We talk to Gabby George, the 20-year old taking on the world for Everton Ladies FC, and get a glimpse of her burning desire to turn women’s football around.
Gabrielle George has had quite the year. The 20-year-old defender from Manchester became Everton Ladies’ first-ever professional player this summer, and very recently received her debut senior call-up to the England Lionesses for their World Cup qualifying fixtures. Back in May 2017, young Gabby George was still in the second tier of the Women’s Super League (WSL 2) with the Blues. Then, in quick succession, Everton Ladies won the Spring Series 2, and successfully bid to replace the recently-folded Notts County in the WSL 1. An immediate shift to full-time professional status marked the return to the top flight for this Merseyside club.
For Gabby, who started every fixture that season, and has continued to even now, this is the fulfilment of a long-cherished dream – being able to call herself a professional footballer.
“I’m looking forward to this being my only ‘job’. I think it’s gonna help me get a lot fitter, faster and sharper!”
Nine-year-old Gabby joined the boys for their kickabouts during school breaks and decided she wanted to play more. She asked her father to find her a local team, and she credits the English grassroots for being a good starting point, despite its issues, and for helping develop her love for the game. It’s a love that has refused to crumble under the weight of prejudice, history and juggling another job just to be able to play football.
“You would be there all day and play lots of matches. Then in between, there used to be activities that we could do like bouncy castles and things. It was a lot of fun!”
Back then, it was all about being able to play the game she loved as much as possible. Later, she played with Blackpool girls for a year, before successfully trialling for the Manchester United Centre of Excellence (CoE), aged 14. Gabby, who is Jesse Lingard’s cousin, is unsurprisingly a big fan of the club. But there was another reason driving her decision.
“I played for them [Blackpool] for a year, but it was a bit of a travel for my mum to take me.”
It’s hard enough for parents to organise their kids’ after-school activities, without it being something like girls football, all those years ago. Family support, then, is non-negotiable for success. Whether it’s Gabby’s father who was her first coach, and still takes her out to the local field for training whenever she’s home, or Gabby’s mother, her designated driver for training, who sometimes slept in the car because she was on night shifts. “My family have always supported me and still play a big part in me being the person and player I am today,” she says. “They try to come to every single game, home and away, and have always supported me.” When I ask her about inspirations, there is no hesitation.
“My mum and dad are 100% people to look up to. It is a difficult question since there are so many [inspirations], but my parents are at the top of that list.”
It was with the support of her parents that she decided to move to the Merseyside outfit at age sixteen. By then, the forward had been shifted to a centre-back position by the coaches at the CoE, a choice she has “never looked back from”. But Manchester United, as much as it was local and a perfect fit, have no girls team. Two years earlier, Simone Magill had moved all the way from Magherafelt, Northern Ireland to Everton because she believed in their policy about their youth players. Gabby would share the belief and undertake a similar journey. It’s a decision she doesn’t regret, despite their relegation to WSL2 at the end of her first season.
“I chose Everton because I believed it was the place that was going to develop me, and give me opportunities to play senior football at a young age. At the time, I was 16/17, and he [manager Andy Spence] believed in me to throw me in straight away in WSL1,” Gabby recalls. “Not many young centre-backs get the chance.”
This included the 2014 FA Cup final against the Arsenal Ladies, a game that makes Gabby’s list of favourite memories in the blue and white shirt despite their eventual loss. After a whirlwind first season, things settled down somewhat. Even though they couldn’t get promoted straight away, Gabby has only gone from strength to strength. A regular starter and consistent performer for the Ladies, she has also represented England at the U-17, U-19, U-20 and U-21 levels, and played in one U-20 World Cup and two European finals (U-17 and U-19). And now that they are back in WSL1, competing with the top teams, Gabby’s enjoying every minute of being a full-time professional footballer.
In just three short years, the youngster has experienced more than many of her peers, but you get a sense of maturity and a firm, rational head on her shoulders – and Gabby will need all her wits about her with the sweeping, significant changes planned for the women’s game in the UK over the next few years. These are exciting times, with increased TV and media coverage, more funding and investment, and active planning by the higher powers.
One hopes that stories like Gabby’s are just the beginning, especially with the planned Women’s Super League fully-professional top tier from the 2018-19 season. The player herself believes that there is much potential for improvement, many areas where numbers are bound to increase because of scope and untapped markets.
“I think the women’s game in the UK has improved so much over the last few years. We now have full-time teams, and train quite a lot at the same training ground as the men, using the same world-class facilities – it can only get better for us!”
The point, “just like the men”, the life that their male counterparts at the top level have been living for training ground it is, to drive years. Something that should have been available to women footballers long before now. Which drives my next question. Weren’t there moments, growing up, I ask her, when she seriously considered the question of what, if not football? Gabby’s quick to point out that her passion for the game, for the simple act of kicking the ball on a field with 21 others, was so strong that it sustained her through the doubts and the challenges. But also that she doesn’t really know what she might have done without it. “I’ve loved football too much to imagine life without it!” she laughs. “But maybe I would go to University and be a social worker. I was quite interested in that. Or business.” Either way, that’s not something she has to worry about anymore. All Gabby is focused on now is her game, whether for Everton or England, and giving her best to help her teammates win. If all the signs are to be believed, UK women’s football is on the cusp of something defining, and the players to come will have role models like Gabby and Simone, who themselves have so much ahead of them.
As Gabby says, “I can’t wait to carry on!”