In Life at the Top, featured first in our official matchday programme, we find out more about our first-team stars and their careers to date. Next, we speak to England international Beth Mead.
When did you first want to become a footballer and why?
I would say that when I first started at Middlesbrough’s Centre of Excellence I started to take things a lot more seriously. I started playing when I was six and I fell in love with the game then, and I went to Boro when I was 12. I think things changed for me when I saw how they went about developing female players. Even training just a couple of times a week, I knew that I wanted to do this as a full-time job, so it probably started there and then.
Can you remember your first encounter with football?
I remember the first time I went, definitely. I lived in a little village called Hinderwell in North Yorkshire and there was a manager who volunteered to do Saturday mornings with the local boys. I always kicked a ball around at home and my mum took me along one day, and to be fair I think I just annoyed her because I probably had too much energy so she wanted to get rid of me for an hour or so! But she took me and the man was like, “The boys are quite rough, will she be OK?” Then he apologised when my mum came back and he said, “She was worse than most of the boys!” I just really enjoyed playing and being on the pitch.
Did you play any other sports as a youngster?
I’d say I was probably a PE teacher’s favourite pupil. I did everything really. I played netball but didn’t really enjoy not being able to move with the ball. I also did cross country and county-level hockey. In the end I had to choose between that and football and decided on football in the end.
Did you ever meet any famous players when you were younger?
The first person I can remember meeting is Kelly Smith, funnily enough. I remember we went to an Arsenal game and by the time we got there she’d already come off injured. I remember my dad saying, “Go and say hello and ask for an autograph,” but I didn’t dare so my dad walked me over and that was the first time I met Kelly. The next time I met her was when I came here.
What was the first team that you played for as a youngster?
They were called California Girls and basically the chairman of the club in Middlesbrough was from California Road, so the California bit came from there. I wish it was in California! I actually played for their boys team first, but then I played for the girls once it had been formed a few years later.
What position did you play as a youngster?
I’ve always been a striker, but later on in my career I’ve become a winger for England and for Arsenal. I guess the game has changed so there are fewer traditional centre forwards, but playing as a winger is also about scoring goals and being more involved in the play these days.
What’s the first proper game you can remember?
My first memory was playing for the under-10s and they asked me if I wanted to go and play for the under-12s, so obviously as a kid I’m like, “Oh yeah, let’s go and do it.” I ran out and maybe a minute into the game a big girl kicked the ball straight into my face. Then my nose started bleeding and I came off, so it wasn’t the best memory, but it’s nice to know that I was trusted to go up a couple of years earlier.
What was your best game as a youngster?
To be fair, when I used to play for California Girls we used to pick up 24-0 wins, so I was like, “Get in, I’ve scored 18 this week!” I can’t remember a specific game, but we played in a lot of tournaments.
Who were your early influences in football?
My dad was my earliest one. He was my coach from when I was 12 to 16, so he’s had a big influence on my career and he still does to this day.
What’s the best advice that you’ve ever received?
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” I was very small as a youngster, and still am, but as a kid there was a lot of girls who were a lot bigger than me.
Was there a key moment as a youngster that helped you to get where you are today?
The Centre of Excellence went up to under-16s and the year I was about to leave they changed it to under-17s, so I had a choice between going to play senior football for Sunderland Ladies or staying in my comfort zone for another year. I was undecided, but in the end I sensibly chose to go and play senior football for Sunderland.
What do you remember from the day that you signed pro?
The first time I signed pro was with Sunderland. I can’t remember the specific day, but I was with my family.
Do you remember your first-team debut?
My first-team debut for Sunderland was a 2-0 loss against Birmingham. That’s when the likes of Karen Carney and Laura Bassett were playing, so it was a tough game. My Arsenal debut was against Tottenham when we won 7-0 in the FA Cup. I came off the bench and scored a goal, so it wasn’t a bad start to my Arsenal career.
What would you consider to be your greatest moment in football?
I know we lost but playing in an FA Cup final at Wembley was amazing. Making my England debut was pretty amazing too.
And what would be your hardest moment in football?
Probably injury. I was away with England and I ruptured my ankle ligament. That was the first real major injury that I’ve had as a player. Luckily I was only out for about three months so it wasn’t as bad as things could have been, but injuries teach you a lot as a player.
What’s changed most about your game since signing as a pro?
I think when I signed pro for Sunderland I could see myself getting a bit fitter, and because I was on the ball every day my technical ability got a lot better, but it jumped massively when I joined Arsenal. I was playing against internationals at every level and unfortunately Sunderland didn’t have that, so my fitness, technical ability and tactical awareness has got much better.
What has surprised you most about being a professional footballer?
I don’t think there have been any surprises, really. I had quite a good taste at Sunderland and the men’s team were very good with us for a long time, so I was aware of what it was like to be a professional even before I came to Arsenal.
Is there anything that you could learn from your younger self on the pitch?
I think that I just didn’t worry as a kid. I just got on with it, I didn’t apologise to anyone or think too much – I just did it. Obviously you’ve got to be a little more wise when you’re older, but sometimes you just need to not worry and get on with it. I need to do that a little bit more in front of goal and just hit the ball, rather than thinking about this or that.
Do you still love the game just as much as when you were a kid? And how often do you watch it in your spare time?
I love it just as much. We say it’s the best job title in the world and yeah, I watch a lot of football. The other week we rushed back from our game just to watch the Manchester City versus Chelsea game on BT Sport! I love watching the men’s game because you can learn a lot from them, and I also love watching the women’s game so that I can see how they’re getting on and who we’re going to play against.
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