“The highs are never as high as you think and lows are never as low,” says Natasha Dowie, passing on some words of wisdom given to her by her wife and former teammate Becky Easton. Dowie admits it’s a phrase she has to keep fresh in her mind during a career which has been filled with its shares of ups and downs.
From winning the FA Cup at Everton, two FA Women’s Super League titles at Liverpool, the golden boot to a less than stable international career, a short period at Doncaster Rovers Belles, and losing a club in the form of Boston Breakers, Dowie’s career has had it all – and she’s only just reached 30. “I can’t believe I’m 30, I don’t feel it,” she laughs.
Dowie’s career can almost charter back further than the day she was born given her dad Bob played in the non-league for many years and her more famous uncle Iain played for a range of top clubs, represented Northern Ireland and managed in the Premier League. Though with a family that travelled a lot at the time of her birth, Dowie was actually born in Abu Dhabi and her middle name is Khalila. “I was a baby really when we came back to England so I don’t remember Abu Dhabi,” she says. “My dad worked for General Electrics so we travelled a lot, we spent four years in Istanbul before I spent the rest of my childhood in England.”
Dowie did get to go back to her place of birth for a visit when both her dad and sister lived in Dubai for a short spell five years ago. With both a father and an uncle that played football, and in Dowie’s words “breathed it”, it’s little surprise Natasha ended up going into the game.
Settling in Harpenden, Dowie can’t help but credit the influence both Bob and Iain had on her career and her life from an early age. “I probably first started playing when I was four or five,” she recalls. “My dad used to take me down the park and we’d have a kick about. They were both two of the most passionate people when it came to football, they just can’t get enough of it and I love being around people who love the game as much as I do.
“My dad coached me when I started at Watford and he never missed a game when I went to Fulham and Charlton. He’s been a massive influence on my career, always being there and believing in me. If I get knocked down he’d be the first person there to pick me back up.”
Regarding her uncle, Dowie admits she was a bit in the blue as a child as to just how well-known Iain was in the wider football community. “When I was younger I didn’t really take it in or take it on board. Me and my two cousins always kicked about with Iain and his two sons, we’d always socialise but I never thought of them playing professionally. It was only really when he managed Crystal Palace I started to take more of an interest, I’d never really seen them play except on highlights.”
She adds: “I know I can always pick up the phone to either of them. When I was doing my UEFA B Licence he helped me with the coaching booklet. They’re both so similar it’s like they’re the same person.”
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Dowie’s career properly got underway with a short spell at Watford, which started so well that she came to the attention of Fulham, managed at the time by Marieanne Spacey. After two years in west London, where Dowie wasn’t always a regular, she got the call from Charlton Athletic, who at the time were the closest challengers to Arsenal’s stranglehold on English football. “Those years were a bit funny for me. At Fulham I struggled, I didn’t get much playing time. Keith Boanas [Charlton Athletic’s manager] approached me and asked me to sign and they were probably the best in the league behind Arsenal.
“I was flattered because I wasn’t playing and I was still a kid really. Keith and Matt [Beard] showed a lot of belief in me. I had a great year there, playing up front with Eni [Aluko] and she’d assist me every game. The way she could take on players and I’d always be in the middle, it was a great year. We made the cup final but we weren’t good enough to beat Arsenal.”
Unfortunately for Dowie, Aluko and the rest of the squad, including the likes of Casey Stoney, Charlton’s cup final defeat came on the same day the men’s side were relegated from the Premier League. With budget cuts necessary, all the players were forced to look elsewhere for the 2007/08 season and Dowie had the chance to fulfil her dreams at the top club in the country – possibly Europe.
“It was a sad time when the club folded because I could see myself progressing there,” Dowie says. “I had an offer from Arsenal and met Vic Akers. He showed me around the training ground and offered me a place there. I spoke to Mo [Marley] who was at Everton but that was a four hour drive from where I lived.”
She adds: “I’ve always liked a challenge, liked being the underdog and I’ve never wanted anything to be easy. I felt if I went to Arsenal I would have won lots of trophies but I decided to go with Everton. I wanted to beat the best and beat Arsenal, even if it meant travelling up and down the country every week.”
