Laura Bassett and a personal journey through the women’s game

Laura Bassett and a personal journey through the women’s game

THERE’S BEEN A LONG-HELD TRADITION in Australia that come Christmas Day, everybody hits the beach. With temperatures around the country reaching red hot on the thermometer, it’s a far cry from the traditions of England, where the only source of heat generally comes from the lit fire in the corner of the room.

For England international defender Laura Bassett, Christmas 2017 was her first experience of celebrating the seasonal holiday down under after leaving home behind for a new adventure with Canberra United. 

Left without a club after Notts County Ladies folded in April 2017, Bassett chose to remain without a club until the completion of the summer’s European Championships in the Netherlands. The 34-year-old settled on moving to the Australian capital and the 2012 and 2015 W-League champions for one last challenge before deciding on where her next move may lie after her deal expires at the end of the season.

“I’m really enjoying it,” she says. “There’s lots of different challenges. It’s getting really hot so we’re finishing training by 9am. I’m enjoying the league; every team is beating each other and you can’t really predict the scores. I was open to it because of how old I am and how long I played in England. I loved it and enjoyed it, but I’d only briefly played in the USA and I didn’t really feel like I’d ticked that box. I spoke to Jodie Taylor who’s played over here and she said she’d really enjoyed it, I think it’s about going out of your comfort zone and trying something new.”

Twenty years previous, Bassett joined Coventry City after playing for a couple of clubs near her childhood home of Bulkington in Nuneaton. The two decades since have seen Bassett play for several of the biggest names in English football, a European Championship final, score a last-minute own goal which would propel her into national headlines, receive a red card in a cup final, and lose several clubs to a lack of funding.

It’s a story almost unmatched in English women’s football, but for Bassett it all started as a family hobby growing up as a girl around her football-mad parents and older brother. “My parents were involved with Balkington Sports & Social Club, our local village team,” Bassett recalls. “My dad and my brother were both left-backs, my brother’s left footed which I’m devastated about because I got my mum’s right foot and I really wanted to be left-footed – I wasn’t happy about that.

“My dad never got sent off, but in his last game of the season he got sent off whilst I was stood on the sides watching, that’s a really strong early memory of football for me.”

Four years younger than her brother, Bassett couldn’t help but fall in love with the game, taking any and every opportunity to get onto the pitch. “When my dad stopped playing he stayed involved with the club. I used to go out with him and put the nets up, put the balls out, put the corner flags up. It was a great environment to grow up in, it was a family environment. I knew all the lad’s names, they were role models to me.”

At the age of 10, Bassett joined Bedworth Girls, where she teamed up with a player who would go on to become one of the most recognisable coaches in the women’s game. “I’m from the same village as Laura Harvey,” she says. “We got 11 girls together and played friendly games. Laura is a couple of years older than me so I was always striving to be as good as her. Laura moved to Coventry a few years before I did and then onto Sheffield, she was a right winger but she’d never track back!”

At 14, Bassett moved to Coventry herself, before signing for Birmingham City as a 17-year-old at the turn of the millennium. Her move would coincide with the creation of the Player Development Centre at Loughborough University, something which would kickstart the international careers of Bassett and several of her teammates. “At Birmingham, we’d just train in the evening at different schools. We’d have floodlights that weren’t really lighting anything, we trained in rough areas but that’s who we were and what we could afford. All the kit was men’s stuff, but at the time it didn’t matter, you were glad to get anything and to wear the badge.”

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Bassett adds: “You represented your group, your friends and the club you were playing for. We wouldn’t have overnight stays, the bus was a minibus, but that’s just how it was at the time.”

A year after starting a degree at Birmingham University, Bassett made the jump to the new development programme at Loughborough and would make her international debut for Hope Powell’s England side against Italy in 2003. Another 60 would come, plus many more call-ups to the squad. Bassett’s career was well underway. “The facilities were so much better than you could dream of with your club, bar maybe Arsenal at the time. A lot of England internationals came through that development centre, I started getting called into the squad and eventually made my debut.”

At the end of an eight-year spell with Birmingham, Bassett had made enough of an impression to get snapped up by Arsenal, who at the time were the dominant side in England and one of the best teams in the world. As fate would have it, Laura Harvey had just taken on the role as first team coach, working with manager Vic Akers, who would retire at the end of Bassett’s first and only season with the club.

Akers’ retirement would ultimately curtail Bassett’s time at the club, but the defender has few regrets about how it turned out. “They set the standards on and off the pitch,” she says. “They were supported by the men’s team, it was a one club feel.

