Six. It’s just a number to most people and probably wouldn’t mean anything to anyone watching from the sidelines, but to me and my family, that number is everything. Even if I did hate it at first.
It all goes back to when I was nine years old and picking up my first batch of Arsenal kit for the season ahead with the Centre of Excellence Under-10s. Everyone was desperate for the iconic numbers, like seven, eight, nine and 10, so you can imagine how gutted I was when I realised I’d been given six. I thought it was such a boring number to have!
My mum and dad saw how disappointed I was with the number I’d been given, so they went out and bought me some Nike IDs. They were black with a red tick, and had red stitching of my initials followed by the No 6. From that moment, I was sold. In fact, I still have those boots now.
I always kept my number as I progressed through the age groups here at Arsenal, and it ended up becoming my thing. But when I made my step up to the first team, Anouk Hoogendijk was wearing No 6 so I was given 14. To be honest, though, I would have taken 114 if that’s all that was left! I was so happy to have my name on the back of the shirt that I’d been wearing for as long as I could remember that I didn’t care what number it was.
But then after my first few seasons of settling in and trying to earn a starting spot, I felt the time was right to go back to wearing six when it became available last year. It’s so important to me because it’s a constant reminder of the journey I’ve been on and the good times I’ve had growing up playing for Arsenal.
I’ve been here for 12 years now and since then, Arsenal has always been a part of my family. It’s in our blood. Me and my grandma always went to watch the men’s team play because we had season tickets. Even something as simple as putting on the training kit, coming to work every day, being in these facilities - I know how lucky I am, especially to be in my position at my age. To be at a club where I am actually a fan, I’m just blown away all the time.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to represent England’s youth teams for most of my life, and this summer I made the step up to start my first senior game against Kazakhstan. Obviously I’d had a little taster against Russia about two months earlier when I came on for about six minutes, but making a full start and preparing the whole day knowing that I was playing for England in the evening was a really nice feeling for me.
I actually found out that I would be starting two days before the game, so 24 hours before the media and the rest of the world found out. I just had a few informal conversations with Phil Neville about being ready and stuff like that, but I think the plan was always to give us the opportunities if the girls qualified.
When the girls beat Wales, I texted my mum to warn her that something might be happening. Then, when it was officially confirmed, I texted my mum and my dad, telling them not to tell anyone, but by then everyone already knew!
Normally, my mum would be in the stands cheering me on. She’s a bit of a legend in our dressing room because she follows me to the end of the world, but unfortunately the flights to Kazakhstan were very expensive so she couldn’t make it. She’s hardly ever missed a game, though, so I’ll give her a pass on that one! My parents have never disappointed me or let me down, they’ve always been there.
My dad looked at flights to Kazakhstan too but couldn’t work it out and couldn’t get it off work. In the end I think they ended up looking for a dodgy stream because the BBC one wasn’t working for the game, but they’re persistent so they managed to find one. That sums them up I think, doing every they can to support me even when they’re not there. I appreciate everything they’ve done for me. They’ve lived and breathed it all. If I come home crying, if I come home happy, it all affects them.
They’ve had to bring me to all the training sessions, so they’re the first people that I would tell anything because it has the greatest impact on them. I’d like to think that at least what they’ve done for me is sort of all paying off for me right now.
In the end, the game itself went really well. Obviously I didn’t have too many expectations of myself because I didn’t know how emotional I’d be or anything, but I always have high standards. I wanted to come off the pitch knowing that I’d stuck to them and delivered for the team, and I think we did that by winning 6-0.
But for me the most special moment from that evening came in the dressing room before kick-off and it involved that number again: six.
When it comes to England, you’re prescribed a number based on where you’re playing. A right-sided centre back is five and the left side is six. On that evening, for my first senior start, I was due to be playing on the right side but for some reason I was given No 6.
Because she couldn’t make it to the game, my mum had given me a good luck card before I had flown to Kazakhstan, which she had told me to open if I was making my full debut. I opened it and the message read, ‘The card is your No 6, where you have learned your trade and become a great player. Remember that no matter which shirt you put on, you’re still wearing your heart, head and strength beneath’.
Pinned to the message? A playing card with an L in the middle and the No 6 in each corner.
You see, a number may only seem like a small thing but in my family it represents all the hard work, dedication and sacrifices we’ve made to get to where we are today. That’s why, for me, that note from my mum was the loveliest gift I could have received.
Well, actually, it’s the joint-loveliest. I also have a poem that my dad wrote for me a few years ago… but that’s a story for another day.
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