Dowie would go on to spend five years at the Toffees but never got her hands on the league title. She did play a big role in Everton’s famous FA Cup triumph over the team she’d turned down, though.
They came close in 2009. Everton led Arsenal by three points going into the final day when they faced, ironically, the Gunners, meaning a draw would be enough to dethrone the Gunners. Agonisingly, Everton fell to a 1-0 defeat, which saw Arsenal take the title on goal difference, but 12 months later Dowie would get her revenge of sorts.
In the 2010 FA Cup final at Nottingham’s City Ground, an Everton team including Rachel Brown, Fara Williams, Jill Scott, Toni Duggan and Dowie faced the all-conquering Arsenal of Faye White, Rachel Yankey and Kim Little. In a match which saw Everton throw the lead away twice, Dowie chipped Emma Byrne from a tight angle after getting on the end of a through ball by Brooke Chaplen.
Looking back almost a decade later, Dowie is rather philosophical about the memories. “I guess the older you get and you’re not winning as much, you really look back at those moments and remember them fondly. When you get those big moments, they always sit in your memory. It feels a lifetime ago but it will always be up there in the best moments of my career. Arsenal were huge favourites so those moments remind you why you play the sport and give up so much for moments like that. Hopefully I’ve got more like that before I retire but if not, I can look back and know I won the FA Cup.”
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Whilst Everton never got the league title Dowie craved, they did obtain a licence for the new FA WSL which started in 2011. But the Toffees were going in the wrong direction. They dropped out of the European spots in the first season before once again finishing third behind Arsenal and Birmingham City in 2012, eventually ensuring Dowie and several of her teammates moved on to a new challenge.
“I don’t regret it [turning down Arsenal]. I had some great years with Mo, we won the FA Cup and narrowly missed out on the league. I met Becky [Easton] at Everton and now I’ve married her so maybe it was fate. I always wonder what that team would be like now. Nikita [Parris], Jill, Toni all being a bit older. It would be a frightening team.”
After finishing bottom with a total of just five points in 2012, Everton’s local rivals Liverpool decided they’d had enough and would take the battle to Arsenal, investing plenty of money to assemble a squad capable of knocking them off their perch. Matt Beard, assistant to Keith Boanas at Charlton, was in charge and tasked with ripping the squad up. Ten players were let go and Beard assembled a squad that included Dowie and several of her Everton teammates, as well as players from abroad.
“Liverpool had huge ambitions,” she recalls. “I was earning about £250 a game at Everton and travelling four hours up and down the country. Matt approached me and to be honest it wasn’t even a great deal but it was something like £10,000 a year and that was huge at the time.
“We’d train five nights a week as opposed to two nights at Everton. He was talking about bringing in US players, German players, Scandinavian players. You just didn’t hear about foreign players coming to England then.”
Everything just “clicked”, as Dowie describes it, and Beard followed through with his promises. As well as bringing Easton, Lucy Bronze and Fara Williams from Everton, he also recruited internationals such as Whitney Engen, Amanda DaCosta, Nicole Rolser, Louise Fors and several more. “Going to Liverpool was probably the best decision I ever made,” admits Dowie. “I don’t think I’ll ever experience what I experienced in that first year. The chemistry we had, the football we played, by a mile it’s the best year of my playing career.”
Liverpool hit the ground running and pulled one of the most unbelievable results in FA WSL history at the start of 2013. Champions Arsenal, who were still dominating women’s football, decided to hold their first home match of the season at the Emirates Stadium where they would face Dowie’s Liverpool.
A new-look Liverpool side, a team which had won just one match in the entirety of 2012, went to the Emirates and walked away 4-0 winners in a result which was scarcely believable, Dowie scoring one of the goals. “We didn’t think it would click as quick as it did. But these players coming from abroad didn’t know anyone, they didn’t know the Arsenal players who maybe English players were a bit intimated by. I think that helped us in a way. Matt’s recruitment that year, either he was a genius or he was very lucky,” she laughs.
