Let me just get one thing off my chest before we start: I’ve never liked stepping out of my comfort zone.
So, picture the scene. I’m probably seven or eight years old and my dad’s just driven me to the local football club, California Girls, so that I can join in with their training session.
He pulls up, stops the car and turns to see me crying my eyes out. I didn’t want to get out, I didn’t want to leave him and I definitely didn’t want to train with the girls.
See, I’d grown up in a tiny little village in the north east of England called Hinderwell. It’s basically a fishing town in the middle of nowhere, with a population of about 2,000, but the sort of place where the people are outnumbered by sheep. You know the type: loads of fields, two pubs, a hairdresser and about a mile away from the local shop.
Anyway, I’d only ever played football with boys before. My mum had taken me to my first session at our local village green, which was just run by a man who’d volunteered to coach some of the local kids, and I was the only girl there.
In fact, when we turned up, there were only about five or 10 other kids there and because they were all boys, the coach asked my mum whether I’d be alright because they were playing quite rough. My mum told him I’d be fine so sure enough, when she came to pick me up an hour later, he actually apologised to her because it turned out I was rougher than most of the boys!
I can understand what he meant because I was like a little terrier back then. I’d play with the boys on that bobbly community field as much as possible, regardless of which animals were on it or how long the grass was, I just loved playing football.
So I guess that’s why, when I turned up to that California Girls training session, I was scared. It was a big step into the unknown for me to play with other girls and I didn’t know if I was going to enjoy it. Luckily, my dad noticed a boys’ team training next to them and persuaded the coach to let me join in so that I could settle into playing – and that’s how I ended up playing with the boys.
That’s just one example of me being an absolute nightmare when I’m in my comfort zone. Honestly, it’s shocking when I look back, especially when I think about how nervous I’d be when we faced up against another team. But my dad would always reassure me by saying the same thing.
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.”
And just like that, the nerves would disappear. One of my favourite moments was when I was playing in the boys’ league and the other team’s players and parents would laugh when they saw me turn up. My team-mates were great and used to tell the other team to laugh ahead of kick-off because they knew that as soon as the game kicked off, I’d be running rings around them.
Anyway, on this occasion they’d been really petty before the game, asking why a little girl is on the pitch. So I went into a 50/50 with the biggest boy on their team and all the parents went quiet because all they could hear was this loud scream followed by crying. I jumped back up to my feet to see him still on the floor, writhing around in pain. Don’t get me wrong, I never want to hurt anyone but that was a sweet moment. Who’s laughing now?
I played with the boys until I was 10 and then switched to Centre of Excellence football with Middlesbrough. I was a home girl, living in a little village and then all of a sudden I was off to this big town where I didn’t know anyone – and it wasn’t just for football either.
I remember that when I was old enough to go to secondary school, there were only three other people who left my primary school at the same time as well. I’d only ever known small classes before so when I went to this big school and saw all these other year groups, I was terrified. I didn’t know any of them and I didn’t know what they’d think of me, so that was a huge panic for me.
Obviously when you get used to things, it’s easier, but I’ve had to work on that confidence a lot. In the end my mum and dad pushed me to throw myself into as many school clubs or teams as possible. I became really outgoing when I got to know people and was even my head of year for sport as well, so I know I’m capable of making these steps out of my comfort zone. It’s just the whole idea of doing something different, experiencing different places and meeting different people. That’s always made me anxious.
Like when I moved on to Centre of Excellence football. The idea is that you play for your academy until 16 and then you move onto the senior team with older players. The year I was due to leave Middlesbrough’s Centre of Excellence, they actually changed the rules to take you up to 17 years old, giving me an extra year with everything I was used to there.
But – here’s the important bit – that’s when Sunderland were interested in me. Before they changed the rules, my mind would have been made up and I would have had to join Sunderland. But now I was in my comfort zone with people I knew and playing good football, so I didn’t want to leave even though I knew Sunderland would be a better option for me.
I argued with my mum and dad about it because they wanted me to go there to see if I liked it but I was just so stubborn about sticking with what I knew. I actually remember the day I left for Sunderland so clearly because I slept at the end of my mum’s bed – like a cat!
But as was always the case, they pushed me to try something different, I dragged my feet and dug my heels in, but as soon as I got into the session I absolutely loved it. Looking back on it now, if I hadn’t have gone there, I probably would have ruined a year of my career by staying in my comfort zone and not developing.
Instead, I went to Sunderland at 16 and I've been playing in the Women’s Super League ever since. The mental side of the game, playing against women while I was still a teenager, that was a huge step for me and a bit bewildering at the time. I was used to having people my age shout at me but here I had 28 year olds telling me that I needed to be better. That was the exposure I needed, though, and I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t pushed by the people closest to me.
That environment helped me to improve so much and by the time I left Sunderland, I’d scored 77 goals in 78 games, which meant other WSL clubs were starting to look at me. But you know what I’m like by now. When I’m comfortable, I’m comfortable.
