Rachel Daly is heading to St. George’s Park to join up with Phil Neville’s England ahead of what is to be her first senior tournament with the Lionesses. It’s been a long journey for Daly, still only 27, one that has taken her from hometown club Leeds to the USA and an on-off international career.
She missed the squad’s pre-camp the week before due to her NWSL duties with Houston Dash but has enjoyed a few extra days at home after being sent off in her final match before the World Cup.
Growing up in Harrogate in North Yorkshire, Daly’s love of football kicked off like many others before and after her, her family. “I just wanted to be like my brother,” she admits. “He played long before I did and my dad played every weekend so I’d spend all my weekends going to their games, kicking the ball about at half-time, trying to show off like I was the best player ever. It started from there, I knew straight away what I wanted to do.”
Like many people who grow up as close to Leeds as Daly did, she was born into a family of die-hard Leeds United fans and as soon as she was old enough, she joined the rest of her family in getting a season ticket at Elland Road. So it was a dream for Daly when she got taken in by Leeds and eventually became part of the first team while she was still a teenager, as well as making her way up through the England youth ranks.
That culminated in a call-up to the 2008 Under-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand, part of a squad which included Lucy Bronze, Jordan Nobbs, Izzy Christiansen, Lucy Staniforth, Gemma Bonner and Danielle Carter.
For England, it was far from a bad tournament as they finished fourth, but it set Daly on a path which would affect her love for football, a tournament that still sticks with her to this day. “That World Cup was a bit of a turning point, it wasn’t very good for me,” she recalls. “I didn’t get called in after that for a while and I almost wanted to give up. You’re a million miles away from home, 16 years old and getting told you’d never play for England.
“It was a turning point, I wanted to quit. I went home, I was in tears, didn’t know whether I was coming or going. It was all I ever focused on and it felt like it was being taken away from me. It upset me for a long time, I felt like I had no purpose anymore.”
But, as I put it to her as someone who can also call Yorkshire home, people from the area are stubborn and determined – and Daly has certainly fought back to prove a lot of people wrong over the past decade. “I shook out of that mood after a few weeks. I had time to process and I just thought ‘I’m not giving up just because one person says I won’t make it’. That was my turning point. I knew then this was going to be my career so that World Cup did end up being a turning point.”
Things weren’t about to get any easier back home. Daly was now a part of a very good Leeds team that had reached the FA Cup final in 2008. It was a side that comprised of experienced internationals such as Sue Smith, plus a whole host of emerging talent such as Daly, future England captain Steph Houghton, Carly Telford, Jade Moore and Ellen White.
But when the new FA Women’s Super League came around in 2011, Leeds – managed by Rick Passmoor – didn’t apply for a licence and essentially demoted themselves into the tier below, leaving every player with a big question mark next to their future. “We had such good players and I genuinely think we could have gone so far,” Daly remembers. “We had it great off the field and on the field because everyone was such good mates, so many of those players went on to play for England at the top level.”
Regarding her own future, she says: “It was more a nervy feeling because we didn’t know who would go where. You have 20 players – how can you get them all into a team? That was the more daunting part. A handful of us went to Lincoln but Leeds was my childhood club. If you’re putting on the shirt of the club you’ve grown up supporting, it just adds a little more motivation. Even just saying to your mates, ‘I play for Leeds’ – it sounded better.”
But it wasn’t all bad. At Lincoln, Daly was a full-time professional footballer for the first time in her career and played the first two full seasons of the new FA WSL. “We were training every day, living away from home and fending for ourselves for the first time. I used to get my dad to take me to training on a Tuesday and Thursday night [at Leeds] so going in every day was a massive stepping stone. We started to see women’s football was going somewhere and that was the biggest thing for me.”
England, though, was still on Daly’s mind. She’d not been involved with the national team at any level for a while. It was time to try something new, so after two years with Lincoln, Daly left everything behind to forge a new career for herself in the USA, specifically New York. “I’d seen enough and done enough. I wasn’t with England, I’d spent the whole time trying to prove I could play for England so at that point I needed to let go a little bit and not hold onto it quite so much.
