When Ella Toone enters ‘The Dugout,’ a room on the top floor at the National Football Centre within the confines of St. George’s Park to sit with the media just four days before the biggest game of her career so far, she is in what is now typically happy, smiley, and very much chilled-out mode.
“What a crowd!” she laughed as she came to sit down with the writers ready to question what was once a quiet and shy youngster, but now still just 22 years of age has very much come out of her shell with the spotlight shining on her, whether it be in front of the national media or her own personal social media channels.
“I really struggled with interviews when I was younger, I dreaded them,,” she admitted. “I still am quite shy when I don’t know people, it takes me a while to come out of my shell. Being around older girls and the likes of Jill Scott, they just want you to be you so it really helps.
“I think throughout my career I’ve got much better at things like this because it’s part and parcel of football. I think I’ve realized that I just want to get my personality out there a bit more and inspire the next generation of young girls and boys; I want them to know that they can just be themselves.”
Toone speaks not just like someone who has now had the influence of someone like midfield teammate Scott rubbing off on her, but as if she was as experienced as Scott herself.
In reality, the Manchester United star is 13 years behind her former city rival, and while Scott is heading to her tenth major tournament, this is just Toone’s second, and her first with the Lionesses.
She has, however, seen and done plenty in her short career so far. After breaking through into the first team on the blue side of Manchester as a teenager, Toone rejoined the club she grew up at when United entered the FA Women’s Championship back in 2018.
Toone’s prominence as a goal-getting midfielder in the second division carried over to the top tier after promotion at the first time of asking, and things have only gone from strength to strength since.
The 22-year-old is in the public eye more than ever now, playing for a worldwide brand in United, as well as becoming a regular in the England squad under Sarina Wiegman, something she believes has helped her embrace everything that comes with it off the field.
“I think it helps. At City, it was amazing and I think it improved me as a person and a player, but going back to Manchester United and having that belief from Casey [Stoney, then United head coach] I think really helped me as a person and a player. Her belief on the pitch just made me want to go out there and enjoy football and show what I could do.
By her giving that belief in me, it made me believe in myself a lot more and gave me that confidence to just go out there and perform. It obviously helped coming back home and being around people who really believed in me and wanted me to do well. That step in my journey was a tough one, but probably the best one I made.”
Toone grew up on the outskirts of the city in Tyldesley, which is technically in neighboring Wigan and close to where United and Toone currently play their home games at Leigh Sports Village, though Toone’s newfound quick wit and sense of humor once again shines through in her insistence that she’s more Mancunian than her birthplace would suggest.
“I’ve got a Manchester postcode, but the girls take the mick out of me and say I’m from Wigan. but I’m not, so put that in there!”
Wherever she’s from, Toone is United through and through, despite making her senior debut across the city under the guidance of Nick Cushing at Manchester City.
It’s not just Toone either. United has been bred into her since she was a child and after coming through the United academy system before being forced to leave for the lack of a first team at the time she turned 16, there’s going to be plenty of recognizable faces cheering her on in the stand when Wednesday’s opener against Austria and Old Trafford comes around.
“My uncle has bought a box with eight of them. I bought a box for my dad, so there’s eight in there! I had four and then I bought 16, so there’s a lot of us,” she laughed.
She once again breaks into a laugh when asked if her role as a United player stretches to tickets for men’s games at Old Trafford, joking she has a “little source” at the club who goes as far as getting her tickets for away games, admitting she “loves it,” but she won’t be telling her teammates who it is, because “it’s just me.”
Toone is more serious and thoughtful when it comes to the serious business of what Wednesday will actually mean for the whole squad, even if the connection to Old Trafford is a more poignant one for her personally.
She is young enough to be excited and fearless, but old enough and experienced enough now at this level to understand it is about three points and three points only, as the lengthy buildup ends and the eyes of the nation fully focus on whether the Lionesses really have what it takes to go all the way to Wembley in just under four weeks time.
“For me personally it’s massive,” Toone admitted. “Growing up supporting Manchester United and having the opportunity to play for Manchester United at Old Trafford was so special and a moment that I’ll never forget. And then obviously now, stepping out for England at our home Euros, opening the tournament at Old Trafford, is going to be amazing.
“I think for me it’s just excitement, I’m just so proud to be able to go there and represent England at a major tournament at my home stadium. I just can’t wait and I’ll enjoy every moment of it.
“When we step out onto the pitch in front of that massive crowd, there might be a few nerves, but I always think we play every single day, we do what we love, so we will thrive off those nerves if there is any, but for me right now, I just can’t wait.”
She admits it’s business as normal ahead of the opening game and that a footballer’s love of “routine” is vital in their preparations, despite it being one of the biggest occasions even the most experienced in the squad will have faced, let alone a player who only made her senior England debut last year.
Toone could almost be forgiven for pulling rank when it comes to her experiences of playing at Old Trafford, having done so twice in her time at United, although she is keen to make it third-time lucky when it comes to finding the back of the net. She admits she has dreamt of scoring in front of the Stretford End.
“I hope so. I remember the last one — I should have scored at the Stretford End and done the knee slide, but hopefully this time! If not, as long as the girls play well and the team play well and we put on a good performance, then we’ll all be happy.”
With the first game Toone played at the stadium being behind closed doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, last season’s win over Everton was watched by a little more than 20,000 supporters.
That, though, will be nothing compared to the 70,000-plus expected for Wednesday’s opening game of the tournament. And that’s something Toone admits she could never have imagined as a child going to the stadium that against Austria will feel like home.
“No way. When I was a kid and growing up, it was hard, there weren’t many role models, there wasn’t much to watch on TV. But now the opportunities that those young girls and boys have to watch women’s football and to be a part of it is massive. The growth of the game has been amazing and I’m grateful to be a part of the growth and we only want to keep inspiring more and more girls and boys to get involved.”
With eight forwards and several attacking midfielders, including Toone, at Wiegman’s disposal, it feels very much as though almost nobody is guaranteed of their starting spot when it comes to what the 2017-tournament-winning head coach will do, and it will at the very least keep her opponents guessing just as much as it will her own players.
Toone believes the impact of the substitutes in all three of the team’s warm-up games shows the “amazing depth” Wiegman has to work with at the top end of the pitch, but between her form at United and her form with the national team, Toone has done everything she can to give herself a shot at a starting role on Wednesday night.
After a year that started with a call-up to the Tokyo Olympics last summer and has ended with a spot in the squad for her home European Championships, Toone admits she has had to take a step back at times and take in what she has achieved, and continues to achieve.
“Sometimes I do sit back and reflect,” she said. “Obviously, I never expected to go to the Olympics, so that for me was massive and gave me that belief and confidence. Then I had a great year at club [level]. I just realized that you’ve got to go out there and enjoy your football and that’s what I did and the goals came and the assists came.
“Sarina gave me a lot of chances to play and to start games for England. I managed to score a few goals there as well. I think the dream for me, and since the tournament came about, was always to be a part of this squad. I knew that I had to have a good season because of the talent in the squad and the talent in England. To have been selected for this tournament is massive for me and I just want to go out there and enjoy every minute of it.”
Whatever happens over the next four weeks, the previously shy and reserved girl from Tylde– er, Manchester, has done good.