Dowie was riding the crest of a wave. She’d finally won a league title almost 10 years after making her debut with Watford and to go with it she was the top scorer in the league with 13 goals, three clear of the next best player. But there was one rather large elephant in the room: England. Despite playing for her country at every age group, Dowie hadn’t, and still hasn’t, ever been called up to a major tournament for England.
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Whilst she accepts the Euros in 2009 came too early for her, by the time Euro 2013 came around, she was at the peak of her powers and the decision by Hope Powell to leave Dowie out was seen as controversial at the time.
England would flop and be eliminated at the group stage phase, ensuring Powell lost her job and giving Dowie a chance to impress new manager Mark Sampson. “When I was younger and just getting involved with the senior team you’re more accepting of the decisions made by the manager. There were a lot of top strikers ahead of me and I hadn’t proven myself consistently despite a good season with Everton. But when I won the golden boot, player of the year and the league with Liverpool, I felt I should have been involved more.”
Dowie again helped Liverpool to the league title in 2014, a season which threw up the most dramatic final day the league has ever seen. Liverpool faced Bristol Academy in Widnes on the final while the two teams sat above them, Chelsea and Birmingham, went to Manchester City and hosted Notts County respectively. Neither had won the FA WSL before but Liverpool were still viewed as rank outsiders despite their experience of doing it before.
“It was crazy but I still think the first title was the most special because we broke Arsenal’s dominance,” she says. “I remember waking up on the last day and I had flashbacks to when we lost it with Everton because it was the same stadium. I don’t know how the second title happened, I really don’t, we weren’t really even in the running. Chelsea had to lose, Birmingham had to lose or draw I think, I can’t even remember the scenarios. We were 0-0 at half-time but we heard Chelsea were losing and in the second half we just relaxed and ended up 3-0 up.”
Chelsea were indeed losing. Emma Hayes’ side trailed 2-0 in Manchester before reducing the deficit to one whilst Birmingham’s Karen Carney had missed a penalty which would have given her side the title. “People on the sidelines were telling us what was going on,” she recalls. “At full-time we didn’t really know. Fans were cheering and we started cheering but then we heard the Birmingham game was still going on. I just remember standing in the centre circle and I was praying to God and I’m not even that religious. When I saw everyone start celebrating I couldn’t believe it, I really couldn’t, that’s just the beauty of sport.”
Dowie adds: “At half-time we just said let’s not have any regrets and make sure we at least do our job. We didn’t know what we needed, even at 3-0 I was asking Beardy if we should go for a fourth or go to the corners.”
With another league title under her belt and a change of manager at the head of the England setup, it seemed like Dowie had a realistic chance of working her way into Sampson’s thinking for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. But it was the likes of Jodie Taylor and Fran Kirby who seemed to sway more towards the manager’s thinking, leaving Dowie once more without a major tournament call-up. “I’d still love to play for England and without sounding rude I think I should have played more. Looking back, I feel I was never given a huge chance. I started under Mark against Ukraine, scored two and barely played again.”
It’s now an incredible four years this month since Dowie last stepped onto the pitch for her country, but she says she’s not bitter, though that won’t stop her ambition to finally go to a major tournament. “It’s one person’s opinion,” she says. “I always believed I could bring something different. They have some strikers in unbelievable form but I honestly don’t think there’s anyone with my style of play, sort of an old-school number nine.
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“My face didn’t seem to fit under Hope. Under Mark, maybe a little bit more but still didn’t get the chance I deserved. I was never told why so it’s hard to know, maybe he thought players were in better form but on paper I was the top scorer.”
Dowie held a positive discussion with new head coach Phil Neville earlier this year and admits she takes him at his word when he says he’s keeping a close eye on her. “He told me if I was playing well and scoring I’d always be in his mind. If that’s the truth, and I trust his word, then that’s exciting. I’m realistic, I know it’s maybe only the next couple of tournaments I have a chance of. But I won’t stop. I work hard, I work for the team and I’m constantly wanting to improve. I’d be there 100 percent if I did get the call but England has a great team now and it’s great to see them progress as they are.”
Back on the club scene and things weren’t exactly going swimmingly. Liverpool had done enough to convince other clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City to invest in the women’s game and Beard’s side suddenly started to fall behind. As remarkable as their rise from bottom to top in one season had been, their fall back down to seventh in 2015 and almost relegation was just as stunning.
Players were departing frequently and a number of injuries left Liverpool with a bare-bones squad at the end of the season. Youngsters such as Danielle Gibbons, Shannon Beckwith and Hannah Dale were earning game time and the squad had almost become unrecognisable, forcing Dowie into a new move for 2016. “Winning the league makes life a lot harder, everyone wants to beat you. We had so many injuries though. Nicole did her ACL, Becky broke her arm, Fara and Asisat [Oshoala] were injured. I’m struggling to even think who was playing. At one point I ended up as captain because Gemma [Bonner] got injured too.”
Beard himself had had enough too, departing for NWSL side Boston Breakers at the end of the year. Before making her mind up on what to do, Dowie spent the off-season playing for Melbourne Victory in Australia’s W-League, a move which has seen her fall in love with the city and country, although she admits that wasn’t her initial motive for moving. “Melbourne has been the best thing I’ve ever had the fortune of coming across,” she enthuses. “My first year I only went there because it was three months in Australia – decent lifestyle, have a kick about, that kind of thing. But I fell in love with it, the league has kicked on dramatically and the Matildas are flying.”
Dowie has never won the W-League title but has become a mainstay at Victory, returning every winter since to play in the quickfire three-month campaign, along with many other international stars. “Everyone wants to go there now, before it was even hard to fill the international spots. Victory is the best club I’ve ever been involved in. It’s a family club and I’m very lucky to be captain there, that club is everything to me. I’ve been quite open to people about my future being there when I retire. Jeff [Hopkins] is one of the best managers I’ve worked under. I just wish it was longer so you didn’t have to find somewhere else to play,” she laughs.
But Dowie did find somewhere else to play and her new destination came as somewhat of a surprise. A player who had won several league titles opted to join newly-promoted Doncaster Rovers Belles, back in the top tier after being demoted in the league restructure back in 2014.
Managed by Glen Harris, both Dowie and Easton were signed up to help the side compete back in the top tier, but the move didn’t last long nor end well for either. “Glen got in touch and he seemed like a great character and was passionate about the club. Becky was going there and we’ve always played together, that was obviously a big part of me going there. My happiness and my life is important so to be where my wife is is important.”
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After losing their opening four games, Harris was sacked and both Dowie and Easton would soon follow him out of the club, leaving by mutual consent during the mid-season break. “Would I say it was a regret? Maybe,” she ponders. “But I don’t like looking back and having regrets. I chose to do it, it didn’t work out when Glen got the sack it didn’t feel right me staying there.”
It’s clear as she’s got older Dowie has become more philosophical regarding her career path and chosen to believe that everything has happened for a reason. When she left Belles, she got an offer to fulfil a lifelong dream when former boss Beard offered her the chance to join him in Boston, along with several of her former Liverpool teammates. “It had always been a dream to go to America since I was a kid watching Bend It Like Beckham! That door wouldn’t have opened if it hadn’t been for it going wrong at Doncaster. It was a breath of fresh air. It took me out of my comfort zone in regards to how competitive it was, how athletic it was, they really are athletes out there.”
In keeping with the recent theme of Dowie’s career, the move didn’t have a smooth ending. The Breakers had regularly propped up the bottom of the NWSL table and come the end of 2017, there were strong rumours the club would fold due to financial trouble. “It was tough,” she admits. “I didn’t know what was happening, there was a lot of talk of folding or relocating and that was a hard period. I didn’t know where I was going to be.”
The Breakers did indeed fold, leaving Dowie and her teammates without a club, a situation she’d been in a decade previous with Charlton. The league held a Dispersal Draft that gave the remaining the clubs the opportunity one-by-one to snap up those now left without a club in Boston.
After being informed by her agent there was more than enough interest in her, Dowie settled down in Australia with her family to watch the mayhem unfold, confident she’d be one of the early picks. But Dowie’s name never came; even players who had retired such as former teammate Whitney Engen were snapped up but the striker’s name was never mentioned.
“I was told that probably after Rose Lavelle I’d be the next pick, but the second round went by and I’m on the phone to my agent trying to find out what’s going on. Even players who had retired like Amanda DaCosta and Whitney were being picked and I was like ‘This is humiliating’, but a lot of coaches had their squads sorted and I was an international footballer on a high wage. At the time I was angrier that I’d been put in that situation – how can you be the only one left out? It was a shock for me. I went from being so positive to not knowing where my future was.”
Once again, though, adversity opened another new door for Dowie who admits travelling has now become a big, and much loved, part of her career, although she still regrets how her USA adventure ended. “I was getting settled there and the fans were great. It was sad, I felt sorry for the fans and a lot of supporters became close friends of mine.”
Dowie would soon join Swedish champions Linköping in search of a new adventure. A goal on her debut and several more followed as she took to the Damallsvenskan like a duck to water in a deal which would only see her stay at the club until July. “It was a bit of an up and down time. We had mixed results, we were knocked out of the Champions League and threw away games from positions we were leading, then we lost the cup final too.
“But it’s been a good experience. I’ve really enjoyed travelling and going out of my comfort zone in the latter years of my career. I’ve had to prove myself again everywhere I go and I’ve liked that. I’ve travelled so much because I want to be playing at the level I think I should be at. I’m not willing to just settle for an average team, I want to be at a level that will challenge me.”
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Dowie’s now a free agent and currently training with former club Liverpool before she plans to return to Australia for her latest W-League season, but after that, Dowie has learnt not to stress and be grateful for what she’s got. “I guess I haven’t really found anywhere since Liverpool that I really want to commit to,” she admits. “But we have a great life, if we’re happy and healthy and Becky’s happy then I see myself as very lucky to be able to play this sport at a high level.”
Dowie has consistently dropped references of her wife into the conversation and it’s clear to see how much the pair mean to each other. The striker goes as far as saying her life would be “completely different” if it wasn’t for having Easton by her side. “If she hadn’t been there with me at Doncaster and Boston it would be so different. You’re there as a shoulder to cry on and I wouldn’t be travelling and doing what I do now if it wasn’t for her and people don’t really realise that.
“Becky was 42 and playing for Belles and she could have played for a couple more years. She gave that up for me to pursue my career in America. I’m just so lucky I’ve got her and what she’s done for me, I’ll always be grateful. She’s basically my right arm, she’s at every game, making me a better player, I’m massively lucky to have her.”
Dowie has also always been viewed as an outspoken character and she’s already admitted perhaps her face didn’t fit in the England team under both Powell and Sampson. But the striker has no regrets over anything she’s done or said during her playing career so far and admits she wouldn’t be the person she is if she wanted to change anything. “You live and learn by things but I don’t regret anything,” she says. “If you speak to Mo, Keith, Matt, they would say I’m the ultimate professional. I’m always first to training and the last off the pitch.
“If you take that away from me then it’s not me anymore. I’ve never been disrespectful, if I’ve ever said anything it’s for the good of the team, not to be rude about anyone. I’m an emotional character, I play with my heart on my sleeve. All the top players have something different, if you take that away from them they wouldn’t be that player.”
But Dowie admits she may have had more luck on the international scene if she’d been a different person. “Maybe if I’d been a bit quieter and more of a ‘yes’ player then who knows? I don’t regret that because that’s not me. I’d rather be getting picked for scoring goals.”
The past couple of years have thrown up some tough moments for Dowie, but it appears she’s come out the other side with a different outlook on life – certainly her career – as she looks forward the next chapter and what awaits her at the other side of 30. “There’s a lot of people who can’t do what you do, you can’t live your life with the emotion of the past.
“There are a lot of top players who haven’t won the league, haven’t won the cup, haven’t won the golden boot. I’m healthy, happily married so sometimes you just have to look at the bigger picture and remember it’s just a game. It’s not the be all and end all. Just remember how lucky you are to do what you do.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty