By Ella Jerman
Combining a Masters degree with semi-professional football was once a distant dream for aspiring female footballers in the UK, but nowadays such opportunities are in abundance and have given promising young talents like Annabel Johnson – who joined Durham University on a postgraduate scholarship in association with Durham Women’s F.C. in 2016 – the platform to flourish.
She tells me an early influence spurring her interest in football was her dad. “I started to get into the sport when I was really young because we would wake up early on a Sunday to watch Match of the Day together, but I didn’t start playing properly until I was 10, for a boys’ team.”
Since then, Johnson has fought her way through the ranks. The 24-year old defender made 38 appearances for Leicester City Ladies between 2010 and 2012, scoring two goals. She then transferred to Coventry United Ladies, before captaining Loughborough University Women’s 1st team during her undergraduate degree. The versatile defender joined Durham Women’s F.C. in 2016 on Durham University’s scholarship scheme, meaning she is also eligible to play for DUWAFC in BUCS competitions.
“I was working a full-time job after finishing university in Loughborough and felt that my development as a player had come to a standstill. I saw a tweet advertising the opportunity to study a Masters at Durham University and play Women’s Super League football and I thought it would be a great opportunity to develop myself on and off the field.”
2017 was a particularly successful year for Johnson. She established herself as a regular in the Wildcats’ starting XI while also enjoying success with DUWAFC in BUCS, lifting the National Championship with the first team.
But the road to success is never easy. “When I was 19 I ruptured two ligaments in the ankle,” she says. “I was in a cast for six weeks and out of football for a year. It was difficult and I would say it was an important year for my development as a player.”
Now, as a Masters student playing football at a high standard for two clubs, she knows the struggle of juggling sporting and academic commitments all too well. “Physically it’s very tiring on the legs, you have to make sure you look after yourself and not burn the candles at both ends.”
Johnson trains three times a week in Durham, with two sessions focusing on strength and conditioning. “My schedule fills up quickly. I’ll also have two matches in the week if there are BUCS and WSL fixtures. It gets really tricky if we also have to fit futsal in on a Saturday!”
She continues: “The pace was much faster moving into the WSL. I’ve really enjoyed the challenge of having to improve my game and I love a battle every week in the league.”
Durham Women’s F.C. currently sit fourth in the Women’s Super League 2, but Johnson insists that their promotion hopes are still very much alive.
“We’ve made it difficult in the past couple of weeks, but it’s not over until the final whistle is blown. The girls and I have a lot of belief we can have a very good second half of the season which will boost our chances.”
Picking the most memorable moment from her successful spell in Durham is far from an easy choice, but she says it “has to be the BUCS final” with DUWAFC last year.
“It was hard work but I don’t think I’ve ever been in a team which has celebrated like that after scoring the winning goal in the 97th minute. It was brilliant, and I’m sure a couple of players were shedding a few tears.”
It is every footballer’s dream to play for their country. In 2011, Johnson received a call-up to the England women’s under-19 squad for friendlies against France and Holland. Although she has not represented England since youth level, she has still had the opportunity to impress on an international stage.
Last summer, she was selected as one of the best young female football talents to represent Great Britain at the biennial World University Games, which is widely recognised as the second largest multi-sport games in the world after the Olympics.
Although Great Britain did not make it past the group stage of the tournament, Johnson was proud to represent her country and looks back fondly at her time in Taipei: “It was my best footballing experience, I would advise anyone and everyone who has the opportunity to go. You are treated like an Olympic athlete and it is great.”
Whilst she is yet to find the net for Durham, she got herself on the scoresheet for Team GB in their 7-1 win against Colombia. “I don’t score many goals as a left-back, so that moment was particularly enjoyable”, she adds.
Ask any young British footballer about their home-grown idol and you would probably hear names like Beckham, Owen and Gerrard as well as those of current young stars like Kane, Sterling and Rashford. But Johnson’s response to the question does not quite fit the stereotypical mould.
“As a full back, it would be great to have the attributes of Lucy Bronze” – England’s first-choice right-back. Currently playing for Women’s Champions League holders Lyon, Bronze has 51 senior international appearances and a 2014 PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year award under her belt – a set of remarkable achievements many players would aspire to.
Although the predominance of male sporting role models is still felt, aspiring female footballers are not short of female role models anymore. The growing popularity of the women’s game and increased coverage of the Lionesses’ recent successes have allowed young girls to look up to footballers like Bronze, rather than only try to identify with male ones.
When I ask Johnson what she made of England’s recent performances at Euro 2017, she acknowledges the national side had a lot to live up to.
“I think after their excellent World Cup performances in 2015 they had high expectations,” she says. England’s 2015 campaign ended in heartbreaking fashion – a 2-1 semi-final defeat by Japan.
Similarly, in 2017, the Lionesses were sent crashing out of the Euros at the semi-final stage, losing 3-0 to the hosts, the Netherlands. In spite of their string of impressive performances, Johnson adds: “going one stage further than the World Cup would have been a good achievement.”
Nevertheless, the Lionesses have certainly raised the bar for women’s football in recent years, and the game has profited from the increased media coverage that their success has generated.
Thanks to Channel 4’s live coverage of Euro 2017, women’s football is finally getting its fair due. More eyes are on women’s sport than ever before, and the BBC’s decision to stream Super League One games has demonstrated enthusiasm for the women’s game is not short-lived.
Johnson agrees the growing interest in women’s football has generated more opportunities than ever before for women to play the sport – both at a grassroots and professional level.
“Yes, there are professional contracts, education and coaching opportunities. I have managed to travel playing football, gain a Masters and coach in America. Football has given me a lot of great experiences.”
You can follow Annabel on Twitter at @Annabel2010, or catch her in action for Durham Women’s F.C. in the club’s FA Cup quarter-final against Everton Ladies on Sunday 18th March 2018 at New Ferens Park.
Photograph: Durham Women’s F.C.