‘She’s brilliant’: Mary Earps inspires girls to pick up goalkeeper gloves
Players and coaches including at England keeper’s former club in West Bridgford praise her impact on women’s football
During a football match at her primary school’s after-school club, a six-year-old Laura Setchfield decided she wanted to go in goal. “I don’t really know why, I just thought it looked fun to throw myself around,” she says. After a match of diving for the ball and cheers from her teammates when she saved it, Laura was hooked. “The instant I started playing I was like, yeah, this is definitely for me. I really, really enjoyed it and basically never looked back.”
Laura, now 17, is a goalkeeper in the women’s first team at West Bridgford Colts, the same club England’s keeper, Mary Earps, played for early in her footballing career. “It’s such a privilege to play for a team with that legacy,” Laura says. “To have had the world’s best goalkeeper having played for your club is quite an achievement.”
Earps’s remarkable performance in the Women’s World Cup – and being named the best Fifa women’s goalkeeper in the world in 2022 – has not just made her old club proud. “She’s brilliant,” says Jamie Greaves, the academy director of South London Girls Football Academy. “When goalkeepers are good, it then gives the defenders the confidence to be braver because they’re not thinking ‘just block the goal, just stay close to the goal’.
“England’s defenders were brave at times, and I think that stems from Earps giving those players’ confidence to be able to actually go out and be more proactive in front of her,’’ he says. “It’s opened the doors for people to see it is an exciting position.”
Earps played in all seven of England’s matches at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, and despite being crowned goalkeeper of the tournament she was mocked and criticised on social media.
“I’ve seen stuff on social media of people rallying for the goals to be made smaller and that makes me so angry … just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I can’t defend a goal that’s the same size as the men’s. We can do just as well if not better, which we’ve shown by winning the Euros,” says Laura.
Scott Clay, the women’s first team coach for West Bridgford Colts and a former goalkeeper, says goalies are usually subjected to more criticism, and even ridicule, because they are “easy targets” for blame when things do not go as planned. This is particularly true for women.
“Goalkeepers are the absolute last line of defence,” he says, “and it is sometimes a very thankless task … Women are told they’re not tall enough, to give them smaller goals. For me, the beautiful thing about football is that it’s so accessible to all. The goal is the goal, the pitch is the pitch, and everyone plays the same game.”
It would not be an exaggeration to say Earps has changed the landscape of goalkeeping, he says. “I can’t see how she won’t have inspired a new generation of young goalkeepers. There’s a lot of young girls out there that are asking parents to get them a pair of goalkeeper gloves now.”
When Laura’s team watched the final together, she says she felt “so nervous” for Earps, but marvelled at all the players’ technical abilities. “It must be so nerve-racking … being in goal is such a different position. You’re kind of more on your own, so the pressure she felt must have been immense.
“Watching them on the pitch is so inspiring. It makes us all want to improve so much. Mary Earps, she’s so skilled at everything that she does, even coming out to catch crosses. I was so inspired by that and I was like, ‘OK, I need to get better at this. I’m gonna watch her all the time and see how she does it, because the way that they all do everything is so perfect and so well practised,” she says.
Earps’s success has given female keepers the ability to say, “Look, we can be technically great if we have the proper training and facilities”, Laura says. “We’re still recovering from that 50-year ban.”
She adds: “When I started playing for RTCs [regional talent clubs], the boys got to train at the men’s training ground, whereas I’ve trained on a quarter of a pitch most of my life. At [Nottingham] Forest, I had to get changed in a shipping container with broken lights before a game.
“I hope that these issues kind of come further into the public eye so that there is more pressure and things start to change and more young girls are inspired to play.” Asked if she sees herself playing for the Lionesses in the future, she replies: “Hopefully one day. It would be so cool.”