90min is championing 10 influential women in football this International Women’s Day.
For decades, women’s football had to fight tooth and nail simply to exist. There are countless stories of players facing barriers at every turn and only until relatively recently have even the biggest names in the English game needed to have other jobs to making being playing football possible.
Jill Scott, Euro 2022 champion and Queen of the Jungle, was among 17 England players awarded a central contract by the FA in 2009 that provided the necessary financial backing to allow players to quit their other jobs and actually train full-time as a footballer. Even while playing for Arsenal in her early twenties, Ellen White, who retired as England’s all-time top scorer, worked a 9-5 job.
But thanks to all those that came before, professional football has become a genuine career path for young girls to dream of. Rapid growth over the last 10 years – accelerating even more over the last five – has meant Ella Toone is among the first generation of female players to have that.
At the age of 15, Toone had ambitions of turning professional and that was a realistic option for her. She had been forced to leave Manchester United after six years in the club’s youth ranks – there was no senior team to progress to in those days – but her parents were already receiving calls from clubs interested in offering the youngster at place with them.
In the end, Manchester City won the race. It allowed Toone to stay local, also playing for Blackburn on a dual-registration agreement that gave her the ability to train during the week with City’s elite stars and play first-team games for Rovers at weekends. By 2018, she had also made nine first-team appearances for City before joining Manchester United’s newly formed squad aged 18.
The last four and a half years have been a whirlwind. Toone became United’s all-time top scorer during the 2020/21 season and was the first player to reach 100 appearances for the club the following campaign. Even with such numbers behind her, 2021/22 was a breakout year, making the important leap from promising youngster to game-changing senior pro for both club and country.
United went through significant changes in 2021 and Toone took her opportunity to step up. Her form at club level only cemented her place with England, going from a fringe player in 2021 to a crucial asset by the time Euro 2022 came around in the summer. Toone didn’t start any games at the tournament, but she appeared off the bench for meaningful chunks of every game and scored massively important goals in both the quarter-final against Spain and the final against Germany.
Talent alone is never enough to make it as a footballer. It must go arm in arm with dedication and hard work. For Toone, that mentality has been there since the early days, accepting that sacrifices are always part of becoming an elite sportsperson.
“You can’t slip up,” she explained in an interview with SoccerBible, aged 20. “Maybe you want to go to this party or this event or whatever but, ultimately, it’s not going to be the best for you and your career. You’ve just got to keep making the right choices every day.”
That grounding has meant that Toone’s football has always been there to do the talking first. But the more she has become known as a top class footballer, the more her personality has been able to shine through. Her confidence away from the pitch has also bloomed.
Being one of the faces of Manchester United Women and a major part of England’s summer successes, with Euro 2022 watched by tens of millions around the country and many more globally, is going to get you recognised. But the difference between occasionally getting recognised while shopping in the Trafford Centre and then being snapped by paparazzi on holiday in Ibiza is vast.
“I think we expected our lives to change, but I don’t think we expected how much. Out and about, someone always recognises me now. But that’s what we wanted as Lionesses: to change the game and grow the game,” Toone told The Athletic in January.
She continues to grow her profile off the pitch and is succeeding as making herself more visible than certainly any English female footballer has been while still playing – the off-field successes achieved by Alex Scott and Jill Scott has come post-retirement.
“I think we expected our lives to change, but I don’t think we expected how much.”
– Ella Toone
In the wake of Euro 2022, Toone signed a new multi-year contract with Nike and this year was chosen to be the global face of Nike’s Phantom GX boot launch ahead of the world-famous brand’s other star assets. At the time, James Marshall, who handles her PR and commercial deals, told i she is ‘quickly becoming one of the most marketable athletes in sport’.
Toone has also launched her own official YouTube channel, a move inspired by several American sports star that is yet to really to catch on within the realms of British sport. Since posting her first video, featuring Phil Foden, two months ago, she has acquired more than 26,000 subscribers. Other videos have featured Chelsea defender Trevoh Chalobah, retired goalkeeper turned YouTuber Ben Foster and United teammate and close friend Alessia Russo. Another showcases her infectious down to earth, funny and altogether relatable personality in a phone call with her nan.
Toone is starting to do things that not only haven’t been done before in women’s football, but haven’t really been done before in football at all. With the women’s game continuing to grow at a rapid rate, she is leading the development of female stars into a new era.