“Nobody cares how you save the ball, you just have to save it,” Mary Earps says as she reflects upon the European Championship.
The Manchester United shot-stopper hasn’t been out of the spotlight since she helped the Lionesses to be crowned champions of Europe last Summer, excelling for both club and country ever since.
In a new documentary released on Sky entitled ‘Lionesses: How Football Came Home’ Earps is joined by five of her teammates as they relive that history making moment and dive deeper into their own stories of how they came to be on that podium.
It has been well documented, before the tournament even began, that Earps’ comeback-kid story is an inspiration to many but through the documentary we realise just how inspirational and instrumental she is to the rest of the team too.
Earps reflects upon her first taste of the beautiful game, playing for West Bridgford Colts under the watchful eye of her father.
It was here where she found her shot-stopping skills, “Everybody takes turns in goal. I was so bored, I wanted to be in amongst the action.”
“She continued, “I was doing cartwheels and my dad was standing by the goal.”
West Bridgford Colts was a mixed boys and girls team and Earps soon stood out from the rest of the team when she took her turn between the sticks.
“There was a penalty against us, I was a young girl who wasn’t afraid of diving around in the mud, I wasn’t afraid of the ball and so I saved it,” she remembers. “That’s how the great love affair started.”
On her social media, Earps has continued to share snaps of her family coming to watch her games and she says that her parents were always behind her. “My parents were really supportive of everything I wanted to do,” she said.
Known now as being the player who’s first out to training and last to return to the dressing room after a match, this work ethic has been instilled into Earps from a young age. “I was doing homework in the car, getting up really early, going to bed really late.”
She made her England debut on 11 June 2017, in a 4-0 victory over Switzerland but she never quite fully established herself in the squad.
In 2019, whilst still at Wolfsburg, she was called up for the Women’s World Cup in France under manager Phil Neville but didn’t play a single game.
Her teammate and now Captain, Leah Williamson, suffered the same fate. “We’ve been through that journey together. She didn’t play in France and when I looked in her eyes, I saw the pain and she felt the same for me.”
It’s hard for a goalkeeper, only one can play at a time and you want to stay consistent with the choice if you can throughout a tournament but after working so hard, it was gutting for Earps to have to watch each game from the sidelines.
England teammate, Nikita Parris, who now lines up alongside Earps at Manchester United said, “She’s been through so much as a football player, she’s had really high highs and gone through really low lows.”
Even more heartbreaking was when she was dropped from Neville’s squad altogether and began to accept that perhaps her international career was over.
When Sarina Wiegman took over Earps was given another chance and not only worked her way back into the squad but cemented herself as England’s number one.
“She doesn’t mess around, there’s no fluff with Mary,” Williamson smiles.
Throughout the tournament, various players stole the limelight, individuals that stood out and more often than not, particularly when the goals were coming in thick and fast, it was those in front of her that everyone was talking about.
In the opening sold-out game against Austria, a nervy start for England ended in a 1-0 victory thanks to a scrappy goal from the eventual Golden Boot winner, Beth Mead. But the scoreline only told half the story.
The first ten minutes, England were pinned back in their own half. Earps had to be switched on and alive to the danger.
Although Mead’s goal in the 17th minute settled the side, it didn’t stop Austria from attacking. With 12 minutes left on the clock, only Earps could deny them their equaliser after Dunst’s powerful strike saw Earps at full stretch, push it wide.
“There’s not a lot you can do when you see the ball flying past you, you just have to hope she’s going to be there, and she was.” Williamson said.
Even in their most convincing victory, their 8-0 thrashing of Norway, it was Earps who laid the foundations. The opening ten minutes once again saw England’s goal peppered by the opposition.
After riding out the storm England kicked on, but her teammates at 6-0 up at half-time had a stark warning for Earps.
She recalls, “I remember Bronzey turned round to me and said, ‘It doesn’t mean nothing without the clean sheet.’”
In the quarter finals, the Lionesses found their first real test as they conceded and went behind for the first time in the tournament.
“I hate conceding a goal, regardless of whether it’s a friendly or a European Championship final,” Earps said of the moment they found themselves behind.
“I always want to keep clean sheets but that’s not the reality, it’s not how the world works. There’s ups and downs along the way, you have to be able to accept them and move on.”
At 1-0 up, Spain kept on coming and could have easily made it two with Del Castillo’s strike if it wasn’t for the palm of Earps, who had recovered well from the disappointment of conceding.
Six minutes from crashing out of their home tournament, Earps’ teammate Toone proved to be the super sub hero who got the equaliser and in extra time it was Georgia Stanway who broke Spanish hearts.
Here, a note should be made about how Wiegman’s tactical substitutions and game management turned things around for England. Never has a coach’s influence been more evident than in this match.
With the fans having a renewed sense of belief, attention turned to Sweden in the semi-final and once again, England’s ability to ride out the opening ten minutes proved vital as Sweden looked to make the first move.
“Mary made some unbelievable saves,” Parris gushes. “We knew we had a shot-stopper who was going to keep us in the game, who was going to do everything she could to keep the ball out the back of the net.”
It would be Russo who stole the headlines that day as England went on to win 4-0 and Earps’ United teammate scored what some describe as the goal of the tournament in that cheeky little back-heel.
But those closest to the team knew that Earps had kept England in it throughout. Journalist Nicole Holliday, who was at the ground concurred, saying “Mary had an incredible game. She made some unbelievable saves and she was calm and in control.”
The squad was wide eyed as they headed into the final against Germany but they knew it would be a tough test. With the addition of United teammates Toone and Russo in the second half, England got the breakthrough six minutes after the restart.
However, Germany’s Magull tapped in an equaliser and the game once again went to extra time. It was end to end and Germany had another clear attempt to take the lead, thwarted by the strong hand of Earps.
“She kept making important saves, coming for balls, claiming corners,” Parris enthused, “She kept us in the game!”
Eventually, Chloe Kelly toe-poked the winner over the line with ten minutes to go for England. Again, it was another name who stole the headlines and the hearts of the nation.
“I tried to do a knee slide in the confetti and got stuck in the ground and fell over,” Earps recalls fondly as she beams about the celebrations that ensued.
The victory was a team effort undoubtedly but as those attacking players in front made the headlines with their sublime finishes which helped to set England apart from the rest of the competition, it’s clear that their rock at the back, Mary Earps, kept their hopes and dreams alive in each and every game with her near flawless performances.
Like all her Lionesses teammates, she has gone on to inspire a nation with youngsters flocking to Leigh Sports Village ever since to catch one of the World’s greatest shot-stoppers in action.
In one particular poignant scene following a WSL victory, a young boy held up a sign which read, “Most heroes wear capes, mine wears gloves.” Such was the impact on Earps that she invited him onto the field of play for a chat and a kick about the next week.
Earps attention right now is how she can help her club achieve its goals of Champions League football next season but no doubt she is already thinking about the summer with the Lionesses and if it could possibly top 2022. Can the Champions of Europe become Champions of the World?
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