A telepathic understanding between players can make a world of difference and considering the depths of their connection it is safe to place Notts County Ladies and England international duo Sophie Bradley and Jess Clarke in this category.
Earlier this year, it was announced that Lincoln Ladies would be rebranded as Notts County Ladies as part of changes to the FA Women’s Super League for 2014. It was a headline-making detail of the league’s restructuring, alongside the decision to promote Manchester City to the newly introduced top tier and demote Doncaster Rovers Belles.
Lincoln Ladies had been around since 1995 so it was not a move without its controversy. Big plans are however now being implemented for Notts County LFC and the first two players to re-sign with the club are England defender Sophie Bradley and her international counterpart and winger Jess Clarke.
They are each 24 years old and won the 2010 FA Women’s Premier League Cup together while with Leeds Carnegie. Sophie was the captain as they lifted the trophy following a 3-1 win over Everton at Rochdale’s Spotland and her bond with her teammate has only strengthened in the years since. They are known as ‘Zig and Zag’ and their memories as best friends include some welcome relief in a tough situation thanks to music, as Sophie explains.
“This is a bit of an embarrassing one but me and Jess Clarke used to play Mariah Carey ‘We Belong Together’ a lot. It just brings up memories of listening to it from the ice baths!”
Although still relatively early in her career, Sophie can point to playing experience at a World Cup, European Championships and the Olympic Games. In those three tournaments there have been some considerably pulsating situations. Great Britain’s 1-0 win over Brazil in front of a crowd of 70,584 at Wembley in the group stage of the 2012 Olympics will live long in the memory and Sophie was at the heart of the defence alongside captain Casey Stoney.
In addition to the stature that comes with 116 caps for England, Stoney is undoubtedly a key spokesperson and figure for the women’s game in this country. She was the first female representative named on the PFA’s management committee and as she will describe later, Sophie has benefited greatly from her.
During their time at Lincoln, there have been many games to prepare for and this also means plenty of team playlists to sample! Sophie names the players who were in charge of the music for the Lady Imps this year as well as recalling how girl power turned out to be more of a charm than ever.
“Last season it was KB – Karen Bardsley – who’s now gone to Manchester City. Also, CC – Carla Cantrell – who I hope will be staying this season, so a mix between those two.
“I think the most-played song in the changing room last season was Robin Thicke (‘Blurred Lines’) but the year before last it was actually the Spice Girls. I put it on and we went and won the game so because I’m superstitious it had to stay!”
In 2010, Sophie made the first of her 26 appearances for England in the 4-0 win over Austria. It was also the year in which she signed for Lincoln, setting the ball rolling for a memorable three years. By her own admission, she particularly hates to lose and that is an instantly desirable quality for Notts County to make the most of.
The preparations for 2014 are underway as the team have returned to training and that added edge of motivation is invaluable at such a time. The way that music can affect a whole host of different moods for players is a huge area of the interviews on here. Sophie gives a look at what ticks the boxes for her and also a glimpse into what doesn’t.
“I’d say Rihanna’s my favourite artist and I’ve been to see her live a few times. I like listening to all different kinds of music, it depends really.
“In the gym I like upbeat songs but the types I’m not into are rock and heavy metal. I think the first CD I bought was a 50 Cent album (‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’’).
“To be honest, Lucy Staniforth, who was with us at Lincoln and then went to Bristol, I remember her putting a song on and it was one that had to be turned off! I think it was Tulisa ‘Young’.”
Midfielder Staniforth’s early career with Bristol Academy was hit with a big setback when she sustained a serious knee injury during the FA Women’s Cup final defeat to Arsenal in May. The 21-year-old is now back in training and besides her eye for goal she can hold a note it appears. Sophie had no hesitation in mentioning her when discussing the best of her career teammates for vocal ability.
“Lucy Staniforth again. At one of our presentations she sang and was really good.
“Also, Jess Clarke is a great singer when she shows that confidence.”
Sophie’s bond with Jess Clarke is obvious and they committed their future to Notts County for the next two years. In the aforementioned FA Women’s Premier League Cup final of 2010 there were players in the Leeds line-up who Sophie has gone on to feature alongside again at club and international level. Managing the team that day was Rick Passmoor, who is now the man in charge of Notts County.
Sophie was with the club’s Centre of Excellence and also represented Nottingham Forest. She is from the city and has said previously that she would miss her family too much if she was to take her club football abroad.
The relocation to Nottingham allows the women’s team to be tied in with Notts County’s heritage and to have access to facilities like the 20,229 capacity at Meadow Lane. The team are full-time now and supporters have the chance to see how the players do justice to that billing with adult season tickets on sale for just £20 until December 31st.
A former captain of England Under-19s, Sophie had a lot to enjoy about playing for Lincoln but the move to her native surroundings is something she is extremely pleased with from a personal standpoint. This step forward for the club is also indicative of the ever-developing women’s game in her view.
“I think the main thing is my family and friends can now come and watch the home games easily – my mum, my dad, my brother and little sister and also my grandparents. I’ve got grandparents in Skegness so whether they’ll be able to come I’m not sure but the ones in Nottingham can.
“My old school mates as well because usually the only chance they’d get to see me is if we were on the telly. After the Olympics there was a massive rise in attention in women’s football and we’re now getting paid to play.
“Before, you’d get paid but it was almost nothing so you were paying to play really. Now the players can see it as a job and put everything into training.
“That means a lot more goes towards the skill side and that increases the quality of women’s football and women’s sport as a whole.”
No longer having to travel to home games is a big plus point for Sophie but the change in setting for her club also impacts positively upon her working arrangements. Even women’s players who have performed in stadiums in front of tens of thousands have had to support themselves with other jobs just to make a living and Arsenal Ladies manager Shelley Kerr discussed that in her interview on here recently. There was also former Australia defender Thea Slatyer, who detailed in her interview for this site how she combined her playing days with a simply astonishing CV away from football.
Sophie has told in the past how she works in the care home that her parents run so how heavily involved is she now and what else does time allow for when her football responsibilities temporarily ease off?
“I’m still doing it and I’m able to go in a bit more and see the residents now with being in Nottingham. I sit and chat with them from day to day and a lot of them are Nottingham Forest supporters so they ask me why I play for Notts County and not Forest!
“The care home work is an area I want to come back to in the future after football once I’ve got the added qualifications I need. Other than that, I love socialising and I absolutely love shopping.”
After beginning playing at 13, Sophie’s route to the highest level has been made possible thanks to her natural ability and commitment but also the right guidance from various sources. The most recent World Cup, in Germany in 2011, was a breakthrough of significant proportions for her.
Sophie came on as a late substitute for captain Faye White in the 1-1 draw with Mexico before doing the same in the 2-1 win over New Zealand in Dresden. Although she did not feature in the quarter-final defeat on penalties to France, Sophie played the whole of the last group game as England beat eventual winners Japan 2-0.
It goes without saying that Euro 2013 was a disappointment for the team and an exit at the group stage was far from the desired outcome. With more widespread interest than ever before it ultimately signalled the end of head coach Hope Powell’s 15-year tenure. Last Friday, it was announced that Mark Sampson, who guided Bristol Academy to 2nd in the 2013 FA WSL, had been appointed to the position. The 31-year-old signed a four-year contract and a Head of Elite Women’s Development is also said to be a priority for the FA.
Hope Powell’s former assistant Brent Hills had been in caretaker control for the first four World Cup qualifiers and England are top of the group with a 100 per cent start. Mark Sampson fostered an excellent team ethic and atmosphere while at Bristol and Sophie is eager to be part of the new era.
“I’m really looking forward to working with him. He’s done really well at Bristol and obviously last year they got to what was basically a play-off on the last day with Liverpool for one of them to win the title.”
A tangible sense of optimism surrounds women’s football in England at present and Sophie is one of the reasons why. Euro 2013 was certainly sub-standard as the Lionesses fell at the first hurdle despite talk from some circles of bettering the 2009 runners-up spot. However, when talking about those who have afforded her the most valuable help in her career Sophie firstly picked out her former national team mentor.
“I’d say Hope Powell, even in training with the little things to help the technical side of my game and give me a confidence boost. If you look at my passing ability now it’s improved a lot and she was good at showing me all the things I’d done.
“There was Mo Marley I worked with for a few years with the Under-19s and Under-20s. Gary Cresswell is someone who coached me since I was 10 and still watches my games now.
“He was the main reason I got into the England set-up after speaking to the scouts so I have a lot to thank him for. The main people have been my mum and dad though in supporting me and never letting me get ahead of myself.”
From the ice bath soundtrack to her hopes and feelings in football and life, we have had a behind-the-curtain look into one of England’s brightest female players. All that remains now is to give Sophie the hardest question of the lot!
In this regular final poser, the player is asked to place themselves into a 5-a-side line-up and to select their four best career teammates to join them. Here is Sophie’s team and she begins with a keeper whose sense of humour she will miss at club level next season.
“I’ll have to go with KB (Karen Bardsley) in goal – she’s England’s number one and she’s just a cat! Last season in training at Lincoln unless you put it right in the top corner she’d pull a save out.
“At the back – Casey (Stoney). I’ve played with her for a few years and she’s really helped me.
“We’ve got a good understanding on the pitch and we get on off it too which is always nice. In midfield, I think I would have to go with Fara Williams.
“She’s got quick feet and can knock it around well so I think she’d be really good. Up front – Ellen White, purely because she’s a natural finisher.
“She’s still young, she’s got bags of energy and I’ve played 5-a-side with her before so she’s in.”