Sitting tightly amongst the game’s archetypal ‘team’ players, Kate Longhurst has been able to maintain the lighter side amidst the successes and strains of a career now largely spent with Liverpool Ladies. Mixing on-field intensity with generous doses of enjoyment off it is something the former Chelsea player does well, and it has been vital on a footballing road she has no intention of turning off from anytime soon.
“Kate Longhurst – she is a winner.” Those were the words of former Liverpool Ladies manager Matt Beard, said with unmistakeable sincerity as he recalled the Reds’ FA Women’s Super League title-winning seasons of 2013 and 2014.
The ex-Millwall youngster was a player he brought with him from Chelsea to Liverpool over five years ago and victory was generally the theme of their time together at the Merseyside club. Bringing more than just one piece to the puzzle on the pitch, the striker-turned-midfielder is known for being an off-field beacon of light in a club environment, with current Reds boss Scott Rogers calling her ‘an outstanding team player’ and a ‘big influence’ when renewing her deal at the end of 2015.
Still just 28, Kate has seen herself elevated to status of senior player at Liverpool, and while she fits the mould perfectly of the experienced playing personality that successful sides depend on, the number seven believes what she does to be about so much more than just turning up to train and play.
“For me, a big part of football and enjoying it is the social side, and I think it always has been,” she explained. “I am ambitious in terms of playing football but for me, it’s always massive, the part off the pitch.”
“Over the years, we’ve had quite a few characters, especially here. Katrín Ómarsdóttir, I loved her; she was so funny and just someone you could bounce off straight away.
“Katie Zelem was always a massive character here and it’s been a bit quieter without her (since her move to Juventus). There’s been so many different people that I’ve got on with or just different characters who bring their own little individual bits.”
While she remains the life and soul, there are many examples in the game of how playing with something of a chip on the shoulder is far from a bad thing, and Kate likes the challenge of showing she is not merely an incessant battler in the engine room.
“I like proving people wrong, because I think quite a lot of the time, when I’ve been here and at other clubs, sometimes people may think I’m technically not as good as other players and I know one thing I’m always going to produce is hard work. I think the key is to always try and improve.
“I kind of like playing relaxed, but I also don’t mind responding to a little bit of criticism and showing that I want to prove people wrong.”
Growing up in Witham in Essex, Kate was a Colchester United youngster alongside representing England as a youth international. In 2006, she partnered Ellen White in the Nationwide Under-17 Tournament final as she netted for England in a 2-0 win over Scotland.
Although a runner-up on the day, she also showcased that deadeye prowess on the big occasion for Chelsea in their 2012 FA Women’s Cup final with Birmingham City, racing on to a chance and burying a right-footer into the far corner with no hint of hesitation. After that Under-17 international final, she said that she didn’t know how to celebrate her goal, and that may still be the case now, as she has become long since separated from the predatory positions she used to prowl.
“I used to be a striker and I don’t think Scott would put me anywhere near there now! I’ve had to change my role quite a bit; I think I’ve become more of a defensive player, probably because I watch a lot of football, and I feel like my understanding of the game’s quite good.
“I haven’t scored for ages now so it’s probably best that I don’t go anywhere near the 18-yard box! When I was younger, I was quite quick, so I used to always look to get in behind and try and finish shots that way, whereas now I think I’ve had to work a lot on my game coming short and getting on the ball a little bit more.
“My role’s changed quite a lot really.”
In her seasons at the club, Kate has been part of the highs, the setbacks and the subsequent rebuild with Liverpool. She was amongst the side’s first foray into the UEFA Women’s Champions League in the winter of 2014, which was earned after that great FA WSL title battle with Bristol Academy in 2013.
Then came another league crown, secured in markedly different fashion as a three-pronged final-day tussle that seemed to have Liverpool as the rank outsider swung spectacularly in their favour. Football or otherwise, you have to be in it to win it, and with Chelsea and Birmingham fluffing their lines, it all landed at the door of the Reds on that Sunday afternoon in Widnes after a comfortable 3-0 win over Bristol.
The Liverpool squad in those back-to-back successes was undoubtedly strong, with domestic names like Gemma Bonner and Lucy Bronze amongst the backline, Fara Williams pulling the strings in midfield, and Natasha Dowie up top. Overseas talent like Corina Schröder and Nicole Rolser, Katrín Ómarsdóttir, Amanda Da Costa and Louise Fors all played their part along the way, and Kate feels the unity was the very backbone of their triumphs.
“I think team spirit always takes a massive part of it, because I think if you get on off the pitch then you’re willing to work harder for people and probably willing to do a little bit more for them. That’s always been a big thing here, and then it’s just the quality and having players that can be consistent and turn up in big moments.
“We’ve been fortunate over the years to have players that can produce on the big occasion.”
Injury hit hard in Matt Beard’s last campaign before his switch to the Boston Breakers in the National Women’s Soccer League, and suffice to say, second-last (7th) was not what they had in mind when 2015 got underway. Beard’s one-time assistant Scott Rogers took the reins for 2016, and after finishing in 5th place, they went on to end a spot higher in last year’s Spring Series.
“We’re definitely still in the progression phase.”
That is exactly where you find the Reds at this moment in time, perched in 4th with six wins and four losses from ten games, which seems to highlight them as the WSL’s ‘best of the rest’ behind the big-spending three of Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal. There is the definite sense that something is building within the Liverpool ranks again, and Bethany England (on a season-long loan from Chelsea) has led the way at the attacking end, scoring 11 to help earn her the WSL 1’s Player of the Month accolade for January.
The team won five in a row over October and November, albeit via a shootout against Durham in the Continental Cup, but being in that groove can only add layer upon layer of confidence and belief. With reference to February losses to Arsenal (3-0 at home) and Man City (4-0 away), Kate assesses how close she feels they are to being silverware-ready again.
“We’re definitely still in the progression phase. We’ve got a lot of young players coming through the team and it’s about bedding them in and getting us to play at a more consistent level against the best teams.
“I think against Arsenal we played quite well, but we didn’t take our chances in the moments that we needed to, and against City, some of the goals were quite lucky but I don’t think we deserved anything from the game. We’re still building, we’ve got a lot of young players, but I think in the next couple of years we should be looking to build a side that can challenge.”
Back in July 2014, Kate had a personal moment to savour as she served up a Merseyside Derby winner, picking out the top corner from the edge of the box to sink Everton with a club icon in Robbie Fowler watching on. In reaching this point, though, not everything has been a bed of roses for the former Watford player.
As the WSL transitioned to a schedule in line with the traditional English football calendar, the eight-game condensed Spring Series of 2017 was a spell Kate admits brought cause for reflection on a personal level.
“The Spring Series was quite difficult for me, in terms of I’d started at the beginning of the season and didn’t feel like I’d done much to all of a sudden not be in the team, but I knew that other people were playing well. It’s kind of one where you want to be playing and you want to be producing your best, and I felt that in training I was proving myself, but other players were doing well.
“So, it did make me question a little bit, ‘is this where I wanna be?’ and stuff like that, but then you’ve just got to kind of look at the bigger picture and think ‘alright, it’s not a personal thing, people are playing well ahead of me, so what do I need to do to get myself back in the team?’”
Six years ago, Kate had a taste of management herself as she led Thurstable School’s team to the ESFA Under-18 Schools’ Trophy for Girls, with a 3-2 win over St. Julie’s at the Don Valley Stadium. Although she was originally going to help out with the Under-17s at Liverpool, she wanted to focus her efforts on playing, so coaching has been on the backburner since.
She does, however, say that when she finishes her playing career – ‘which hopefully isn’t in the next couple of years’ – she may well look to resume coaching so she can stay in a game she describes as a big part of her life. In some ways, Kate has already been gearing up for something along those very lines, which she touches on as she thinks about how she has changed since playing the role of the goal-getting youngster.
“I think I’ve matured quite a lot. I still like having fun, and well, you ask other people and I’m still quite young at heart, but I think I’ve definitely matured, on and off the pitch.
“You kind of look after yourself a bit better and you might have to change your role within the team as well, so now I’m one of the older players I have to check that some of the younger players are alright and things like that. When you’re a bit younger, you’re a bit more carefree and you look after yourself a little bit, whereas now you’ve got to look at the bigger picture and see if anyone’s struggling or if anyone needs a bit of advice or help if things aren’t going well.
“I think you change quite a lot as you get older. Most of my life does revolve around football.
“I watch a lot of football, I go to games, and I’ve still got my season ticket at West Ham, so I go there when I can. Now I’ve got a bit older I like looking at the world as well; city breaks when I can, climbing mountains, things like that, just to appreciate the good views and appreciate what the world has to offer.”
A true fan favourite season after season, it is hard to imagine Liverpool Ladies without Kate Longhurst. It would be largely impossible to be around a city like Liverpool for five years and not to become immersed in the culture of the place, so does this particular southerner qualify now as a bona fide adopted Scouser?
“Well my accent’s still pretty Essex-y! I love the city and the people, and it has become a home for me here.
“I haven’t really picked up the accent, but then we haven’t really got many in the team; it’s only really Alex (Greenwood) that’s pure Scouse. But I think whatever happens from here, it’s always going to be a big part of my life, Liverpool.
“It’s really where I’ve had most of my adult life, so it’s definitely a city that will always stay close to my heart.”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes