Mary Earps: 'I want to make goalkeeping cool'
Mary Earps will go down in Women’s Super League history as the first goalkeeper to reach 50 clean sheets in the division, but her contribution to changing wider perceptions is set to be her lasting legacy.
When she first played in the WSL in its founding year in 2011, comments mocking women’s goalkeepers were commonplace; it was a semi-professional era when dedicated position-specific coaching for women and girls was almost non-existent. Yet last summer, as Earps helped England win their first major trophy, such abuse was much harder to find.
“The narrative around goalkeeping is something I feel really passionately about,” the European Championships-winning Lionesses No 1 says. “I really want young kids to view goalkeeping as something they want to get involved in, and that it’s cool, it’s fun and it’s important. Goal-scorers are the people you always see on the TV adverts and things like that.
“I turned a lot of my comments and social media stuff off [during the Euros], but I’m really pleased that people were so positive about it, especially when maybe these people haven't understood where the game has come from in terms of the lack of coaching available. But I’ve definitely had my fair share of online criticism, and when I was around 17 I was part of that group that was criticised really heavily, even though I was still learning my trade. So if I can be part of the more positive change now, then that’s great.”
Now 29, Earps is at the peak of her powers between the sticks and she has been nominated on the six-person shortlist for Fifa’s Best Women’s Goalkeeper award for 2022. She describes her inclusion as humbling and, just as importantly, she cares about where her sport goes next.
“I’d like people to be able to make more of a living out of the game and not have to choose between things so much,” Earps says. “For example, the people before me never got the opportunity to do what I do full-time and the young kids now will not have to do what I did either, in the sense that I had to go to university, I had to travel three-and-a-half hours each way to training when I was playing for Bristol and for Reading.
“I still think it’s really important that women’s football paves its own path. I don’t want it to just mimic what the men do. It can also become different in the sense that most of the boys don’t get a chance to go to school, they have to commit [to a football academy] very early on, so then the dropout rate… If you do get released, you don’t have anything behind you, you don’t have a back-up plan. I don’t want to see that happen because I think education is really important, so I’d like to see the women’s game not fall into some of the same traps and negatives.”
Earps, who has a degree from Loughborough University in information management and business studies, has only been able to fully focus on life as a professional athlete since 2016, when she signed for Reading. She then had a spell with German side Wolfsburg before joining Manchester United in 2019, and has seen the sport evolve over the course of her own career.
“Now it's starting to become a more serious profession,” she adds. “I didn't have a proper goalkeeper coach until I went to Birmingham [in 2013], when I was probably 19. That’s far too old for that to be happening, but now the game’s changing.”
Things are also changing fast for her Manchester United side, who are top of the WSL at the season’s halfway stage, before hosting Everton on Sunday, but Earps says the club are not talking about being title winners just yet.
“There have been a couple of games where we’ve really, really dominated, and I’ve thought, ‘Okay, cool. This is great – I've had nothing to do’,” Earps half-jokes, before adding: “You’re always looking for areas that you can improve and I think we’ve got a better squad this year. We’ve got a deeper squad, for the first time since I’ve been at United. Hopefully that’s going to put us in a really good place going into this heavy fixture schedule that we’ve now got.
“I’m sure there are going to be bumps along the road, but as long as we stick together and keep trying to push forward, hopefully we will be where we want to be at the end of the season.
“We’re not really talking about the fact that we’re top of the table because there are a lot of teams with games in hand and all these sorts of things. And from that point of view, it doesn’t really mean anything to be top of the table in January, it’s much more important where you are at the end of the season. So, we're pleased, but the job is not done by any means.”