Talking England: Beth Mead

The FA

“I always knew I was talented.”

Beth Mead is revealing to the journey she took to becoming a professional footballer — a journey which started many moons ago as a young girl growing up in North Yorkshire. “When I was younger, I didn’t have many opportunities from where I lived,” admits Mead. “I just trained at a volunteered Saturday morning session with the local boys in my village. At the time, I knew I really enjoyed playing football. When I started, I was six years old, so I guess at that time you just enjoy playing and you don’t really think too much into the future. But as I got older, I played with the boys a bit more. I guess I was at a good level to be competing against boys of a similar age. So, I kind of knew that I had a good ability, but you never know how far that’s going to get you. I would say I just enjoyed my football at the time.

“When I got to the age of 16 when I was playing for Sunderland, it was becoming a little bit more high-profile and teams were starting to become professional. I was like: ‘I could make a living doing this’. I’m lucky enough to be doing that, but my younger ages were just about my enjoyment for the game. As I got older, I started thinking a bit about it.”

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The Arsenal and England star made her name in the Middlesbrough academy and then as a younger member of the Sunderland senior team. Back then, it was all about scoring goals. “Since I ever played, I was always a No9 — from the age of six to when I went to Arsenal at the age of 21. So my trade was as a striker. It came about when [Vivianne] Miedema signed for Arsenal — obviously, an unbelievable No9. I would have liked to have given her a run for her money, but the manager said that I had good traits as a winger, and he wanted to try me there. It really suited me there. It actually got me my England call-up in the end. I do believe things happen for a reason; apparently that reason was for me to play on the wing. I always thought that I had an advantage over some wingers that I knew what a striker enjoyed and liked from their wingers. I adapted my game, maybe it was one of the best things that I did for my future career.”

“There were a lot of frustrated people”

Beth Mead on the 2019/20 women’s season being cancelled due to the pandemic

As a prolific goalscorer from a young age despite her nimble frame, Mead spent eight years representing England at various youth age-groups before making her senior debut in 2018. That first senior cap is what drove her on during those formative years. “That’s what you dream of, being in the youth age groups: to play for the women’s senior team. You look up to [those] players. I guess that’s what I was aiming to do. Whether you did it was a different story. I have my first ever England [youth] shirt at home, framed with the team-sheet list on. It’s actually interesting to see how many girls have either played in or made it to the senior level. I think from that team, maybe three players have made it [and] played for the senior team — including me. It’s an honour and privilege to be where I am; it’s a select few players who play for their country. So, I guess it was the aim — and all [those] girls’ aims that were on that team-sheet. But whether it becomes a reality is a different story sometimes.”

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That maiden senior cap finally came in April 2018 against Wales at St Mary’s. A 22-year-old Mead was a year into her Arsenal career, having been snapped up after six impressive years at Sunderland. “To be in the squad was unbelievable, for me. I was lucky enough that Phil [Neville] called me up. I trained, kept my head down, and I was lucky enough that Phil gave me my debut against Wales.

“It was a little bit of a bittersweet moment. It was a really proud day for me, but at the same time, we’d just drawn with Wales in the qualifiers and the girls were disappointed to our standards. So, it was a weird one. The girls were happy for me and proud, but at the same time we were a bit gutted about the result, so it was a weird feeling at the time, but one that I’m very proud of. In front of 30,000 people at a Premier League stadium wasn’t bad to top it off, either!”

Mead agrees with the suggestion that 2019 was her breakthrough year for the Lionesses. “I think the SheBelieves [Cup] was a good kickstart for me in that year. I got given my chance in the Brazil game and took it. After that, I found my rhythm for the England team. I was rewarded with games after that, and I guess I had to keep that standard now. That was my standard. I was lucky enough to do that and get chances to play in the World Cup and try to show that in the biggest stage of women’s football. I would definitely say my best year so far was 2019 in an England shirt. A year that I was proud of, and very honoured to be a part of.”

England won the SheBelieves Cup for the first time in 2019, defeating Brazil and Japan and drawing with the United States. Mead scored in both wins, including the winning goal from an incredible angle against the Brazilians. It’s been a hot topic of conversation ever since whether that thunderous goal was supposed to be a shot or a cross. She puts the debate to bed. “It’s funny; within [those] two weeks, I scored two crosses.

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“The Brazil game I was disappointed not to be starting. It was probably a bit of pent-up energy that [meant] I actually hit that ball. That one was actually a shot. If someone was going to get their head on it, it was going to be pretty hard! I’m glad it went in the back of the net. That one was meant. My one a couple of weeks later for Arsenal against Liverpool hit a great bobble and went top corner, so I can’t claim that one as much. But my one in SheBelieves was definitely meant and it was probably a bit of pent-up energy that helped it get there.”

After the SheBelieves Cup jubilation and the World Cup disappointment had abated, the COVID-19 pandemic caused elite football to stop. However, when it returned within three months of suspension, only men’s football came back straight away. Mead understands why that upset a lot of supporters and players in the women’s game.

“There’s a lot of opinions around it,” she says. “I get it in terms of money — that’s always the biggest factor. If the men were able to do it, why weren’t the women? [It] was disappointing that our league was ended so quickly, because on one end there was us fighting for a Champions League place which we didn’t get this season and you never know within this league what could have happened. At the other end of the scale was [the fact that] Liverpool actually got relegated and maybe could have actually saved themselves in that season. I think it was a very frustrating year for a number of reasons and teams. Even [for] the likes of [Manchester] City, who wanted to chase that title and didn’t get that chance. There were a lot of frustrated people.”

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And by the time England’s Lionesses finally reappeared against Northern Ireland after a year out of action due to the pandemic, they had a new manager. For England and Manchester United man Phil Neville had left to take charge of David Beckham’s new American franchise Inter Miami. In came Hege Riise as interim manager. But does Mead think England improved under Neville’s stewardship?

“I do believe we did. I think we played a different way with him. It’s always nice to have a manager that has experienced football at the top level and is also a player, because they understand the demands and the expectation, but also what you need as a player which was always great. I think Phil was great on and off the pitch and — for me individually — made me a better person and a better player. Again, he was the one who gave me my chance to play at senior level, so I do owe a lot to him. Obviously, I was sad to see him go. But sometimes changes are good. Hopefully, with Hege, and Sarina [Wiegman] coming in, we can do [well] in the lead up to the Euros.”

“I was sad to see him go, but sometimes changes are good”

Beth Mead on Phil Neville’s departure as England manager

Conversation turns to the elephant in the room: Mead’s hopes of being included in Team GB’s final 18 for the Tokyo Olympics where it’s since been announced that Riise and her squad will face Canada, Chile and hosts Japan. Mead — like almost every other England player who has been asked about the Olympics in the past year — shows mixed emotions, but above all else a huge will to be there and experience football at the Olympic Games.

“It’s an exciting but nerve-racking time as a player. 18 places between four nations is not a lot of chances to get in that squad. Individually, I want to be hitting form at a good time now — I guess I need to be playing my best football. I’m sure all the other girls are thinking that, but [that] makes us better as an England team and a Team GB team. The best players that deserve to be there will be there. Not many people can say they’ve gone to an Olympics; the thought of it makes me excited. But, yeah, there’s a long way to go before that selection process takes place, so as an individual, I’ve got to work hard and keep my head down and do the best that I can to give Hege a headache [for] the selection.

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“There are going to be a lot of very devastated players in this coming summer,” Mead acknowledges. “It’s the harsh reality. But we’ve all got to be playing at our best level to be in that team of 18. It’s exciting to think about the team, but individually it’s quite nerve-racking in the thought that you might not be going.”

Even further forward, the Arsenal star looks forward to a European Championships on home soil next year. “It’s an exciting few years coming up — an Olympics followed by the Euros, and then a World Cup again comes around. So, it’s exciting times. New beginnings: a new chance to impress a new manager — a fresh slate. An exciting but nerve-racking time; you don’t know if the new manager is going to like your style as a player. Regardless of if you go to the Olympics or not, a lot people will be working hard in the background to — say, they don’t go to the Olympics — be thinking about September to try to impress the new manager. It’s going to be an interesting time, especially for myself, getting a new manager at club and country. It’s going to be quite an exciting time ahead.”

If she can keep scoring, assisting, and pushing on, Beth Mead will be very much at the forefront of it all.

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