‘I’m slowly starting to get back to the player that I used to be’ – Jamie-Lee Napier’s London calling, take two

Jamie-Lee Napier up against Durham for London City Lionesses this season. Sam Mallia/Sports Press Photo

“I’m enjoying every minute of my football here, I think that shows on the pitch and we’ve got a really tight, together group. I’m looking forward to finishing off the season on a high.”

London City Lionesses’ Jamie-Lee Napier, playing regularly, in a harmonious group eager to continue their push for promotion from the FA Women’s Championship. Liverpool leading the way so strongly means that Melissa Phillips’ side are currently in an intriguingly-congested chasing pack, but those at the club believe that whether it is this season or not, a place in the top division is attainable.

The FA WSL was the personal destination for their lively Glaswegian wide talent, just as 2019 was drawing to a close (back when the world seemed oh so different). Unveiled by Chelsea as a new signing, the then-19-year-old was on the crest of a wave.

Her 22-goal season for Grant Scott’s Hibernian also saw her named Scottish Women’s Premier League 1 Player of the Year. Scorer of a hat-trick against Motherwell in the previous year’s Scottish Cup final, she was on target in the 4-3 final loss to Glasgow City a few weeks prior to joining Chelsea, in a year that had also seen Hibs clinch the SWPL Cup for a fourth successive time.

“I remember before I actually signed, I went down for a week, and when I was going down, I was really nervous,” she recalls. “I couldn’t tell anyone (with the move not yet official), so I was just speaking to my mum and my dad, and I knew (Chelsea’s) Erin Cuthbert, so they were just reassuring me, saying ‘do your own thing, be you, don’t change’.

“I just went in and took that advice. You can go into that environment and be scared and a bit star-struck, and don’t get me wrong, I really respected all these players, but I was there to show the best version of me.

“A big part of my game and what’s probably got me to where I’ve been is my character, so I wanted to keep that with me. I got on really well with the girls and got a lot of positive feedback from the coaches, saying that the girls really liked me and I fitted in well.

“Credit to them as well, I was just a little 19-year-old kid from Scotland, they didn’t know me and they didn’t owe it to me, but they made me feel so welcome. Everyone was great, and you wouldn’t think that they were some of the best players in the world, because they were so genuine.

“Millie Bright actually let me live with her for a little while until I found my feet.”

For a young player out to make the best possible first impressions at a big club, house-sharing with one of the established starters could be a perilous prospect – nothing puts goodwill to the test like a battle for the bathroom each morning!

“Well, just the way her house is, she had her own floor in the top with an en suite, so I kind of had the second floor and I had my own bathroom! I think it was good for me to move in with Millie, because I was young, moving away from home, and she was like that mum figure to me.

“We had loads of laughs, she used to take me into training and she was just a massive help to me, anything I needed, she was there. I also had Erin, obviously, so having those people there for me at the start was really good and helped me settle in.”

Having made a pair of WSL appearances off the bench for Emma Hayes’ team in January 2020 (against Reading and Bristol City), with two further outings in cup competitions, the most unwelcome of subs found its way into the game soon afterwards – that of a pandemic. Jamie-Lee would end that season as a WSL champion, though it is hard to really feel as such when you had only a brief cameo, and the campaign itself was so abruptly cut short. Even skipper Magdalena Eriksson told us for SK62 how ‘it was hard to see the joy’ when the Chelsea squad learned via a Zoom call that they had won the league on points per game.

Like so many players, Jamie-Lee would return home for a number of months, as lockdown and spiralling uncertainty became 2020’s hot new style for the summer.

“When I first moved down, we were obviously in training, everything was going really well, I was enjoying every minute. The pandemic happened, and that was a blow, to be honest, because it just kind of put a hold on everything that I’d worked really hard for.

“When we came back in, we just had a conversation with Emma that the best thing for me would probably be to go on loan and get regular game time, because of the calibre of players that they had at Chelsea. At first, I kind of saw it as a negative thing, being sent out on loan, but then the more I thought about it, and the more chats I had with some of the other players, it was the best thing for me at that point.

“I moved to Birmingham and I was able to play 90 minutes week in, week out, against top-class players and teams. I always kind of knew that moving from the Scottish league to the English league was going to be a massive jump, but you don’t understand how big a jump it is until you do it yourself.

“Moving from Hibs – which is not professional, we were just training week nights – to arguably one of the best teams in the world, it was a huge eye-opener. I’m a player who loves a challenge and I loved being in that environment where I was tested against some of the best players in the world, having the best coaching.

“Just being in that professional environment, it’s something I’ve dreamed of as a young kid. It was tough, and it took me a while to adapt, but I wouldn’t change it, and I’m glad that I moved to Chelsea, because it really tested me and pushed me to my limits.

“It kind of set me up for the rest of my career, basically.”

As much as any chance to play in the WSL is appreciated, and there are countless players out there desperate for the same opportunity, it is a stretch to say that anyone grows up dreaming of backs-to-the-wall defending for 90 minutes most weeks. The 2020/21 survival odds were anything but weighted in Birmingham City’s favour, with well-publicised off-field strain too, but if manager Carla Ward was counting on unity being their most important signing, it proved to be just that.

Switching from a key part in one of the SWPL 1’s most attacking teams, to life at the other end of the top-flight food chain in England, is a significant adaptation, particularly for a young player.

“Carla Ward, she’s a big character, and she really made me enjoy my football again, just with the person and coach she was. I think she knew how to get the best out of her players, but being in a Birmingham team, we were kind of up against it, fighting relegation.

“We were just trying to sit defending the majority of games and that can be quite tough, and it can be quite draining, especially for me being an attacking player and wanting to go and show what I can do higher up the pitch. I was maybe limited in a sense, but just with the squad we had and being underdogs, it definitely drove me to grind out the performances and get the points to stay up.

“The group we had, we wanted to do it for each other and prove everyone wrong.”

Jamie-Lee Napier closed down by Manchester United’s Katie Zelem and Kirsty Smith during her loan spell at Birmingham City. Will Palmer/Sports Press Photo

The season also included the slightly surreal experience of twice playing against her parent club, starting in a 1-0 loss before coming on in a 6-0 defeat, with fellow Chelsea loanee Emily Murphy doing likewise in the latter fixture. Upon signing Jamie-Lee, Emma Hayes described her as ‘one we have identified for the future’, though her 18-month deal ultimately yielded a pandemic, a season-long loan away, and her departure at the end of it.

Today more than ever, the done thing in football is for players to present a public face of contentment at all times, to talk about being ‘here to help the team’, ‘just concentrating on the next game’, and so on. Reality is not nearly as mechanical and emotion-free as that, and when you take such a big step in your life – while still a teenager, no less – it would be impossible not to feel some amount of hurt when it does not work out as you dreamed.

Having found her way into another exciting chapter this season, Jamie-Lee can look back with some perspective.

“I think when you hear that Chelsea want to sign you, especially coming from Scotland, it’s a dream come true, and any little thought that you have in your head kind of goes out the window. I know for me, it was just an automatic ‘yes’, but thinking about it, I probably should have thought more into it.

“Going in there, I knew I wasn’t really going to play, I knew the team I was going into, but I just wanted to go there to develop, and I knew training alongside these players and being in a professional environment would do so much for me. On the flipside, being young, I need to be playing if I want to take the next steps in my career.

“Going out on loan, it was a kick in the teeth, but I think I benefited from playing 90 minutes week in, week out. I don’t regret anything I’ve done.

“Would I still like to have been at Chelsea and got a chance? Yes, but I think everything happens for a reason and you just need to trust the journey, and I’m on that journey now with London City.

“My full focus is with them and I think I’m slowly starting to get back to the player that I used to be. I’m playing with confidence and that’s all credit to Mel, (assistant) Cori (Daniels), the coaching staff and all the players.

“I think I’m so ready now to kick on and I’m using all those maybe setbacks, you could say, as motivation to push me forward. Not everything’s just going to be plain sailing, and I’m kind of glad these things have happened the way they’ve happened, because I’ve had to learn the hard way.”

Although a move back to one of Scotland’s leading contenders might have been understandable, England, she says, was where she knew she wanted to remain. Just as Erin Cuthbert was a welcome presence at Chelsea, it didn’t hurt embarking upon her recent new beginning with an almost-lifelong friend in Carly Girasoli.

A fellow former Celtic youngster, the ex-Glasgow City player joined London City last summer after a season with Rangers, where she had turned pro for the first time. From their Californian head coach Phillips, the Lionesses are sprinkled with multi-national flavour, from players to staff, but are there any changing-room ring leaders, as Jamie-Lee sees it?

“I’m probably the quietest…nah, I’m joking! We have quite a mixture of a group, but I think that’s how we all get on so well, and I think we all bring out the best in each other.

“I’m friends with everyone on the team, there’s no cliques, there’s no groups, which I think is great, because when it does get like that, you maybe don’t perform well on the pitch, because you’re just with your group. Me and Carly have known each other since we were eight or younger, so having one of your best friends on your team is amazing; I get to share that journey with her.

“We’ve got Murph (Alli Murphy Palisch), she’s a big character in the team, Shae (Yanez) as well, the goalkeeper, the likes of Harley Bennett, who’s our captain and a great leader and role model. Everyone is just a big character in their own way.

“We always have a laugh but we always work hard and share the same goals and ambitions. I made so many friends so quickly who made me feel so welcome.”

Jamie-Lee Napier takes a shot at goal during London City Lionesses’ FA Women’s Championship game with Coventry United. Sam Mallia/Sports Press Photo

The ‘possession-based’ approach at London City and the numbers they attack with have been sources of great encouragement, and she has felt the backing from those around her to take players on, believing also that her first goal is not far away. When it comes to the personal approach that seems to resonate most, meanwhile, lavishing praise probably isn’t it.

“Sometimes I’m not the best at receiving compliments; I’m one of those players that likes to be told what they need to work on. Mel, she’ll let me know what I need to work on, she’s always there and she’s very professional.

“Cori adds the other side; she’ll encourage me a lot, she’ll have that bit of banter with me, and I think that’s how you get the best out of me. I like to be able to get on and have a laugh but I also know when the right time is to switch on and get my head down.

“I think Mel and Cori are a good balance of that, and that’s bringing out the best in me.”

She also hasn’t forgotten one voice in particular that she had in her corner once upon a time.

“We got funding to get this pitch built in our school, so every lunch time, every break, I was always on the pitch. I had this teacher called Miss Boyle, and she was so good with me and football, because I was the only girl there really and she would always make sure that I was involved.

“If we ever had a penalty, she would make sure that I was up taking it! She was a really good figure for me growing up.

“Then when I went to secondary school, my teachers were so good with me, being away with Scotland and stuff, missing school, they were always so supportive and always encouraged me.”

The nearby Ibrox Stadium also holds a multitude of memories for the Rangers fan.

“I was a season ticket holder from the age of three to maybe about 15. I had to kind of give it up because it was getting to the point where my football was getting quite serious and that was my number-one priority, but any game I could go to, I would.

“I would always go with my mum; me and my mum are really close, so that used to be our type of thing, going to the games. I’d play for Celtic, I’d finish my game, then I’d get ready and put some of my Rangers stuff on to go to the game!

“My mum and dad would travel anywhere to support me and my football, and I just want to kind of give it all back to them and make them proud, because they’ve made so many sacrifices for me, and my little sister with everything that she does. They’ve been huge in all my success I’ve had.”

With no shortage of behind-the-scenes groundwork since London City’s official breakaway from Millwall in May 2019, they have visibly been starting to take the next on-field steps this season. Based in Dartford (also the club’s current matchday home), Jamie-Lee says she relishes sampling the nearby ‘London life’ whenever she can.

She credits leaving home to go to the national performance academy in Edinburgh at 17, where her days would also typically include college before training with Hibs in the evening, as key in learning to fend for herself. Just another piece in the overall picture, of which representing her country at senior level is undeniably central.

Having been called up during the latter part of Shelley Kerr’s tenure, the desire for that first cap, and beyond, remains right with her in all she does.

“Playing for Scotland, I’ve done it from Under-15s to Under-19s, and when I got my first call-up, it was a dream come true. That’s been one of my aims for this season, and I think playing regularly, week in, week out, in a competitive league, is hopefully going to better my chances at getting that opportunity.

“I know Mel and (Scotland coach) Pedro (Martínez Losa) have been in chats, and I’m just patiently waiting for my opportunity, and when it comes, I’m going to take it with both hands and hopefully go and show Pedro and all the Scotland girls what I can do. I’m just quietly going about my business, working hard, but playing for my country would make me so proud, and all my family.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

You can also read a feature with London City Lionesses boss Melissa Phillips in the latest issue of She Kicks magazine. Issue 71 details here!

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