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There’s something about Mary: how a little girl from Notts became England’s most beloved keeper

There’s something about Mary: how a little girl from Notts became England’s most beloved keeper

“I’m very ambitious about wanting to push myself to reach my absolute maximum potential and change the landscape of female goalkeeping. You know, just small goals,” Mary Earps joked in an interview with GQ earlier this year, ahead of England’s appearance at the Women’s World Cup 2023.

It’s a quote that sums up Earps — or Mearps, as her teammates and TikTok followers know her — wholly. A force to be reckoned with, packing in more determination than is often found in entire football teams, but almost always taking the p**s, just a bit.

Earps is nothing if not self-effacing. Of this same GQ photoshoot, she told the BBC: “You get a little bit like, ‘Why do they want to talk to me?’ Probably [because] no one else was available, that’s probably why.” But last night, when she took to the stage to collect the trophy for the BBC's Sports Personality of the Year award, Earps could deny her worth no longer — though she still tried. “First of all, I'm so humbled to be on a list of such incredible athletes,” Earps opened. "Sport is a fantastic thing where it brings the world together and it’s been brilliant to listen to everyone’s stories, so congratulations to you all."

In her speech, Earps also reflected on "not so great times" in her career journey, which has not been a straight shot to superstardom. Over the last year, in Earps’ own words, “doors have opened that used to be padlocked shut”. Back in 2019, Earps was dropped from the England squad entirely. Then, in 2021, she was offered a pay package from Manchester United that wasn’t enough for her to live on. She considered packing in her football career entirely.

Now, she has indeed changed the landscape of female goalkeeping, not just for herself, but for women and girls everywhere who will follow in her footsteps.

It all sounds momentous, but Earps never takes herself too seriously. In reality, she wakes up, listens to the Mamma Mia soundtrack, eats her scrambled eggs or blackcurrant jam on toast and drinks her tea — Yorkshire, the only brand she approves of — like the rest of us. Hailed as both the “TikTok queen” of the England squad and “Mary, Queen of Stops”, here’s what the reigning football royal is actually like.

A football-loving family

Mary Earps with her brother Joel in 2017 (Mary Earps via Instagram)
Mary Earps with her brother Joel in 2017 (Mary Earps via Instagram)

Growing up in West Bridgford, a town in Nottingham, Earps was a stone’s throw from The City Ground, home to the largest local football team, Nottingham Forest FC. But Earps became the goalkeeper she is today as a result of a much smaller pitch: her back garden.

Joining her dad and brother for a kickabout at the age of eight, Earps realised she loved the game as much as the men in her family (her brother, Joel, is a semi-professional footballer who was most recently signed with Ramsbottom United) and so she sought out bigger pitches.

When a local dad set up West Bridgford Colts FC, she was straight in there. “I think everyone loves their first team,” Earps told the FA blog of West Bridgford Colts. “I’ve always played in goal and this was the first time I was part of a proper team. And I loved my jersey because it was shiny. All the girls in the team were friends, the parents were friends and we’d go round to each others’ houses.”

Mary Earps with her younger sister, grandmother and mother (Mary Earps via Instagram)
Mary Earps with her younger sister, grandmother and mother (Mary Earps via Instagram)

She continued: “Football really helped me at school. It helped me communicate with people better and gave me the confidence to disagree with people if we were having a debate in class.

“Sport is great like that. It gives you drive and ambition. The way I am is shaped by my sporting background. It helps you make friends, it teaches you lessons and how to interact with people. You get to meet people from all kinds of backgrounds, too, which is brilliant."

As well as her father and brother, Earps is especially close with her mum, Julie. Turning up at her GQ shoot this July, where the BBC was also present, Earps and her mum joked about, saying they just “fake it for the cameras” in a classic show of multi-generational Earps mockery.

“We’ve always been proud of her,” Julie told the BBC in a separate, more serious interview, “[I’ve] always thought, ‘Well I must have done something right, [to turn] out this incredible girl.”

“She’s enthusiastic about everything,” her mum continued. “She did have a period where she wasn’t enjoying life and her football was a bit precarious but that’s all turned around [in the] last year.”

The whole family bond around football — including Earps’ Gran, who the goalkeeper has filmed watching footie matches before, making well placed comments on male footballers “rolling around on the floor [...] holding his bloody knee and nobody touched him.”

Majoring in football with a side of Information Management

After nestling into West Bridgford Colts with a natural knack for goalkeeping, Earps moved to Leicester City aged 14 and was trained at their centre of excellence. It was then that football became a serious pursuit for Earps, who proceeded to play for nearby teams Nottingham Forest and Doncaster Belles.

However, being a women’s footballer also means being pragmatic, as most women’s football pursuits aren’t enough to pay the bills on their own. For context, a footballer in the Women’s Super League (the highest women’s football league in England, making it the closest equivalent to the Premier League) earns an average salary of £47,000 a year, whereas male players in the Premier League make more than that, on average, per week.

Earps in her Manchester United kit (The FA via Getty Images)
Earps in her Manchester United kit (The FA via Getty Images)

So, knowing that she may realistically need another job at some point, Earps applied to the same university as her brother — Loughborough — and signed up for a degree in Information Management and Business Studies, from which she graduated in 2016.

Luckily, the football world quickly swept in to remind Earps of her first dream, and she joined England’s senior squad as the fourth keeper in 2017, just a year after graduating. Next came Bundesliga, then Manchester United, and she has stayed at the latter club ever since she joined in 2019.

Getting dropped from England and struggling to make ends meet

In 2019, then-England manager Phil Neville crushed Earps’ dreams when he unexpectedly dropped her from the national team. “I was very much of the thinking that: ‘Yeah, this is probably the end of the international road,’” Earps told The Guardian of this time period. “I never expected anything more. I didn’t feel entitled to anything.

“I never thought I’d be in a squad for a major tournament again, let alone start a final. I can remember the days of feeling really low. I got to a point where I felt I’d reached my limit. I’d given football a good go but I wasn’t quite good enough.”

Mary Earps at the Women’s 2022 Euros (REUTERS)
Mary Earps at the Women’s 2022 Euros (REUTERS)

Matters were made worse when her WSL club, Manchester United, presented her with a contract offer which was too low for her to actually live on. “I was down and out,” she told GQ. “There was no way my career was going to be resurrected. It was dead and gone. Run over 3,000 times and trampled by a million elephants.” Luckily, a slightly higher offer came through from United in the 90th minute, and Mearps was able to cling to her football dream by her fingertips for just a minute longer.

Then came Sarina Wiegman, who was hired in 2021 to replace Neville, and recognised Earps’ potential immediately. “I felt she really understood me,” Earps told The Guardian, “believed in me and had real empathy for me as a human being. That’s not something I’d experienced a lot in football.”

Back in the game

Mary Earps is awarded the FIFA Golden Glove Award following the FIFA  Women's World Cup 2023 final (Getty Images)
Mary Earps is awarded the FIFA Golden Glove Award following the FIFA Women's World Cup 2023 final (Getty Images)

Just a year after Sarina Wiegman stuck her neck out for Earps, the Nottingham-born goalkeeper helped lead the England team to victory at the Women’s Euros, securing England’s first major trophy in over 60 years. Earps conceded only twice in the whole tournament, and Wiegman’s decision to put her back on the team was undeniably consolidated. Earps and her teammates became national heroes, and her life turned upside down.

“What I’ve enjoyed in the last four years is that it [sometimes] feels like it can take an eternity for things to change, and then it just changes very quickly,” Earps told GQ of her experience since the Euros. “I’m conscious of trying to be as present as possible, knowing that my time could be up at any point.”

In February, Earps thanked her family for “picking her up off the kitchen floor” after she was named FIFA Women’s Goalkeeper of the Year at the 2022 FIFA Best Awards in Paris (which were postponed until 2023 due to Covid). “This is for anyone who has been in a dark place,” she said while clutching her award on stage. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

And while England may not have brought home a trophy at this year’s Women’s World Cup, Earps’ profile has only risen thanks to her excellent performance, as well as her online presence throughout the tournament. Nicknamed the “TikTok queen” of the Lionesses, Earps has documented her and her teammates’ Australian antics with a sense of joy so abundant you wouldn’t know they were in the midst of a major tournament.

Whether it be surprising her teammates with “jumpscares,” whale watching on the coast, showing off their dancing skills or printing her teammates’ faces onto her coffee, Earps’ TikTok was the tonic to our post-World Cup sadness. And it's antics like this, as well as her undeniable sporting prowess, that won her BBC's Sports Personality of the Year Award last night.

“It’s not been the easiest journey and I wouldn’t be here without the incredible people in my corner, who have been with me through the really, really not-so-great times," she told the audience.

“The last two years have been unbelievable, I’ve done more than I could have ever imagined and for that I’m truly grateful. Thank you to my goalkeeping coaches who are here tonight and my team-mates. I couldn’t have done it without them."

And, finishing off in classic Mearps style, she closed with: "Now I’m going to get off the stage before I get the boot from Gary Lineker!”