I’d just turned professional, was enjoying my football and I’d signed a new contract at Sunderland, so I had no need or desire to leave the club. But at that time, the men’s side weren’t doing too well. Within two seasons they’d gone from the Premier League to League One and the women’s team got made part-time because of it.
That meant half the team were professional and the others had to get other jobs, so instead of everyone meeting up for training first thing, the full-time girls would train in the morning and then again in the evening when the others had finished work.
I knew I needed to play in a full-time environment, so that helped me make my mind up – and I was only ever going to join Arsenal because I’d always wanted to play for them. But me, the small-town girl moving to London? I was terrified and I really struggled during my first few months here because of it.
Carrying an injury when I joined obviously didn’t help, as for the first time I wasn’t able to use football as my escape, but it was also because I went straight into sharing a house with Jordan Nobbs, Katie McCabe and Jemma Rose. When I was at Sunderland, I had my own house in Newcastle which was only 90 minutes down the road from my family. All of a sudden that journey became four-and-a-half hours, it was no longer as easy for them to come to me and I was also sharing a bathroom with two other girls.
But my housemates were brilliant with me and made me feel so welcome, especially Jordan who I’ve known for years. Jord’s only a year older than me and I’ve always looked up to her. She played at the Middlesbrough Centre of Excellence when I was there, then she moved to Sunderland, I followed her, and now we’re both here at Arsenal. I always joke that I’m her biggest stalker, just trying to keep it on the downlow by following her through football!
We’re really close friends now and because she’d made the same journey as me down from the north east, she really helped me right from the start of my Arsenal journey, telling me that everything would be OK and that I was at the right club for me.
So I became more comfortable off the pitch but it wasn’t the same on it. Since I’d started playing football as a six-year-old, I’d always been a No 9 and that’s all I’d ever known. I actually remember finishing my first season here as our top scorer but then Viv turned up and all of a sudden, Beth was no longer the No 9.
Obviously Viv’s world-class so you can understand why she came straight in, but I also had a proven record up top so it was a big kick in the teeth to find myself sat on the bench. I wasn’t used to it at all because I had started pretty much every game since I joined my first team.
“Well… what do I do now?” I thought to myself. I’d moved my whole life down to London, taken a huge risk to step out of my comfort zone and it looked like it wasn’t going to work out. I kept doubting myself and questioned whether I was good enough for this level. But I wasn’t going to give up on it that easily.
I knuckled down as much as I could and I was adamant that I was going to prove Pedro Martinez Losa, our head coach at the time, wrong in training. I think I shot from everywhere and was scoring for fun, but he still wasn’t playing me. There was actually one session where I tried too hard to impress him, and ended up breaking my collarbone trying to get to a ball I was never going to reach.
I put myself out for another long and frustrating six weeks, but when I came back I knew that I just had to take whatever opportunity I was given. Little did I know how significant this next conversation would turn out to be.
“Beth,” Pedro said one day after training. “I want to try you as a winger.”
Cue the immediate eye roll from me. But then I thought about it and with the injuries we had, it was going to be my best chance of playing for Arsenal. So I got my head down and I’ve not looked back since.
I think the good thing for me is that I know what the No 9 likes. I know strikers love to run on to early crosses, so I think that’s where I had the upper hand on most wingers. I started to get regular gametime and when I realised the wing suited me, I guess I just created my own style.
Sure, I had to adapt my game a little bit and don’t get me wrong, I hated everything about the position at first, but I love it now and it’s given me the opportunity to play more than 100 games for the club and also represent my country, too.
The reality is that life is not always going to be easy, whatever you do. Whether that’s an individual problem or external factors that get in the way, you can only control your controllables. Even if it’s the simplest of things like just leaving the house and getting to school or work, that’s a step you’ve completed and you can move on to the next one.
It’s not unusual to think in that way. I used to simplify my life down to that extent because I was so apprehensive about taking the next step, about trying something new. It’s OK to be scared of the unknown but at the same time, you may miss out on a great thing if you don’t try it.
Things do get easier. I know a lot of people say it and at the time, you don’t believe them. You feel in the worst place possible and you think it’s never going to get better but trust me: it does and you will get your rewards in the end.
I stepped out of my comfort zone to leave the north east and I’ve ended up loving the last four years of my life at Arsenal. I’ve won the WSL, I’ve won a Continental Cup and I’ve got the desire to win so much more. I wouldn’t have been able to do that if I’d have just stayed where I was.
Moving to Arsenal is the best thing I’ve ever done and I’ve come such a long way off the pitch too, I’ve worked on my confidence a lot and it’s hard to think back to being that shy girl from Hinderwell who was terrified of meeting new people.
Now we’re at the point where if you read the matchday programme, you’ll see nobody wants to take me to the International Space Station because I won’t shut up and drive people up the wall!
I’d have never discovered that confidence without my friends, family and everyone around me pushing me to explore things outside my comfort zone. Looking back on everything I’ve been able to experience because of that, I’m so glad they did.
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