Mary Earps will go down in Women’s Super League history as the first goalkeeper to reach 50 clean sheets in the division, but her contribution to changing wider perceptions will be her lasting legacy.
When she first played in the WSL in its founding year in 2011, comments mocking goalkeepers were common; it was a semi-professional era in which dedicated position-specific training for women and girls was almost non-existent. However, last summer, when Earps helped England win their first major trophy, such abuse was much harder to find.
“The narrative around the goalkeeper is something I’m passionate about,” says the European Championship-winning Lionesses No 1. “I really want young kids to see goalkeeping as something they want to be involved in, and that it’s cool and it’s fun and it’s important. Goal scorers are the people you always see on TV commercials and things like that.
“I turned off a lot of my comments and social media stuff. [during the Euros], but I’m really glad that people have been so positive about it, especially when maybe these people have not understood where the game is coming from in terms of the lack of training available. But I’ve definitely had my fair share of criticism online, and when I was around 17, I was part of that group that got heavily criticized, even though I was still learning my craft. So if I can be a part of more positive change now, then that’s great.”
Now 29, Earps is at the peak of her powers between the sticks and has been nominated in the six-person shortlist for FIFA’s Best Women’s Goalkeeper for 2022. She describes her inclusion as humbling and, more importantly, he is concerned with where his sport is going next.
“I wish people could live more out of the game and not have to choose between things as much,” says Earps. “For example, people before me never had the opportunity to do what I do full time and young children now won’t have to do what I did either, in the sense that I had to go to college, I had to had to travel three and a half hours to and from training when he played for Bristol and Reading.
“I still think it’s very important that women’s football blazes its own trail. I don’t want him to just imitate what men do. It can also become different in that most children don’t have a chance to go to school, they have to compromise [to a football academy] very early, so the attrition rate… If you get released, you have nothing behind you, you have no backup plan. I don’t want that to happen because I think education is very important, so I would like women’s football not to fall into the same traps and negative aspects.”
Earps, who has a degree from Loughborough University in information management and business studies, has only been able to fully focus on life as a professional athlete since 2016, when he signed for Reading. He then spent time with German side Wolfsburg before joining Manchester United in 2019, and has seen the sport evolve throughout his own career.
“Now it’s starting to become a more serious profession,” he adds. “I didn’t have a proper goalkeeping coach until I went to Birmingham [in 2013]when I was probably 19 years old. That’s too old for that to happen, but now the game is changing.”
Things are also changing quickly for his Manchester United team, which is at the top of the WSL in the middle of the season before hosting Everton on Sunday, but Earps says the club isn’t talking about winning the title just yet.
“There were a couple of games where we really dominated, and I was like, ‘Okay, great. This is great, I haven’t had anything to do,’” Earps half-jokes, before adding: “You’re always looking for areas where you can improve and I think we have a better team this year. We have a deeper team, for the first time since I’ve been at United. Hopefully that will put us in a really good spot going into this heavy game schedule that we have now.
“I’m sure there will be bumps along the way, but as long as we stick together and keep trying to move forward, hopefully we’ll be where we want to be at the end of the season.
“We’re not really talking about the fact that we’re top of the table because there are a lot of teams with games pending and all these kinds of things. And from that point of view, it doesn’t really mean anything to be at the top of the table in January, it’s much more important where you are at the end of the season. So, we are happy, but the job is not done in any way.”