Laura Elford: “Centre backs bully strikers… but I’ll give as good as I get.”

This article originally appeared on And Takes That Chance. Photo Source: HTAFC

After the pandemic halted a season full of setbacks, Huddersfield Town Women’s star striker is ready to make her mark under new coach Jordan Wimpenny.

When you conduct an interview over a video call, you wonder whether you’re going to get the same enthusiasm as when having a face-to-face chat. Two minutes into the conversation with Laura, it becomes clear that this won’t be an issue.

Laura Elford has always been obsessed with the beautiful game. Growing up in Barnsley, the 25-year-old would beg her dad to play football at the park and never wanted to go home. An athletic child who swam, danced and played in football teams, she was always out and about. “I’ve always been sporty and outdoorsy, which not every girl is. I enjoyed being in the muck.”

Her dad suggested trying out at Barugh Green, the local football team just ten minutes from her mum’s house and that’s where her passion for the sport grew. Off the pitch, she was watching games to learn techniques from the best players at the time, in an era that many consider the golden age of the Premier League. Arsenal’s Invincibles with Henry and Bergkamp, Ferguson’s United with Rooney and Ronaldo, Chelsea’s rise under Mourinho with Drogba, there were plenty of iconic footballers to influence a young girl from South Yorkshire.

“As a child, I used to wait up all day for Match of the Day and was trying to peg my eyes open to stay awake. I used to love watching it and then I’d get up on a Sunday morning and watch it all again.

Even though she supported Barnsley and went along to matches, she couldn’t help but be dazzled by Manchester United and their players at the time, including striker Wayne Rooney, so supported both.

“For my 10th birthday, I got a United kit with number 10 on the back with my name. [The same day] I wore my United kit to the Barnsley game and I got a lot of stick from a lot of men, I was only ten!” she laughs.

It’s no wonder those fans had the hump considering that it was the season Man Utd won the Premier League while Barnsley finished 17th in The Championship, but Laura didn’t care, she loved all football.

By the time she was playing in Sheffield United’s academy, there was only one choice for her. Swimming went first, then dancing. “Football was the last one standing. I’ve gone through all my secondary school life, then adulthood. I’ve always played and represented my school, my college, my university, so I’m still going and I still really enjoy it.”

Growing up she was a central midfielder but was guided by coaches to her best position, striker. Her tactical nous for the game is apparent too, talking about Kevin De Bruyne’s passing style, European football formations and being influenced by studying the top strikers. On the pitch, she’s been compared to Rooney, Drogba, Olivier Giroud and even Álvaro Morata by one of her teammates.

“I understand where that comes from. Generally, centre backs they bully your strikers whereas I’m tough on the pitch so I’ll give as good as I get. Sometimes with Rooney, he’d be a bit of a hothead and put a tackle in or a challenge, Drogba, he was strong and feisty but if you look at Giroud for Chelsea this season, he’ll be the one who will tussle and battle with defenders and I think that’s my gameplay as well.”

The women’s game has its own tactical differences and in Laura’s opinion, the main distinction when it comes to the best female strikers is how agile they are. She cites Beth England at Chelsea and Vivienne Miedema at Arsenal as two examples of deft players at the top of their game.

Elford’s career has been entirely in Yorkshire, but that doesn’t mean she’s not travelled around. She started at Sheffield United Academy before going onto Sheffield Community Ladies. After that, Leeds City Vixens when she was studying Sports Coaching at Leeds Beckett University before the club merged into Guiseley Vixens. Bradford City followed before ending up at Huddersfield Town Women.

After two campaigns with The Terriers where she experienced injuries and unfortunate squad rotations, her third season looks set to be a great one. Laura’s scored 11 goals in six pre-season games, including two back-to-back hattricks in her last four appearances, and the side has won all their matches.

The pandemic put an end to the season, but the striker thinks the time off actually benefited the team. In lockdown, the squad would get together on Zoom and take part in HIIT workouts, flexibility and strength sessions. When she wasn’t doing a workout, Laura would go running around her local park to work on her fitness.

“We had a good variety of stuff and because we did it for so long, everybody’s come back fitter than what they were at the end of the season… No matter what level you played at, everyone was in the same boat, you had to just find a patch of grass and go do what you can.”

ike the men’s side, Huddersfield Town Women have a new coach. Replacing Ashley Vickers, First Team Manager Jordan Wimpenny has arrived. Wimpenny, who joined the club in 2019 as First Team Coach has worked as an Academy Coach at MK Dons and Stevenage FC, but this is his first managerial role. It’s looking promising as he has already impressed Laura with his training methods.

“We’ve got a new setup with coaches and backroom staff, analysis, physios and nutritionists. I think all round so far Jordan has made the club as professional as it can be, without being promoted to the league above, and it’s something that’s really nice to be a part of.

“Training is much more regimented and I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean it in a really good way. Training starts at 7pm whereas before we’d be turning up at seven, then we’d need to boot up and need to warm up and at times, it could be quite lethargic… if something hadn’t worked in a game, we didn’t feel like we worked on it that week before the next game.”

Now, it’s a complete change. Training starts on time and you need to be there early and ready to go. All the drills are explained to the players, they all wear sports vests which monitor their activities so if someone’s not trying, the manager will know about it. The aim is for each player to run 7–8km per session. Having clear goals makes it easier for the players, according to Laura.

“It gets the team to raise the bar and the standards are high and have been set. If you want to come below that then you need to work harder or the coaching staff will talk to you to make sure that we’re all playing to the best of our abilities. We’ve had such a big change in management and created a DNA for the club this season.”

The women’s game is growing all the time. As standards get better across the divisions and attendances go up, the players are improving and enjoying new experiences. Huddersfield Town Women, earlier this year, got to play at the men’s stadium for the first time. Laura also took part in the club’s kit launch which featured players from the men’s and women’s sides, and she wants more opportunities like this for the team.

“Getting to play at a lovely ground and on a lovely pitch, it was a really good experience and great to see so many people turn out to support us whether they were supporters of the women’s team, the men’s team, it was great to see Huddersfield Town as a club get behind us.

“It was really nice of the club to invite the women’s team to join in the shoot and be involved in the videos… they appreciated that we’d gone down to help with the kit and they were really hospitable.. it seems we are moving forward as one club together rather than two teams.”

From the passion displayed in this call, it seems like a really exciting time to be part of the women’s team and Laura feels settled at Huddersfield. People promoting the women’s game say it’s about the visibility and support from the men’s team that will help it succeed and she agrees. Playing at the John Smith’s Stadium, featuring in the programme and introducing offers to encourage people to come down are ways to start and the men’s team have done this before. Do the constant comparisons between the men’s game and women’s game become frustrating though?

“When you play sport and there’s a men’s side and a women’s side, there’s always going to be a comparison. I think the only part that is frustrating is some of the derogatory comments or homophobic comments that are made towards female footballers, or that insinuate that women shouldn’t play football. We’re in the 21st century now, women and men can each do whatever they want.”

It tends to be online where these comments are rife, although it does happen at games. Laura tells me of how one player in her league posted online about the upcoming season and the majority of responses were from men making abusive remarks.

A report into women’s football earlier this year by Fifpro, a worldwide representative organisation for professional footballers, found that discrimination, sexual harassment and abuse are major issues in the female game. Despite record numbers watching the 2019 Women’s World Cup and standards improving, abuse is still rife.

It’s not just professional players either, all levels of women’s football suffers from abuse. In the 2017–18 season, Women in Football, a professional network for women in the game, reported an overall increase of almost 400% in the number of reports of sex discrimination and harassment incidents in England, with social media being responsible for the big jump in numbers.

Laura can attest to this too, having heard abuse on the pitch directed at her teammates or opposition players.

“There’s been a few occasions where comments have been made or names have been called, as adults you turn a blind eye to it sometimes, but the fact you have to turn a blind eye when you’re simply just playing sport is not really right.

“I don’t mind having it being compared to the men’s game, because I do it myself. I talk about what the England women have achieved or what the England men have achieved. It’s a natural thing in the way you’d compare Man Utd or Arsenal. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that as long as it’s not in a derogatory manner.”

One of the main talking points around the game is pay. Research from Sporting Intelligence, a consultancy that carries out a survey into global sporting salaries, found that the average salary in the Premier League is typically 99 times higher than the top paid women counterparts.

Huddersfield is Laura’s sixth club but her journey as a footballer is typical of female players as contracts are typically shorter, one or two years in women’s football. While players in the top division are on full-time professional contacts, it’s different in the third tier where Huddersfield Town Women play. For Laura and the other players in the league, the majority play part-time for the love of the game and have to pay to play.

So when she’s not training or playing, Laura is a full-time PE Teacher for Hanson Academy in Bradford, working with high school and sixth form students, and she also runs the girl’s school football team. That means when she starts training at 7pm with the team, it’s after a full day’s work.

“On average it’s about £300 per season over 10 months, so £30 a month if you had to pay yourself. Ultimately, the club encourages us to find a sponsor ourselves, but we’ve been lucky enough this season they’ve tried to help us find a sponsor.”

This year her sponsorship fees are covered by Harvey & Ryall, a local property lettings company who paid towards her boots as well. Some sponsors pay for travel for players too, but for quite a few players in the squad, they don’t have a sponsor and like all sports teams, their income has been affected by the pandemic. That’s why the team has set up a fundraising page to help cover the costs for players, improve facilities and help grow the club.

30% of that fundraising money will be going to Laura’s sister, Emma, who has metastatic breast cancer. Emma was diagnosed in May last year, and since then Laura’s life has changed dramatically. Since then, on top of her teaching and footballing careers, she has been fundraising non-stop and is busy organising an upcoming black-tie event to raise money.

Metastatic breast cancer, a stage four cancer, currently doesn’t have a cure. So, the money raised will contribute to the cost of potential new treatments or clinical trials that aren’t available on the NHS. That and to give Emma the opportunity to travel around the world once the restrictions are eased. Any extra that is raised will go to the charity Breast Cancer Care.

“The club has been really supportive that I’m doing a lot of fundraising for Emma to enable her to experience things and we also had a donation from the Huddersfield Town Supporters Club last season and we really appreciated it a lot.”

Emma’s currently undergoing a new treatment which is allowing her to grow her hair back and has recently got a new promotion at work. Laura’s delighted that her sister is feeling good and things are looking up for her, and as the schools have gone back and people are adjusting back to routines pre-lockdown, it’s a welcome relief to have a normal sense of structure for now.

“The pandemic has affected everybody in different ways but besides that, I think getting back to normality will be really good.”

With the tough times in the last year with her sister’s diagnosis, the pandemic disrupting her job and the football season being cut short, you’d be forgiven for thinking she would just want to settle back into the new normal slowly. No chance, she’s ready to hit the ground running. Whatever life throws at Laura, she’ll give as good as she gets.

To donate to the Huddersfield Women’s fundraiser, visit: http://bit.ly/HTWFCfundraiser

To donate to Laura’s fundraiser for Emma, visit: http://bit.ly/attcDoubleEE

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Double-EE-103951304344586

Laura Elford is sponsored by Harvey & Ryall.

Writer and podcaster, based in Leeds.

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