Manchester United's Alessia Russo interview: 'It's an exciting time for us in the England set-up'

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Alessia Russo poses in front of goal - Ash Donelon - Manchester United
Alessia Russo poses in front of goal - Ash Donelon - Manchester United

For a lifelong Manchester United fan twiddling with her phone during a geology class at the University of North Carolina, the best possible distraction from a lecture on volcanoes and pyroclastic flows was an unexpected call from then-England head coach Phil Neville.

“Oh god, what have I done?” thought Alessia Russo, as she excused herself from the room to answer the call. As it turned out, Neville was phoning to offer her a debut senior England call up at the 2020 SheBelieves Cup. Fast forward nearly two years and she is the scorer of England Women's fastest ever hat-trick and - after re-finding her form after battling back from a lengthy hamstring injury last term - she is leading the line for a Manchester United side chasing a spot in Europe.

“Last season was really rough, it’s horrible when your sport is taken away from you for such a long time, but it makes you realise your love for the game again. I’ve got a lot of goals and ambitions, but at the same time, I just love playing,” said the 22 year-old from Maidstone in Kent, whose father used to play up front for the Met Police and whose Italian grandfather ensured the whole family were Manchester United fans after a chance visit to an Old Trafford in the Eighties.

“United is part of our family. Grandad fell in love with Old Trafford and the team, so we were all raised as United fans. Growing up, for me, it was obviously about Ronaldo, but I also loved Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, that generation.”

When that call came from another of the 'Class of 92' in Neville, Russo had been in her third year of college football with the prestigious North Carolina Tar Heels, whose remarkable list of alumni includes United States icon Mia Hamm and England's current head coach Sarina Wiegman. That spell abroad enabled her to continue studying - including that geology class she’ll never forget - as well as developing her game, scoring 28 times in 57 games for the Tar Heels, before the club she had supported as a child came calling in September 2020.

“It was almost like fate for me to come here. I love the club, it was the perfect fit for me. And it’s a group of such talented, young humble people to be involved with. It was a project I wanted to be a part of, and it’s one that I’m loving.

“We’re a changing room full of winners and I think that we need to start backing up our performances with results now. Everyone’s really hungry to get back on the pitch and show what we’ve got. I would love to keep winning and pushing for the Champions League with Manchester United.”

Fourth in the WSL, Manchester United face their head coach Marc Skinner’s former side Birmingham in the WSL at noon on Saturday, knowing a win would move them into the top three. They are on a run of three straight wins in all competitions, but Russo herself is also in top form, and full of confidence after coming off the bench to score an 11-minute hat-trick - the fastest by any player for England Women on record - in November's 20-0 win over Latvia, in only her second senior cap.

England's Alessia Russo with a match ball after the Women's FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D match between England and Latvia at the Keepmoat Stadium, - PA
England's Alessia Russo with a match ball after the Women's FIFA World Cup Qualifying - Group D match between England and Latvia at the Keepmoat Stadium, - PA

“With every camp, I’ve gained more confidence. That [hat-trick] was amazing, I didn’t expect it at all," added Russo. "As a footballer you don’t often get the chance to just enjoy the moment but in that moment, I really did. It was a bit emotional - I knew I was where I wanted to be.

“What an exciting time for anyone in and around the England setup [ahead of this summer's home Euros]. Even to kind of be in with a chance is something I’ll relish. I know there’s loads of work to do and we have so many talents in England, especially in attacking positions, but I’d love to work hard towards it and see what happens. For women’s football in England in general, the Euros is such an opportunity to showcase everyone’s talent because, while the people who really know women’s football know the calibre of players, there’s still a lot of doubters of women’s football, and hopefully this summer can prove them wrong.”

The former Chelsea and Brighton striker, who came through Charlton’s academy, is no stranger to wearing an England shirt, having been a regular up front for the youth international side since her Under-15s days. And she’s been scoring goals for fun ever since she started training with the Under-5s in the village of West Farleigh near Maidstone, in Kent. She was playing two matches every weekend by the time she joined Kent youth league outfit Bearsted FC: One game with the boys team on Saturdays, and another with the girl's team on Sundays.

Charlton soon came calling to sign Russo up to their academy, and it was there where she had a rather serendipitous encounter with Casey Stoney: “When I was around seven or eight, we used to ball-girl for Charlton’s women’s team, and then one game we were the mascots as well and it worked out that I walked out holding hands with Casey. She was the captain at the time, she was very much in the zone, trying to amp up the team.”

Under former manager Stoney, United's women made their Old Trafford debut last term, but Russo missed out because of her hamstring injury. For that reason, 27 March’s home game against Everton will be extra special for Russo and her family, as it will be the first time she has played at Old Trafford - the ground which will also host England’s Euros opener in July.

“It did feel special to see the girls play there, but you’d be lying if you said you weren’t even that little bit more gutted than you already are to miss a game, I guess it just lights the fire a little bit more.

“Dad and my brothers will be there, all the family. It’s kind of like a give-back to the fans because they support us week-in, week-out, home and away, freezing cold, and to play in front of them at Old Trafford would be amazing and we owe it to them to hopefully go out and perform.”

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