“I worked full-time, 8am until 4pm. Me and Karen Carney carpooled down there from Birmingham, trained 6pm to 8pm and then drove back and worked the next day. That’s what you did at the time, you knew no different. I enjoyed my time there, but I was tired and it was hard.”

Things changed for Bassett when Akers retired in 2009, replaced by assistant Tony Gervaise. Despite returning from Euro 2009 as a finalist with England, Bassett was largely used in the reserves and had a big decision to make. “I had a phone call saying I’d be training, but probably playing with the reserves. I didn’t understand and me with my attitude and my fight, I said give me a chance and I’ll perform.

“Sometimes if a person has made their mind up then there’s not a lot you can do. I trained as hard as I could, but on a Sunday, I was either out of the squad or in the reserves. I knew I had to earn my place, but after so long you’re banging your head against a brick wall. I decided to move to Leeds for a new challenge rather than stay there and accept a lost cause.”

The move to Leeds would last no longer than her spell at Arsenal, but things were progressing for the better on the international stage. After a lengthy battle, the FA agreed to bring in central contracts and Bassett was one of 17 players to be handed one, ensuring a financial boost and less stress to work as full-time as she was doing at the time. “That was incredible. Hope [Powell] and everyone that fought for them, it was a turning point for women’s football. Every international could sacrifice a little bit more for training. All of a sudden we were athletes and not just footballers.”

Months later, Bassett rocked up at Leeds United, the pretenders to Arsenal’s dominance. Runners-up in the FA Cup in 2006 and 2008, Leeds had a team including the experience of Sue Smith and Lucy Ward, but unknown bundles of potential. Managed by Rick Passmoor, future England regulars such as Ellen White, Carly Telford, Jess Clarke, Jade Moore, Steph Houghton, Gemma Bonner and Rachel Daly all donned the famous white shirt as Leeds looked to take the challenge to Bassett’s former club.

They did win the Premier League Cup, beating an Everton side including Rachel Brown, Jill Scott, Fara Williams and Toni Duggan 3-1 on a freezing cold winters night in Rochdale, but that was as good as things would get.

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The announcement of a new FA Women’s Super League for 2011 didn’t sit well with Carnegie, the local University backing the club, and they pulled their interest in entering the league just two weeks before the cup success over Everton. Echoing issues suffocating clubs in the modern-day restructure of the league, Carnegie stated they couldn’t commit to the increase in budget necessary to enter the league.

As soon as Bassett had settled with her new side up north, it was over. “Any manager in the league now would have that squad,” she recalls. “Rick ran it so well on minimal costs but the Leeds Carnegie link was always a bit vague to me. We’d done so well that year, we had so many good young players and we’d finally found a way to cross the finish line and win a trophy. It’s so, so sad that just when Rick got the jigsaw finished, it ended so suddenly. Iit just fell apart and became a distant memory.”

Whilst teammates would move all around the country looking for their next adventure, Bassett returned to the solitude of Birmingham, a club now with a fresh injection of money and capable of challenging the top sides. Bassett took a job coaching at the club’s Centre of Excellence alongside her playing duties, and would enjoy one of the highlights of her career at a club closest to home.

With Arsenal having largely dominated the FA Cup, 2012 saw a rare final without the presence of the Gunners. Bassett’s Birmingham side lined-up alongside Chelsea at Bristol’s Ashton Gate for the chance to get their hands on a trophy so often held by Bassett’s former club.

The lack of a dominant Arsenal side ensured a thrilling final, Helen Lander putting Chelsea ahead with just 20 minutes to go, before Rachel Williams equalised in stoppage time to send the game the distance. Chelsea would retake the lead before star player Karen Carney levelled it up in the 112th minute, sending the game to penalties. It was Birmingham who came out on top after Gemma Bonner blazed over the bar to hand Bassett and her teammates the cup.

“That was such a great to be a part of. A lot of the players still know each other, we’re close friends and that will always be a special moment for us. We lost a couple of Continental Cup finals against Arsenal, we couldn’t change that perception of being runners-up and that’s still disappointing for me. We won the FA Cup, but I feel we should have achieved a lot more with the great players we had.”

Bassett would leave Birmingham for a new challenge with Emma Hayes’s Chelsea in 2013, kicking off a two-year period which would present Bassett with some of the most challenging moments of her career. That period kicked off with a more than disappointing Euro 2013 campaign with England, in what would turn out to be the final period of Hope Powell’s 15-year reign as head coach.

