier.
“To be honest, it will feel real once we play our game, when we’re going to the stadium, getting on the bus because we’ve created so much excitement around when we get out to Nice that we’ll feel like we’re here but we are out in Nice and we’re still just training. So I think our first game will give us a sense of how it will be.”
The Arsenal defender added, “I probably would have been, but a lot of experience has been passed on in terms of ‘don’t waste this’. It’s my first one and it’ll never be my first one again and I’ll never be in this position, maybe, again. I’m trying to just override that with excitement, trying to enjoy it really. I try and stay away from the stress. I just turn up when I’m meant to.”
Williamson admits the fact there’s so much experience around the group, including a player like Jill Scott who is going to her fourth World Cup, that there’s plenty of people around to offer advice when necessary to the younger players.
“We’ve got so many characters in the team that when we’re working we’re still having fun. I know it’s a cliché but it’s the truth. That energy around the team stays away from the stressful side of things.
“The experience we have in the team is good because then you know when to balance that out with seriousness. We’re all here to enjoy ourselves, and that’s Phil’s main message — that’s what he always leaves us with — these are the best days of our lives, and it would be a shame to waste them with stressing.”
Both were close to the squad four years ago despite being even less experienced, Williamson herself was just a teenager and the captain of the national Under-19 side.
Williamson injured her ankle shortly after and was in the fan zone ahead of England versus Scotland two years ago with Keira Walsh, Beth Mead, and Georgia Stanway, all of whom are in the squad for this year’s match two years on.
Parris came even closer but ended up watching the World Cup matches on holiday in Egypt, crowded round a laptop with her mum and her sister at 1 a.m.
“I just narrowly missed out,” she recalled. “Mark [Sampson] brought me into the squad to be a training player, 10 days leading into the World Cup. For me, at that moment, I really took it all in. I knew I wasn’t going but I wanted to make sure that all the girls going into the tournament were best prepared to push on. I went into the training camp to make sure they had the sort of test they were going to get from the American forwards, French forwards, Canadian forwards. To make sure that in those moments of pressure that they knew they had already done it in training against me. Mark spoke to me after that and he said I would be a massive part of his plans going forward. I just made sure that I was best prepared when I went abroad with my family on holiday.”
On how she found out she wasn’t going, Parris said, “Mark and I sat down. He had hot chocolate, I had a coffee. I remember the moment because it ultimately determined to me which way I would go. Would I give up or would I knuckle down and ensure I made the next World Cup or the Euros? That’s what my plans were. I knew I would break into it if I put everything into it and put my best foot forward.”
Up Against Familiar Faces
Whatever happens, Sunday’s rematch against Scotland is sure to be an occasion that captures the UK. The game will be shown live on BBC One at 5 p.m. in the evening, perfect viewing time for sitting down to watch a game between two neighbors.
As of yesterday, more than 2,000 tickets had been sold directly by The FA and Scottish FA with over 11,000 sold by FIFA to UK postcodes. Add in late purchases and neutral fans from France and it’s likely there could be more than 20,000 fans in the Allianz Riviera stadium on the evening.
It also means the England team will once again be coming up against some familiar faces. Parris has spent various parts of the last four years playing with Jane Ross, Claire Emslie, Caroline Weir, and Jennifer Beattie, the latter of whom will be Williamson’s new teammate from next season, while the Arsenal defender is only too familiar with the duo of Lisa Evans and world-class Kim Little.
Will it be an advantage or a disadvantage? Williamson’s not sure just yet. “It’s a weird one that — I’m not sure, we’ll see on Sunday. It’s nice in terms of preparation, you play league games against them and do similar analysis on them. It’s a bizarre one and I can’t believe it got drawn out of the hat. For the neutral and the women’s game, it’s definitely good but for us, I’m not sure. It’s probably an advantage because we know so much about them and we can exploit their weaknesses.”
Neville will tell his squad the starting XI, which he says he’s known for a while, likely tonight so his team can prepare adequately in tomorrow’s final training session.
It also means the families who have flown out to Nice en masse will know if they’ll be watching their daughters, sisters, or nieces on Sunday night, and both have a large presence coming out to the south coast.
Parris has her mum, dad, both brothers, sister, boyfriend, niece, and two close friends flying out while Williamson’s family is setting off straight after the school run!
“They’re leaving today [Friday], picking my brother up from school and coming straight to France, so should be with us in the morning,” she said.
Williamson, in particular, is incredibly family-orientated and has previously spoken at length about the influence her family’s love of football has on her, and she’s hoping a trip to watch her in a World Cup repays all the faith and time they’ve shown in her.
“To be honest, I was so stressed in the lead-up to finding out. Because it was the first time we’ve all sort of put ourselves out there and really committed to something, that I’ve asked them to commit to as well. To be able to say I got in and we’re all going to France, it’s great for them, because they’ve just been able to enjoy it now. They’re basically going on holiday!
“I think they’re alright now but when the games start my mum will be an awful driver! She’ll be the rudest taxi driver in the world because she’ll be stressed! They just worry for me, but the more of a good time I’m having, I’m sure they’re having the same. This is sort of one of the only ways you can repay your parents for everything they do for you. The commitment my parents have given me, and my brother, who played football for a long while as well — you can’t really say thank you. I can’t give them that time back but I can give them better experiences in the future.”
She continued, “With me and mum, we’re connected football-wise, we’re Arsenal fans, but with my dad being a Spurs fan, England is our mutual ground. My dad got really emotional on the documentary, but that’s because this is our dream sort of thing. We’re massive England fans, really patriotic, I think they’re just absolutely over the moon for me, and I’m sure they enjoy telling their mates as well.”
A Period of Maturing for Both
Tonight the team will relax in their hotel on the famous Promenade de Anglais on the Nice coastline, with Parris admitting the team has put a projector up in the medical room to watch Netflix, or, as is flavor of the month, “Love Island.”
“It’s not for me, but some of the girls love it. Millie Bright, Steph Houghton, and Rachel Daly the most,” Parris added.
Parris is still the prankster of the group though, and she even admitted she once targeted Neville himself, putting salt instead of sugar in his tea.
For both players, it’s been a period of maturing ahead of their World Cup bows. Parris has added consistency to her game and has become the top scorer in FA WSL history and earned a move to European giants Lyon while Williamson has nailed down a regular spot in Arsenal’s league-winning defense and become one of the most highly rated young players in the country.
Both through hard work and talent, Parris and Williamson are each reaping the rewards for the fruits of their labor.
“A year ago I didn’t even expect to make this squad,” said Williamson, who might not be expecting to start but will be ready to if called upon. “I feel like I need to be prepared as if I’m going to start because that’s what the team needs from me. And it is business. At the same time, you have to be realistic about things; for the last year, I’ve thought about getting in the squad, and then you’re ticking off boxes as you go along.
“Phil’s made it very clear he wants every single person to be ready and that’s what we’ve been focusing on — that’s the mentality I have. But Steph [Houghton] and Millie [Bright] have been a successful partnership in previous tournaments but I know that whoever plays in this first game is going to smash it and then everything goes along from there. We’ll see what happens. I feel like I’m ready to play and if I am called upon, if I am needed, I will be ready for that I feel.”
For Parris, meanwhile, she’s had to juggle positions this season after being moved into a striker’s role at Manchester City, a position she hasn’t played regularly since leaving Everton.
Still playing as a right winger for England, Parris doesn’t seem to have been affected by having to adapt to different roles on different teams.
“I’ve done it a long time,” she said. “I started out at Everton as a No. 9 and then went to Manchester City as a No. 7. My journey from Everton to Manchester City was one of the best things I ever did for my career, I learned things as a player, to understand the game in a different way. Manchester City play an unbelievable style of play and you’ve got to know your position but you’ve also got to know your teammates’ position and they’ve got to know yours.
“I never used to think of the game like that, I used to think of it as an individual. I was a raw talent going from Everton to Man City but they really perfected me. I started thinking not just about how I got the best out of myself but also how I get the best out of the person next to me. I feel that’s what really has improved my game and that’s why I can float from position to position because I know my role.”
Parris is now ready for an assault on the ultimate glory, going one step further than some of her teammates managed four years ago but is realistic about the journey she and the team have in front of them if they want to lift the trophy in Lyon in a month’s time.
“There’s going to be hurdles along the way. Nobody’s going to give you the World Cup, nobody’s going to give you an easy game. Not Scotland, not Argentina, not Japan, and not anybody we might play after that.
“Ultimately, we know we might have to bounce back. We did that after losing to Sweden, we went out and won SheBelieves Cup. We wanted to beat the USA and we didn’t, but we still won the tournament. We beat Denmark without playing our best football, but we still beat them, then we went into New Zealand and played unbelievably well but didn’t get a goal and lost 1-0.”
She added, regarding the team’s longer team journey, “We’ve had ups and downs along the way before we’ve even got here but we’ve stuck together and we know the process, we know our long-term goal but ultimately there will be steps along the way that might go our way or might not go our way and we have to be prepared for them. We constantly review our games and our performances as individuals and as a team. At times we’ve got to be open and honest with each other, you might not like, but it’s to win a World Cup and you’ve got to know that. We know the processes we’ve got to do to win a World Cup, the girls got a bronze in Canada and they said it was the hardest thing they’ve ever done so imagine now going for gold — it’s going to be difficult.”