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28th May 2019

Towering talent: Nikita Parris is primed to take on the world

Melissa Reddy

There is a haze of people, instructions and cameras at Vicarage Road, the corridors of Watford’s ground carpeted by chaos in preparation for the making of an advert, but cutting through it all is an unmistakable face, voice and energy.

The Football Writers’ Association’s Women’s Footballer of the Year, who is also the Women Super League’s record goalscorer, commands one’s attention and controls it: her passion for the game painting every expression and perfectly delivered through a proudly Scouse accent.

Nikita Parris – wit as sharp as her feet – has achieved so much at the age of 25, but still feels like the little girl kicking a ball against the window-pane in her front garden regardless of how many accomplishments roll in.

There is a picture of her, aged eight, a wide grin colouring her face as her right foot perches on a ball and that representation seems as accurate as ever.

“Football still gives me butterflies, it still makes me smile,” the England striker tells JOE in-between production of a Lucozade Sport ad celebrating the Lionesses ahead of the Women’s World Cup in France.

“The feeling I had at 14, getting selected for Everton’s Under-15 side – that excitement, pride, all the emotions – it never goes away. It still happens when I’m waiting for the England squad announcement. I’ll get sweaty palms, I’ll sit and scroll through my inbox, refreshing it continuously making sure that the email comes through.

“It’s such an honour to represent your country and it’s something I never take for granted. It’s still a celebration to receive a call-up and I want it to always be that way.”

Parris, labelled “infectious” by Lionesses manager Phil Neville, is prepping for her maiden World Cup after a silverware-lined journey that had an unlikely beginning.

The forward, who won every domestic honour during a four-year spell with Manchester City and has now transferred to Champions League heavyweights Lyon, would endanger the windows of the family home in Toxteth as she practiced her shooting skills after attending St Patrick’s Primary School.

When she was seven, her neighbour Calvin came to their rescue – much to Parris’ mother’s relief – by encouraging the “ball of energy” to play for Kingsley United, an all-boys team he coached.

It wasn’t long before other young girls in the area were inspired by her involvement, which led to the offshoot of a female side.

Nikita acted as the head recruiter, coaxing as many of her family and friends in the community to join in, with the team ultimately featuring her sister as a centre half, one of her cousins as the goalkeeper, while another operated on the right wing.

That desire to see girls find sanctuary in the game has only intensified. 

Having moved from Kingsley to Everton’s centre of excellence before the switch to City, Parris wanted to share the positive impact football had on her life with as many students as possible, launching the NP17 Academy last July at City of Liverpool College.

“From the age of seven, I knew I wanted to play football – I didn’t think about it in a professional sense in terms of making money from it, it was more about the social aspect of being with my friends and losing myself in the sport,” she explains.

“It was a wonderful way to integrate people – for the longest time we’ve known it to be a male-dominated field, but us females have always been kicking around as was the case during my childhood in Toxteth. It just used to be us kicking around in the background, or at the Methodist Centre and now we’re rightly in the foreground.

“I wanted to give back to a place that has given so much to me. Toxteth is a huge part of who I am, of my career, of how I’ve shaped up. I just want to give youngsters from my community the opportunities to kick on as well.”

The course focuses on all elements of football, including coaching and physiotherapy rather than solely seeking to develop players. Parris was keen to “help bring through the next generation of people involved in women’s sport,” but stresses that the focus is also on “making sure everyone involved grows as a person.”

Her pride at being raised in Toxteth, the inner-city area which prompts external perceptions of crime, racial tensions and dilapidation largely due to the 1981 riots, is punctuated throughout the interview.

“Those who live outside of Toxteth and don’t know much about it would just label it a deprived area,” Parris states. “For me, it’s home and it’s pushed me to become the strongest, greatest version of myself.

“I’ve felt the love and support of an entire community and wanting to repay that, to thank my people, has helped me hit so many heights.

“I wouldn’t be where I am now, if it wasn’t for where I’m from,” she adds, referencing the similar examples of Robbie Fowler, Tony Bellew and Natasha Jonas – her half-sister who became the first female British boxer to fight at the Olympic Games in 2012.

“We played out on the street every single day as a family, with neighbours, at the community centres when there was the case and I developed the desire to win very early. That environment instilled a competitive edge in me, which has paid dividends in my life.”

Parris, a devout Catholic and former altar girl, wears a deep appreciation for her parents and siblings. Jonas, who won a football scholarship to St. Peter’s College in New Jersey, could have been sharing a pitch with Nikita if it wasn’t for an ACL injury which forced her to pick up boxing gloves instead.

Their dad would shuffle all the kids to the park and “you either got involved in a kickabout or were the odd one out”. If Parris needed someone to take her to training, her uncles would offer, while her mother spent a lot of days getting pelted by the rain to make sure she got to and from sessions.

Apart from Jonas and four older brothers, Lyon’s newest recruit has a twin sister, Kelsey, who was also incredibly sharp in front of goal – just unfortunately against her own side.

In 2015, she gave birth to a daughter, with Nikita paying tribute to her niece, R’myah Dixon, with a thumb-in-mouth celebration that March.

Here, at Vicarage Road, Kelsey and her little one are present to share in this experience with “the pride of the family.”

R’myah is clearly in awe of her aunt and she is not alone. There are girls around the globe that have been moved by Parris, just as she was by her heroes Julie Fleeting and Rachel Yankey.

“It’s surreal,” she says in response to being referred to as an idol. “You never quite fathom the extent of how far your reach as a person goes. I get comments from girls in India, China, from so many places I’ve never even visited, to say I am an inspiration.

“That warms me and I enjoy the responsibility of being a role model but I always say ‘don’t strive to be me, strive to be better than me’ because for women’s football to continue growing, you need greater talents continuously coming through.

“You need the pool to be as wide as possible and for the competition to ramp up.

“When I started, there were only around 60 girls in my talent pool between the ages of 16-18 and now it doubles and trebles, which is an important trend.

“Football has done so much for my life and it’s good to see more girls giving it the opportunity to improve theirs as well.”

Parris cushions an obvious relentlessness with a light touch: she wants to maximise her gifts, but she also wants to enjoy the opportunity to do what she loves.

“I know that there are great women players around Europe working as hard as me towards the goal of being the very best and that drives me on,” she notes. “I can’t get comfortable, I can’t let my standards slip.

“I’m only 25 and I still have a lot of myself to give to the game. I want to have fun and relish this experience and I’m really grateful to already be viewed as an example.

“I know young girls look up to me and I like to think that I conduct myself in the right way.

“There’s definitely been an added maturity to my game and personal growth. I’ve been lucky to have really great people around me over the years to help mould me into the determined player I am – Andy Spence, Mo Marley, Phil Neville, Nick Cushan, Keith Marley.

“They’ve been integral to my development as a player and as person.”

Apart from her academy, Nikita also completed a sport development degree at Liverpool John Moores University last year to ensure her movements off the pitch are as dynamic as they are on it.

“When I was growing up, there was no real pathway you could see to becoming a pro female player,” Parris details.

“When I was 15, the WSL was just formed and there were only six people at Everton, who could say they were pro, the rest were all part-time.

“I knew it was important to expand my options because football is a contact sport and there’s long-term injuries that can happen so it is best to be prepared for them moments.

“Now I do find myself thinking about the stuff I’ve learnt, beyond just the course work – more how it applies to my career, the game and life in general.”

Parris speaks with authority about “building the women’s game from the ground up” and clarity when she admits that while the attention and expansion to her field has skyrocketed in recent years, there is “still a long way to go.”

She remembers “growing up and only having access to one ladies game on TV – the FA Cup final,” but beams as she documents the wider coverage across broadcast, print and digital platforms.

“The pioneers of the women’s game in this country – the likes of Casey Stoney, Faye White, Fara Williams – fought so hard to gain recognition and support so it’s crucial that companies like Lucozade have come on board to help us get to the next level,” Parris says.

“The commercial value of women’s sport in general has gone up exponentially in the last five years, but I’ve never seen a growth spurt like the one we’re having in women’s football at the moment. It’s amazing time to be a part of it and to encourage more youngsters to get involved.

“With the World Cup approaching, we want to elevate that even more and show young girls there is definitely a pathway to be involved in football, for them to develop and thrive in the game.

“I really want to implore every little girl to give sport a try, you don’t have to play football – there’s hockey, there’s netball, there’s so many options. Just have a go because sport is a great engineer to bring people together and to bring the best out of yourself.”

As kick off for the World Cup nears, Parris is eager to demonstrate the possibilities she speaks of. England are grouped with Scotland, Japan and Argentina and the goal-getter is convinced the squad has the capabilities to be crowned champions.

“Ultimately, we want to go out there and win the tournament,” she sternly offers. “We’ve got the quality to do so, we’ve got the confidence on the back of victory at the SheBelieves Cup against some of the best teams. We got bronze at the 2015 tournament and we’ve been advancing together since.”

On a personal level, the aim is “to make sure I really show the world who Nikita Parris is as a footballer.”

And what exactly would that illustration depict?

“A tenacious, attacking player with a winning mentality that operates with pace and directness, who is ruthless in front of goal.”

Her team-mates and opponents will be nodding in agreement.