“I also wanted a degree. It was weird though because I wanted to spend my whole school life not being there. I knew a few people in the US and I felt like I’d done everything [at home] to try and play for England. I think I got bored, I was set in my ways, everything was such a routine and it almost felt like I’d just had enough.”
She adds: “When you’re that age and you get to go and visit New York and this lifestyle. it’s like. ‘Woah, how can I turn this down’. I’d hit a brick wall at Lincoln.”
Despite that, things weren’t really getting much easier for Daly. She had to sit in the stands for her entire first year for her university team, St. John’s Red Storm, due to the fact she’d played professionally already in England. “Because the FA WSL was semi-professional, I wasn’t ineligible completely but I’d been paid to play so I had to sit the first year out. It was frustrating because they weren’t very good at the time and I couldn’t play. There were times I thought ‘what am I doing?’ – but it gave me more motivation to help turn the team around.”
Daly made up for lost time with her final three years. She set a record for goals with 50 in 60 games over three seasons, 23 of them coming in 21 games during her maiden year. Daly was breaking various records and became the first player in the team’s history to be named on the NSCAA All-America first team and the first to be named as a semi-finalist in the Hermann Trophy, an award previously won by the likes of Christine Sinclair and Mia Hamm.
There was even a surprise on the horizon. After replacing Hope Powell as England head coach at the end of 2013, Mark Sampson called Daly into his first squad for a camp in La Manga, something which came out of the blue for a player who had ironically moved across the pond to forget about England. “I had no idea,” she admits. “I never thought it would happen again so when I got called in I couldn’t believe it. It was such a shock.”
By the end of 2015, Daly was in demand and was graduating with a major in sport management and a minor in business. Teams in England were interested in bringing her home while others in the NWSL also wanted to snap her up.
If she was to stay in the USA, it would mean entering the NWSL draft, held at the start of every year where hundreds of keen graduates hope to be one of the 40 players drafted by various NWSL clubs. “When I was in college I always wanted to play in the NWSL,” says Daly. “But my junior year I got battered around a bit. I think they’d picked out this new player who had done really well so I got some injuries. I never thought I was going to get drafted because it’s much more difficult as an international player.”
Indeed, clubs can only have a certain amount of foreign players in their squads for any given season. “I went into my senior year and did really well but my mindset was to come home and I’d spoken to a few clubs here. Then Randy Waldrum [Houston Dash manager at the time] called me and asked if I wanted to play for the Dash.
“I was like ‘I’m going home, sorry, I’m not interested’, but he kept calling and calling and in the end, I knew he was serious. I’d heard a lot about the draft and people saying they’ll draft you and then it doesn’t happen, but I thought I’d enter it just in case.”
Draft day came at the start of 2016 in Baltimore; not far from where Daly had spent the past four years of her life. “Randy told me he was picking me, but I didn’t know when or if he was even going to. I think he had the fifth, six and eighth picks. The top ten usually get told the night before and after that it’s a complete shock to everyone. I don’t think anyone knows.”
Waldrum used his sixth pick on Daly and the Harrogate-born player was now an official NWSL player, which meant she’d be a teammate to USA star Carli Lloyd.
Her NWSL career couldn’t have started much better. A goal and an assist saw her named player of the week on debut and would lead to a season where Daly played 16 games, scoring four and assisting as many for the Dash.
She was also fully back in the England fold. Called up for two games against Serbia in the summer, Daly started up front and scored on her senior debut at Wycombe’s Adams Park, solidifying her spot in the squad over the coming camps. “It was that sort of ‘Ha’ kind of moment. I’d done it. To this day it takes me back to the day I got told I wouldn’t play for England. I work so hard every single day to make that dream a reality and it had started to piece together again.”
Ahead of Sampson’s squad announcement for Euro 2017, Daly had featured in every camp but was still quite new to the squad; there were no guarantees she was going to be named. “Something in my head was telling me ‘you’re not going to make it’, and I don’t really know why,” she recalls. “I had a bad feeling the night before, I didn’t feel right. I was in Portland for a game and I woke up in the middle of the night.”
Daly had been left out: another blow to her England career. “I knew it. I had one of those moments again, a kick in the teeth, why am I doing this, why am I getting upset about it, all that kind of stuff. But that’s what made me who I am and now I’m a better person and player and I deal with things a lot better now.”
Instead of wanting to walk away, as she had almost a decade before, Daly channelled her energy and determination into moving on and supporting her teammates. “I had a game that day and I just thought: ‘Get over it and be the best teammate you can be’. I wanted the best for them and the team and I just had to concentrate on myself. I wanted to prove people wrong and get back in there.”
She continued to make steady progress for her club, scoring five goals in the 2017 season, but endured a scary incident shortly after the England squad announcement during a match against Seattle Reign.
In scorching temperatures, Daly stumbled and collapsed at the end of the game, sparking obvious fear – but fortunately it turned out to be less serious than it looked. “It was awful,” she recalls. “The game was a blur to be honest. I was ill at half-time and I was just put on a drip, I’m not sure a lot of people know that. I was dizzy and shaking, I really didn’t feel well. I think I’d played full-back but I switched from left to right at half-time so I was in the sun for both halves. I don’t remember what happened but I just remember coming around from it and being like what the hell just happened to me?”
A versatile player, Daly was not just playing both full-back positions for her club, but also on the wing, the attacking position she’d played through college.
After Sampson was sacked following the European Championship, Daly was called into camp for Phil Neville’s first games at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup and has become a key squad member under a manager formerly known for his own versatility.
After another year of playing in several positions under Neville – despite her best season in front of goal for her club – Daly decided she’d had enough of being a jack of all trades. “I turned around to Phil at the start of the year and told him I’m sick of being this versatile player. I don’t like it, it’s always been used against me. I don’t want to play just anywhere, I don’t want to be an average player in any position, I want to nail down one. He turned around to me and said, ‘No, your versatility has been abused by everyone you’ve worked with but I’m going to use it. You’re not good in a number of positions, you’re great in every position.’
“He gave me a confidence-boosting conversation. I came into that meeting telling him I was sick of it and thought I’d come focusing on one position but he gave me some relief. It had always pissed me off, I was sick of being versatile, I’d always miss out because I wasn’t a natural right-back or a natural winger, but with him it hasn’t mattered. He lets me know what to focus on before a camp – you need that as a player and you don’t always get it.”
Whatever she’s done, Daly’s combination of hard work, determination and talent has paid off. Last month she was named by Neville in the squad for the World Cup, which kicks off this week, her first major tournament at senior level and her first of any kind since New Zealand 11 years ago. “I got the email at 2am, my alarm was set for 1:55,” she laughs. “You’d think I’d have gone back to bed but I was flying. I rang my mum for an hour.”
In justifying all the hard work she’s put in and not walking away when the going got tough, Daly says it’s all been worth it now: “All the things I’ve talked about, it’s paid off. Good things do happen when you work hard. I’ve seen so many players quit and so much talent go to waste. I don’t know what to say about it still, it’s everything you ever dream of and work for.”
With plenty of years still ahead of her, this may still just be the beginning for Daly. She’s playing well in the USA, scoring goals and now an integral part of her nation’s squad.
She’s open to what the future hold when it comes to the short-term and has turned down several top European clubs recently – but she knows where her long-term future is. “I’m actually applying for my green card now,” she says. “Ultimately, I want to spend the rest of my life here after football. I’ve built a life out here and it’s my home away from home. Once I get that I can come in and out of the US and maybe I’d look at coming back. If I was going anywhere I’d go to England. I do miss home and the girls and I need to experience that league again, but I’m taking it year by year and just seeing where I end up.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLavery