Jess Fishlock in conversation: the heartbreak, challenges and joy of a career spent at the top

Jess Fishlock in conversation: the heartbreak, challenges and joy of a career spent at the top

THREE MONTHS INTO 2018 and Jess Fishlock has already won a league title in Melbourne – scoring a spectacular goal in the W-League final – and kick-started her National Women’s Soccer League campaign with an opening night win with Seattle Reign against Washington Spirit in America. Now the Wales international is back home in Cardiff to prepare for her country’s crucial Women’s World Cup qualifier with England, and looking after her young nephews in the process.

“I’m sorry if there’s a lot of noise going on behind me,” the 31-year-old laughs as we get ready to talk through a life and career which has seen the midfielder win an incredible amount of individual awards but many near misses when it comes to silverware. But despite only starting her latest NWSL campaign in Seattle a couple of weeks ago, Fishlock’s eyes are now firmly set on Phil Neville’s England and the one objective escaping her career so far – a major tournament with her country.

“Obviously the game is getting a lot of attention because of who it is and it should be,” she says. “It’s a tough game of course, England are obviously in an interesting time at the moment with the new manager but I’m really looking forward to the game.”

The game will also be just a day out from being a year since Fishlock made her 100th appearance for her country, the first Welsh player of any gender to become a centurion for Wales. “Winning my 100th cap was an incredible experience because it wasn’t something you ever expect to do growing up. It was a strange experience because I was playing but I almost felt like I was watching the game too. I was taking in the experience because it was a very proud moment for me.”

Before the game at St. Mary’s stadium, Fishlock is temporarily back home in Cardiff where her football journey started, one which has taken her to many different countries and clubs, experiences both good and bad.

Fishlock grew up as one of six children in Llanrumney, her dad Kevin was a rugby man whilst her mum was a high jumper so Fishlock had plenty of sporting pedigree to go with before she ever kicked a football. The fourth child, Fishlock’s two older brothers and older sister were influential in getting her involved in football, and she would eventually join Cardiff City’s youth team at the age of seven.

“My dad played rugby and was always a rugby fan but he’s had to convert to football through default, he still thinks football is boring in comparison, though. Cardiff gave me such good experiences of football growing up and I had some really good coaches there who helped me along the way. It was a very good club run by good people at an important time in my life. The coaches became like guardian figures at the time as they truly believed in my ability and wanted me to get to where I wanted to.”

In her senior debut season at the age of 16, Fishlock scored 19 goals in 23 games, winning the Welsh Cup to qualify for the UEFA Women’s Cup and even going as far as the final eight in the English FA Cup. Praised roundly by her elder teammates at the time for her outstanding talent despite her age, Fishlock knew deep down she had the talent to make it in the game.

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“I knew I could play,” she says, adding “But I knew I had to push myself to new challenges before I missed the boat. There wasn’t much of a pathway in England at the time because before the FA Women’s Super League, it wasn’t worth talking about,and there certainly wasn’t a pathway in Wales. I had to cross that bridge and go somewhere else to push myself and achieve what I knew I could do.”

In 2007, Fishlock spent a year playing in England with Bristol before making her first big move abroad to join Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar. “I played in a friendly for Wales versus the Netherlands and their assistant manager at the time was the AZ head coach,” Fishlock recalls. “He emailed me after the game and asked if I wanted to come over. It was a big change but one I wanted to try. I literally packed my life up, moved away from home and went to the Netherlands.”

AZ were Dutch champions at the time and gave Fishlock a genuine chance of winning silverware abroad, something she would do as AZ won the league with Fishlock in the side in both 2009 and 2010, and were on course for another title in 2011 when the midfielder moved back to England. Despite the success, Fishlock admits her first few months abroad were among the toughest of her life so far. “It was definitely the hardest six months of my life without a doubt,” she says. “The football over there was so different, the culture was different and nobody spoke English. I had to rip up everything I knew and learn to play football a different way.”

With an ever-growing reputation within the game and obvious talent, Fishlock wasn’t short of offers when she decided to leave the Netherlands in 2011, a move which coincided with the start of the new FA WSL in England. Fishlock would return to Bristol Academy, under the guidance of future England head coach Mark Sampson, in order to fulfil her next challenge and see what England’s new women’s league was all about.

“After leaving AZ I decided to give the FA WSL a chance to see how it went. Mark brought me there and he was very good at getting the best out of a team and drilling into you what needed to be done to succeed. I always say we did what Mark went on to do with England, it was a very similar approach.”

A team which included Fishlock, her Wales teammate Natasha Harding and several other key players, such as Spain forward Natalia, saw Bristol achieve two respectable finishes of fifth and fourth in the two seasons Fishlock spent at the club. The midfielder also played in the 2011 FA Cup final, losing 2-0 to a dominant side Arsenal, but Fishlock’s talent was clear to see and she cleaned up when it came to individual awards at Bristol.

Voted the Club’s Player of the Year in 2011 and the Players’ Player of the Year in 2012, Fishlock was also voted by FA WSL fans as the Player of the Year during both seasons she spent in Bristol, and her form had the big teams from the big leagues ready to swoop.

At the end of the 2012 FA WSL season, Fishlock moved to Melbourne on a temporary basis with W-League side Melbourne Victory on a guest player contract that would only see her play six games during a short campaign. Fishlock helped Victory reach the Grand Final for the first time but couldn’t help her side going down 3-1 to champions Sydney FC as her guest contract ran out before the final.

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The midfielder admits it’s why she returned to the Victory 12 months later, and she’s won the W-League every full season she’s played in Australia since. Whilst Fishlock has consistently returned to Melbourne in the years since, she accepts her move at the time wasn’t just about football. “Going to Australia I think was as much about saving myself as it was about a new challenge or a new team,” she admits. “It was the end of the 2012 season and I hadn’t been picked to go to the London Olympics with Team GB which was something I just couldn’t understand. I didn’t know why I hadn’t been involved. I just had to get out of the UK at that time and get away from all that, I found a new lease of life in Australia and I really enjoyed it there, it was a fresh start for me.”

With women’s football at an all-time high in England off the back of the Olympics, Fishlock had no intention of returning home and made a move which would define the next five years of her career, joining NWSL side Seattle Reign. After many attempts at a successful professional league, 2013 was the inaugural season for the NWSL with Seattle one of its founding members. But they weren’t along just for the ride; they were instantly one of the sides who showed plenty of ambition to win the league’s maiden trophy.

Successful Arsenal manager Laura Harvey was recruited to lead the team, while Fishlock was joined by an array of superstars which included USA goalkeeper Hope Solo, Canada’s Kaylyn Kyle, flying winger Megan Rapinoe and Australian midfielder Emily van Egmond.

Despite that, Seattle’s first half of the season was a disaster, the team drawing their opening game but following it up with nine straight defeats. A good run followed, which was enough to lift the team off the bottom of the league, but there was work to do. Harvey made changes for the 2014 campaign, which included persuading Scotland star Kim Little to join her after working with her at Arsenal, as well as the additions of Sydney Leroux and Japan’s Nahomi Kawasumi.

The Reign went the majority of the season unbeaten – losing just two games – and had the NWSL Shield wrapped up with games to spare. But such was the system deployed by the NWSL, Seattle had to face the end of season playoffs to complete the quest for glory. A final against Kansas City, who had finished 13 points below Seattle, was the grand finale, which ultimately ended in disappointment for Fishlock and her team. “That final is still difficult to think about because I’ve just no idea how we didn’t win it,” says Fishlock. “We’d had a great season and I’ve watched that game back so many times and still don’t understand it, it’s difficult to think about.”

As fate would have it, Seattle found themselves in the exact same position 12 months later. Harvey’s side once again won the regular league season and once again faced Kansas City in the final, who this time finished 11 points behind Fishlock’s Reign. Amy Rodriguez’s winner for Kansas, though, once again left the Reign scratching their heads. Two comfortable league titles in a row ended with little more than overall disappointment by a system Fishlock accepts left her scratching her head at times.

“The second final was easier to accept because we didn’t perform on the day, we just didn’t play well at all. I think as a team and an individual you just have to go away and build again and focus on what went wrong. We’d gone on a couple of great unbeaten runs in both seasons and won the Shield with games in hand, which is so hard to do in that league. It was a great achievement but we struggled to get our heads around winning the Shield, going into the playoffs and not ending up as champions.”

It would be as good as it got for Fishlock with Seattle as 2016 and 2017 ended with the team finishing fifth both years and agonisingly just outside the top four playoffs in both campaigns. But Fishlock sought new challenges elsewhere during the off-season. In 2013, Fishlock joined Glasgow City for a brief period before joining Bundesliga giants FFC Frankfurt at the end of the 2014 season.

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Frankfurt were not just one of the best in Germany at the time but one with the talent to challenge for that season’s UEFA Women’s Champions League. At the time the most successful team in the competition’s history with three trophies to their name, Frankfurt were looking to win their first European trophy in seven years, and decided Fishlock was the right player to add to match their ambitions.

Fishlock played in every game she was available for as Frankfurt crushed teams on their way to that season’s final, including a brutal 12-0 aggregate victory against her old side Bristol Academy, who had gone one better in 2014 to qualify for the Champions League. Frankfurt topped that with a 13-0 aggregate win over Danish side Brøndby in the semi-final, Veronica Boquete and Célia Šašić sharing a hat-trick each in a 6-0 second leg win.

Under Englishman Colin Bell, Frankfurt had a side filled with the best players in Germany bar the exceptions of Fishlock and Spanish star Boquete. Unfortunately for Fishlock, she had to make the tough decision to return to the USA for the start of the NWSL season before the Champions League final against Paris Saint-Germain in Berlin. “I had a choice with Frankfurt where I could have stayed longer but I would have given up my rights with Seattle and that wasn’t something I wanted to do. It meant another NWSL club could sign me for free and I saw my future in Seattle because I was happy there.”

Frankfurt did their former teammate proud, a 92nd  minute Mandy Islacker winner ensuring the German side won on home soil and Fishlock got a much-deserved winner’s medal for her role in the team’s success. “The Champions League final was tough to miss,” she admits. “But I had a great time there, the people were fantastic. I know I played my part and when they won they recorded a little video and sung me a song and sent it to me which was really nice. I have a medal too which they packaged up and shipped across to me so I’ll always have that here.”

All was going well for Fishlock; Seattle had established themselves as one of the top challengers in the US whilst Champions League glory was on the horizon in Europe. But a sting in the tail was about surface as Wales announced former Arsenal player Jayne Ludlow as their new head coach at the end of 2014.

With Fishlock well established as the side’s captain, there was shock and surprise when she was left out of Ludlow’s first squad for the Istria Cup in February 2015. “It was a surprise to me to not to be in Jayne’s first squad and it was obviously something I wasn’t expecting, but for me it meant I just had to knuckle down and work hard. I didn’t know if my Wales career was over, I’d never had that conversation so I just got on with it.” Fishlock would soon be recalled to the team with Ludlow stating she wanted to give some other players a chance and wouldn’t have learned anything knew about a player already well known as the biggest talent in Welsh football.

For a career that has brought Fishlock so many good times, being left out of the Wales squad was one of her toughest challenges. From losing two NWSL finals in America, an FA Cup final with Bristol or being left out of Hope Powell’s Olympic football squad, Fishlock believes football doesn’t talk about how these things can affect a player nearly enough. “I don’t think it [mental health] is talked about enough,” she says. “The dark days are tough and you have a lot of moments where things get in your head. I believe mental health is a huge part of life and it’s something that we never talk about with athletes and we should. We hit such highs and such lows that mentally the adjustment is so hard that we are unable to deal with everything.

“Ultimately everyone has an opinion about you, on what you do and how you do it. It’ll be positive and negative but the truth is you probably see 80 percent negative and 20 percent positive. It’s not easy, you just have to be able to deal with the good and the bad the same. For me it’s important to speak about how I’m feeling, if I don’t speak and talk things through then it can get caught in my head. But I have a great support system that I can speak openly and freely to and they help me process things I can’t understand myself.”

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Fishlock has also spoken openly over the years about the drawbacks of being a high-profile gay athlete. The Wales star has always been open about her life and the support she’s had from friends and family but admits she’s taken a lot of abuse on social media too. “I think it’s something else which is important for people to talk about. It’s about making life easier for the next players coming through because you take a lot of abuse on social media, it used to be difficult to deal with but these days I just laugh at them. I feel sorry for them, I feel sorry for the fact that’s what they feel they need to do in their lives.”

Fishlock’s now in a good place having come off the back of another league success in Australia with Melbourne City and starting the new NWSL season with a 2-1 win. But things have changed on the west coast of America; Laura Harvey’s stint as manager is over and she’s been replaced by former Kansas City boss Vlatko Andonovski.

On two occasions the man who stood in between Fishlock and the NWSL trophy, the 31-year-old has enjoyed working under new manager so far. “He’s come in and changed some things for sure, he’s been good,” she says. “We actually had a separate midfielder’s only training session which I really enjoyed, it wasn’t something we’d really done before. He’s got his own ideas and I think you saw when we attack we can be so good. We have Megan and we have Naho and now we have Jodie Taylor too, it’s the perfect front three for how Vlatko wants to play.”

By her own admission, Fishlock says she maybe has “three or four years left” of her playing career and is already beginning to consider what life will hold for her when she hangs up her playing boots. She already has a more extensive coaching career than some and that’s before she gives up being a player. Fishlock has been a player-coach at Cardiff City and a player-assistant manager at Melbourne City, before taking over as player-manager in last season’s W-League campaign.

Such is Fishlock’s talent and determination, it’s no surprise she managed to lead her team to the W-League title whilst combining her role as a player with that of being a manager for the first time, scoring in the final to top things off. “If anyone ever asked me for advice on whether to be a player-manager I would absolutely say don’t do it,” she laughs. “It was so hard, you take on so much extra work but I was fortunate to be in a great environment with some great coaches and players around me. I could always sit down with the leadership group and it was something that’s stood me in good stead for the future.”

It hasn’t dampened Fishlock’s enthusiasm, though, and she admits being a manager is definitely her aim when she finishes playing. “I want to go into coaching, that’s something I definitely want to do when I’m finished. It’s difficult when you lose your manager halfway through a season but it was a great experience for me.”

At club level, her future plans are less clear. Fishlock has spent the last five years playing for Seattle with little intention of moving elsewhere permanently but does accept it would be nice to come back home before she retires. “Going back home and playing in England is something I’d consider but it would have to be the right move and the right place and I’d have to be doing it for the right reasons, but it is something I’d like to do again.”

And Wales? The showdown with England won’t be decisive in Wales’ World Cup hopes but it’s clear a major tournament is the one thing playing on Fishlock’s mind as the clock ticks on her career. “It would be something I’d regret, not to play at a major tournament with my country. It would break my heart.” 

By Rich Laverty  

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