Millie Bright on how women's football inspired a generation

Katie Strick
Evening Standard
Woman of the match: defender Millie Bright in this season's new Chelsea strip
Woman of the match: defender Millie Bright in this season's new Chelsea strip

Millie Bright gets bored easily. The Chelsea defender and star of summer’s Women’s World Cup admits she feels at a loss on a day off.

“I have to tell myself to rest completely,” says Bright, straight off the pitch at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham and still sporting her signature blonde messy bun. Rest days used to mean travelling back to Yorkshire — she is Sheffield-born — for horse-riding and playing with her nephews, but she is trying to be strict. Now, days-off are more likely to feature yoga, emails and cooking at home in Redhill, Surrey. “Over the years I’ve learned that rest days are rest days for a reason .. .but it’s hard.”

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Bright, 26, has unfinished business. Just six weeks ago, she and her fellow Lionesses captured the nation’s hearts for their run to the World Cup semi-final, with record viewing figures for every match. They were narrowly beaten 2-1 by the USA, the competition’s winners, and finished in fourth place, with a another close 2-1 loss to Sweden in the third-place play-off.

They might not have won the trophy but they certainly brought football home. Almost 12 million people tuned in to watch the semi-final, making it the UK’s most-viewed TV programme of 2019 and the “busiest night of the year” for London’s pubs. According to figures, half of these viewers had never watched a Women’s World Cup game before this summer’s tournament.

Bethany England celebrates with teammate Millie Bright after scoring (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)
Bethany England celebrates with teammate Millie Bright after scoring (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

“In that sense, we’ve succeeded,” smiles Bright, recounting the thousands of messages she’s had from fans since the tournament: the mothers whose daughters have been inspired to play football; the teachers who have set up girls’ football teams at school; and just as importantly, the fathers taking their sons along to watch a game. She tries to respond to every one.

“It just shows how much things are changing,” says Bright, who swapped social media for a journal for five weeks over the tournament. “People are really starting to buy into this idea that it’s not women’s football, it’s just football. Yes, it’s completely different to the men’s. But ultimately, we’re doing the same thing.”

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The fight isn’t over yet, though: Bright’s focus now is keeping the momentum going. After the World Cup, she spent two weeks in Mexico with her boyfriend Jordan Bird — a course assistant at Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Club — but admits she was “eager” to get back on the pitch. “As a professional, you have to embrace these moments,” she says, a sense of urgency in her voice. “That’s the responsibility: it’s important for every club to make sure we’re doing all we can to get people to come in and watch our games.”

So far their efforts seem to be working: next month Chelsea Women — which had 11 players competing in this summer’s World Cup — play Tottenham in the Women’s Super League season opener at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea anticipates a near-capacity crowd at the 41,000-seat stadium, which would make it the biggest-attended women’s league game in England in 99 years.

All general-admission tickets for the London derby are free and were claimed within four days of release (400 are being made available to Standard readers) — an unprecedented result for women’s football. Bright — who started at Doncaster Rovers Belles before signing with Chelsea Women at 21 — wants this to be the norm. “We want people who’ve never experienced women’s football before to come and join us — men, women, boys, girls, grandads, all the dads going down to the pub to get a beer and watch the game”.

Bright didn’t begin playing football until the age of nine — much later than most of her teammates — but she wants little girls to start as young as possible. Her own junior school, where her mother still works as a teaching assistant, recently set up its first girls’ football team and has seen an influx of sign-ups post-World Cup. “That in itself is a milestone,” says Bright.

A new favourite pastime is being invited to speak at schools. “That’s where it kicks in that we did inspire a nation,” she smiles. “As an eight-year-old you can only dream of playing in a stadium full of people roaring and chanting.”

When schoolchildren ask her what it’s like, she likes to refer to her World Cup highlight: walking out onto the pitch for their first game against Scotland. “Being with the team and looking up to see your family in the stands — money can’t buy those moments.”

Indeed, Bright’s parents and two older sisters have been constant cheerleaders. Growing up, they juggled football training with horse shows and since she turned professional, they’ve been to every single match. “I always take all the tickets,” she laughs, remembering how she had 17 family members in the stands at one World Cup game in July. “It’s just as much their journey as it is mine.”

Over the summer, the Lionesses provided her with a second family. Bright recently wrote about the team’s “special aura” and described her relationship with captain Steph Houghton as “hard to quantify; like an unspoken one between two sisters who would do anything for each other”. England goalkeeper Carly Telford, who also plays for Chelsea, is another close ally. Off the pitch, she and Bright often cook for each other and go shopping in central London — “though we often get recognised,” she laughs, impersonating groups of schoolchildren whispering and pointing. “It’s nice, it just shows that we’re going in the right direction.”

"Ultimately we’re doing the same thing as the men — we’re just striving to get more money"

Millie Bright

Bright is determined to keep “breaking barriers” but is careful not to compare the women’s game with the men’s. Is she paid the same as her male counterparts? “I’ve no idea,” she admits. “But I think the women’s game is different. We’re striving for more money and to get more people on board in terms of sponsors and stuff, but it’s all a process. I think we have to trust that process, that it’ll get there, probably in the next generation.

“Ultimately, we want the women’s game to keep growing. It’s good not to compare, but just to know where we’re at, and where we want to be and how we’re going to get there.” She mentions last week’s Uefa Super Cup men’s game between Liverpool and Chelsea, which was officiated by an all-female on-field referee team. The move attracted criticism from former Liverpool coach Graeme Souness, who claimed the team were not qualified enough to take charge of such a game, but Bright calls it a “real milestone”. “It goes back to that point of not being judged on whether you’re female or you’re male: you’re judged on the job you are doing and the level that you do it to. You’re there to do a job — and they succeeded. I was so proud.”

Have she and the team ever discussed having children following certain players’ struggles returning to the sport? No, says Bright, but adds: “I think it would be very difficult to go away and have a baby and come back up to that level because the games grow so quickly, but I know Chelsea is a club that would 100 per cent support the player and make sure they’ve got everything they need.”

Bright certainly isn’t thinking about that yet, though. Yesterday, she celebrated her 26th birthday on the way back from Tel Aviv, after playing the Israeli women’s national team on Tuesday as part of pre-season training.

Her family will come down to Surrey this weekend to celebrate, though Bright admits any kind of party is “hard” in her chosen career. “I think I’ve spent all my birthdays so far in with the girls,” she says. “They’re not a bad bunch to be around, though, so I’ll take that.”

The London derby is on Sunday, September 8 with a 12.30pm kick-off. Chelsea FC Women are proud to support the Chelsea FC Foundation. For details of how to get free tickets, visit chelseafc.com/en/foundation

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