Lethal, humble, wise: the making of England record-breaker Ellen White

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<span>Photograph: Kieran Riley/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Kieran Riley/Shutterstock

“I’d have said: ‘You’re having a laugh,’” said Ellen White, when asked whether she could have imagined, as a schoolgirl, becoming England’s record women’s goalscorer.

Speaking after her hat-trick in England’s 20-0 drubbing of Latvia had taken her two clear of the record 46 goals by the legendary former Arsenal striker Kelly Smith, White was relieved. “We move on and don’t mention it again,” she said with a laugh, desperate for the spotlight to be diverted away from her.

Related: Ellen White breaks record as merciless England thrash Latvia 20-0

That humility has endeared her to many, says Smith, who feels her own tally could not have been passed “by a nicer person”. “She’s very humble, she’s very wise, she’s a very likable person within the team, on and off the pitch,” Smith says. “She’s just a delightful person really. She’s worked extremely hard to get to where she’s at and she deserves all the accolades.”

The 32-year-old White began in Arsenal’s academy and enjoyed three years at the club with Smith, winning two league titles and two FA Cups, after returning from spells with Chelsea and Leeds Carnegie. She then joined Notts County, scoring her first Women’s Super League goal for them against Arsenal in style, from a free-kick after play-acting confusion between White, Laura Bassett and Alex Greenwood to catch their opponents off guard. After two years in Nottingham, during which she spent a season out after rupturing an ACL, White played for Birmingham before joining her current team, Manchester City, in 2019.

“She’s had an outstanding career,” Smith says. “She suffered quite a few serious injuries, like myself, but battled back and fought hard to get back to a high level. Her game has really evolved. I used to play at Arsenal with her and she played on the right hand side of a front three, mainly crossing balls in, trying to get on the end of crosses, being more of a creator. Since she moved into the middle she’s become a deadly striker not just in the WSL but in international football.”

White has credited the former England manager Phil Neville with having helped her control her positioning. “He initially told me to stay in the 18-yard box, which I was quite resistant to because I like to run about a bit and get involved, but essentially staying in the width of the goal is where you’re going to score goals,” she said in November 2019. “It took a while for me to change my game a little and really understand what he meant by that: being in the right place at the right time and the timing.”

Ellen White says Phil Neville (right) helped her with her positioning while he was England&#x002019;s manager.
Ellen White says Phil Neville (right) helped her with her positioning while he was England’s manager. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images

That change saw her take England by the scruff of the neck at the 2019 World Cup, scoring six of the team’s 13 goals in seven games as they made it to the semi-finals. White finished with the bronze boot, level on goals with the golden boot winner, Megan Rapinoe, and silver boot winner, Alex Morgan, but having made fewer assists.

At the Olympics this summer she was similarly influential, scoring six times in four games, including a hat-trick in Team GB’s 4-3 defeat by Australia in the quarter-finals.

“She thrives off big games,” says Smith. “The Euros, the Olympics, the World Cups, that’s where you want to perform and test yourself against the best. There’s nothing better than playing international football. She’s led the line, using her experience and knowledge of the game; she’s taken her game to another level. Her movement to find the ball in the box, her finishing is lethal – when you’ve got Ellen White in the box you’ve always got a chance of winning.”

White is a very different type of player to Smith, much more the classic No 9 whereas Smith was more of a technician, and they will be remembered in the history of the women’s game in very different ways but as equally important and influential.

“Ellen is an amazing finisher,” says her England teammate Fran Kirby. “She has so much composure when she goes one v one with a goalkeeper. She’s always thinking: ‘What if?’ What if the ball comes in that area? Even if it’s with the defender, she’s already thinking: ‘If they play a long ball there, where do I need to be to get on the end of it?’ I think what she has done so well throughout her career is just being there, at the right place, at the right time. And that is what you want from a No 9.

“I think she’s really learned a lot about that the last few years, saving your energy for the right moments to defend but also to be able to put the ball in the back of the net, and I think over the years that is why she has scored so, so many goals and she’s going to go down in history as probably the best ever finisher-striker in the England Women’s team.”

There are more goals in White, who has a lot more to give in an England shirt. She will lead the line at next summer’s Euros on home soil, and the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand the following year has to be on the cards.

Ellen White scores her second and England&#x002019;s third goal in the 20-0 win over Latvia.
Ellen White scores her second and England’s third goal in the 20-0 win over Latvia. Photograph: Anna Gowthorpe/Rex/Shutterstock

“She’s undroppable because of her goalscoring ratio and how she is performing in an England shirt,” says Smith. “She loves England games and she’s nowhere near retiring if she looks after herself and keeps performing the way she has been. Her career is in her hands.”

White is one goal behind Bobby Charlton’s 49 and five behind Wayne Rooney’s 53 international goals and becoming England’s all time top-scorer across the genders is surely well in sight, even if she doesn’t like it being said.

“Thanks for mentioning that – that’s great,” she quipped. “I’m just focusing on what I can control, playing for England, loving what I’m doing, supporting the team wherever I can to help the team win really. We don’t need to talk about it any more.”

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