England had reached the final of the 2009 tournament, before losing on penalties to France in the quarter-finals of the 2011 World Cup. It was a squad that had a mixture of world-class talent in Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey, players reaching their peak in Steph Houghton, Eni Aluko, Jill Scott, Karen Carney etc, and exciting youngsters such as Toni Duggan, Gemma Bonner and Lucy Bronze.

It was a squad that promised plenty, but England would bow out without a win, finishing bottom of their group behind France, Spain and Russia. The opening game against Spain was a dramatic one. At 1-1 with five minutes to go, Jennifer Hermoso scored before Bassett scored her first of just two England goals in the final minute. It looked enough to steal a point, but Alexia Putellas’s 93rd-minute strike sunk Powell’s side.

Duggan’s last-minute equaliser against Russia wasn’t enough after a thumping 3-0 defeat to France, leaving England needing a new direction. “Tournament football is harsh and it’s brutal, but we were going through a transition with our squad. We had injuries and some people were dealing with things away from the pitch. They divert you away from what you’re there to do, but at the same time you can’t ignore it and think it won’t affect you.

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“I look back and think it was a really crucial point, we had to go through that. You have to go through bad times to appreciate the better times. We’d all been used to the same routine for a long time and in darker times you evaluate yourself even more than when you’re winning.”

Bassett soon had to put it behind her and get down to business with a Chelsea side aiming to win the league. An injection of cash and some stellar signings meant they were best placed to topple Liverpool’s stranglehold on the FA WSL, but there would be disappointment on the final day of the season.

A point for Chelsea would likely be enough, but Birmingham City and Liverpool were both ready to swoop in should Chelsea slip up away at the newly relaunched Manchester City Women. With City having nothing to play for, they threw caution to the wind and Chelsea’s case wasn’t helped by an injury to first-choice goalkeeper Marie Hourihan 20 minutes into the match.

“It’s still crazy looking back,” says Bassett. “Marie came off after dislocating her shoulder. We hadn’t really had a second choice goalkeeper, Emma had managed to bring in Claire Farrow just in case anything happened in the big games we had coming up. We’d only seen her a couple of times at training.”

Farrow was thrown in for her one and only FA WSL appearance, soon beaten by a long-range Jill Scott effort, before Duggan’s sensational volley left Chelsea 2-0 down. An Abbie McManus red card and a goal from Gilly Flaherty gave Chelsea hope, but their loss handed Liverpool their second title in a row after Birmingham also failed to win against Notts County.

“That was a big turning point for Chelsea because Emma could go back to the board and talk about how close we’d come on a part-time basis. I was carpooling with Rachel Williams, two-and-a-half hour journey twice a week, there and back. It showed how much we could kick on, it was the same as 2013, sometimes ugly situations have to happen and Chelsea have kicked on.”

They would kick on without Bassett. The centre-back had just bought a house close to home and admits the two didn’t “marry up”. The year 2015 saw Bassett take up a new challenge at Notts County, reunited with former manager Rick Passmoor and several players from her days at Leeds, including Ellen White, Jess Clarke and Carly Telford.

It would also see England go to their first major tournament post-Hope Powell’s era, now under the guidance of former Bristol Academy manager Mark Sampson. It was a tournament that would end in a historic bronze medal for the newly branded Lionesses, but also leave Bassett with a moment that would propel her into the national headlines.

“Mark came in and did something that was much needed, he hyped things up and it was a big shift in mentality,” says Bassett. “We didn’t win our warm-up games but we had an in-house belief that we’d never had before and that was a big thing for us. We’d have honest conversations about what we needed to do, we wanted to be the most adaptable team possible because that’s an advantage. Once we saw we were believing in it, the confidence and self-belief went through the roof, it was special to be a part of because we’d never felt like that with England before.”

After losing their first group game to France, Sampson took his side on a four-game string of 2-1 wins, eventually progressing to a semi-final with then world champions Japan. An early penalty put the holders ahead, before Fara Williams soon hit back with her own spot kick. England missed chances; Duggan hit the bar before Jill Scott headed wide from all of six yards as the Lionesses put immense pressure on Japan.

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But naivety crept in as England poured forward in stoppage time, giving the ball away and leaving their defence tracking back to stop a late, painful winner. Bassett, running back on the edge of the box to intercept Nahomi Kawasumi’s cross, stretched out her left leg to clear the ball, inadvertently looping the ball over goalkeeper Karen Bardsley and in off the bar.

England were out. Less than two minutes later, the final whistle went and all cameras pointed towards a grief-stricken Bassett, quickly consoled by several of her teammates and her manager, all keen to keep her out of the public eye. “I was heartbroken,” recalls Bassett. “My 24 hours after that was the same as everyone else’s, but I didn’t see them, I couldn’t face them. I’ve had a conversation with Mark since about it all, but we had a 48-hour turnaround before the third-place match against Germany.

“We didn’t have a pitch session, in terms of tactics it was all very meeting orientated. Everything got thrown out of the window, it was an emergency job. Family and friends were there and Mark made them very welcome to the hotel. We had some special moments after Japan to realise why we were there and what we could still achieve.”

For Bassett, the scars wouldn’t clear overnight. “There was a lack of sleep, lack of eating, lack of drinking, it was probably the worst 48 hours you could wish for to prepare for a game like that. It went against all research for the performance we put in against Germany, but that’s how special that group of people was, that’s mental toughness.”

Three days later, England and Bassett would walk out at the same stadium in Edmonton to face Germany for a shot at a bronze medal. But it wasn’t all about bronze for the squad, England had never beaten Germany in 20 attempts across 31 years, and there wasn’t a better time or place to end the hoodoo.

“I was unbelievably grateful for that match,” says Bassett, who thankfully can laugh about the whole situation two and a half years later. “Nobody wants to play in a third-place play-off, but it was a chance to finally beat Germany in a game that mattered. For me, it was so special and I always go back to that mental toughness. We went through so much together, you push that hard. We went out fighting, we didn’t care because nothing worse could happen to me or us. Sometimes playing with that fearless attitude gets you what you want.”

Just a couple of days after the worst moment of her career, Bassett admits all sorts of questions were running around her mind, but a conversation with Sampson gave her clarity on whether she would walk out in the starting eleven against Germany. “I’m only human, my emotions were all over the place. I couldn’t look forward, I couldn’t process we had another game, I couldn’t stop crying. Mark called me for a meeting to check in on how I was and he wholeheartedly left it to me. He wanted me to play, but it was in my hands and he said he’d support me either way.

“I took a few moments, my gut feeling was I wanted to play, but I wondered ‘what if it happens again?’ You can imagine the scenarios going through my head, but I wanted to play. I’d scored own goals growing up, I don’t know a defender who hasn’t, but the scale of it was different.

England did win, an extra-time Fara Williams penalty putting smiles back on the faces of every player and every member of staff, and giving Bassett a more than deserved finale to the World Cup.

The league season started a week after England returned from Canada, and Bassett soon had a new target, having reached the FA Cup final with Notts County before the break for the World Cup. Facing her old side Chelsea, it was the first women’s final to be held at Wembley Stadium, and Bassett was aware a lot of eyes were on her. “I felt more pressure personally, I knew I had to deliver,” she says. Chelsea took the honours in a tight 1-0 win. Another chance would arise soon after, with Notts County defying the odds to reach their second cup final of the season – the Continental Cup final against Arsenal.

It said much about Bassett’s character that she was able to fight back after her ultimate low in the game

In 12 months, Bassett had lost a league title on the final day of the season and seen her world turned upside down on the biggest stage of all, but it still had one nasty twist left in it for the centre back.

Half an hour into the match and with County trailing 1-0 to a Jordan Nobbs goal, Bassett was given a straight red card by referee Jane Simms for a foul on midfielder Vicky Losada. It was a decision that baffled those watching, and left Bassett nursing yet more scars. “I was just shocked, you can still see my reaction on the highlights, I was in absolute disbelief, I couldn’t believe it was happening. I’m walking off and it dawns on me I’m the captain and my team have got to play another hour with 10 players against Arsenal in a cup final.”

Notts County would go on to lose 3-0, Bassett left wondering what more could go wrong. “I just couldn’t believe it, I’d let everyone down again, it was heart-wrenching,” she says. “You work so hard for those moments, to make a statement for your club, but I’d ballsed it up. I never got an explanation as to why she sent me off.”

With new fans taking an interest in the game on the back of England’s bronze medal, was Bassett worried fair-weather would have a negative perception of her abilities as a defender? “Nobody has ever made me feel it was my fault,” she says. “I’m more critical of myself than anybody. I know the consequences of what I’ve done and mistakes I’ve made.”

She adds, chuckling: “I can look back now and see that I brought more fans to the game, so maybe I’ve done something right, but to say I was ready for a break and a holiday was an understatement.”

It was a relatively quiet year for Bassett in 2016, which was probably a relief to the defender. But 2017 would leave Bassett facing the latest nasty shock and a case of deja vu from her spell with Leeds. Rumours regarding Notts County’s finances had dominated the 2016 off-season, but it appeared the club would at least be able to fulfil their 2017 Spring Series fixtures, coming as close as the final 48 hours before their opening match at Arsenal.

But on the Friday morning before the season kicked off, Notts County announced they were ceasing to operate and pulling out of the FA WSL with immediate effect, a decision only relayed to Bassett and her teammates half an hour earlier. “It was a huge shock,” she admits.

Bassett was one of two players called into a private meeting to be told the news before the rest of the squad gathered to be informed of the development. “There had been alarm bells ringing for a whole, I think Rick was trying to be a buffer between the information he was getting from above and trying to protect us.

“But players weren’t happy, we wanted to do our thing and prepare for games the best we could, you could tell Rick was frustrated. I don’t know if he’d do things different had he known more. He’d known a lot of us for years and been with us through the same thing at Leeds. We were lifelong friends, he saw a lot of us up from young players and had an attachment to us. I’ll always have so much respect for Rick in that situation, he made so many decisions to protect us, but perhaps we needed to understand it more than we did.”

Whilst the majority of first-team players have landed good moves off the back of County’s demise, Bassett still wishes the decision had been taken earlier than it was, but the defender wishes to place on the record her thanks to the PFA for their “help, guidance and financial support” offered at a difficult time for the players. 

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“We knew something was wrong when we were called in for the meeting, you could feel the elephant in the room. If it had been made at Christmas, players would have had time to go and get other clubs sooner. That moment in that room I won’t forget, my words can’t do justice to the heartbreak in that room, people’s livelihoods were at stake. Women’s footballers give up a lot, they move away from home to put their heart and soul into a club, just to lose their job with no notice.”

She adds: “It was distressing, some of our staff still haven’t got jobs in football. It’s sad, Rick’s not perfect and he’d say that himself, but the dedication he’s given to women’s football, did he deserve to be treated like that? It’s not fair and it’s not right.”

It was the catalyst for many changes for the County squad. Carly Telford would return to Chelsea, Amy Turner would go to Liverpool and Louise Quinn to Arsenal. Every first-team member would move eventually, but Bassett decided to postpone her future until after Euro 2017.

Only playing a small role in the tournament as Mark Sampson stopped rotating his team on a game-by-game basis, Bassett watched on from the side as the Lionesses were dumped out in the semi-finals again, this time 3-0 by hosts and eventual champions, the Netherlands. Bassett would only have one more camp with the team – the opening 2019 World Cup qualifier against Russia – before Sampson was sacked after a lengthy investigation into his conduct with both England and Bristol Academy, and Bassett moved to the other side of the world with Canberra.

But it was enough of a chance for the team to out their views and frustrations on why they hadn’t come back with a trophy many expected them to win. “We learned to share our emotions and to share our feelings,” she says. “We learned it’s ok for a little bit of friction and it’s ok to have a difference of opinion. I think we can tick that box now.”

Bassett hasn’t been involved in either camp under interim head coach Mo Marley, but the centre-back hasn’t ruled out a return to the squad and says the squad must now adapt to whoever the new head coach is. “When the new manager is announced, I think we have to box 2017 away and look ahead. It will be a clean slate, a new philosophy, and our group will have to get on board with that. You have to stay current, there’s nothing we can do to change that tournament, we can only make ourselves accountable and promise ourselves it won’t happen again.”

So, what does the future hold for Bassett post-Australia? The 34-year-old admits she doesn’t really know the answer herself yet, but she’s happy to be in that situation. “I needed games, I needed to be in one place and I made that decision. I had a long conversation with Mark before he left and he was very supportive. We agreed I wouldn’t be flown back for camps, it’s the other side of the world and I need to be settled. I had the same conversation with Mo and she was very supportive too.

“I don’t know what my future holds and I like it. I feel healthy, I feel happy and I’m playing well. I’m in a better place and a happier, healthier place mentally. I believed I needed to be happy and stable off the pitch to perform on it, and wholeheartedly I have no regrets.

Bassett’s final words sum up the acceptance of what a crazy career she’s endured up to this point: “After everything that’s happened in the last few years, I think that’s a good place for me to be in.”

By Rich Laverty  

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