‘It feels like a big family now’ – Sunderland’s Emma Kelly at home with the Lasses

Photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images

Into season two of her Sunderland return and Emma Kelly is continuing down the road of honing a new position. In a Lasses squad brimming with promise, the vice-captain brings valued quality and experience, plus the odd superstar turn behind the scenes…

As the new Barclays Women’s Championship campaign gets going at Sunderland, the memories of the shockwaves they caused among the WSL’s best seven years ago still remain strong. Beth Mead’s elevation to widespread recognition with England this summer had a select few indulging in a Hetton hark-back or two, to her part in days like the 4-0 thrashing of a Chelsea side bound for league and FA Cup glory.

One of those making an appearance alongside the hat-trick scorer that day was an 18-year-old Emma Kelly, part also of their promotion success a year prior. Rejoining in July 2021, much had changed in her five years away, for club and domestic game alike.

Returning to the North East from Birmingham City, the Middlesbrough-raised midfielder helped ensure Championship consolidation, in Sunderland’s first season stepping back up to the second tier.

“Last time I was at Sunderland, it was a hybrid club, so we had half of them as full-time players and half as part-time,” she recalls. “Full-time players training in the morning and then waiting around to train in the evening with the part-time players.”

“The part-time ones were mostly PE teachers all day, then having to drive there at night to train. There was a bit of an odd atmosphere at times within the team, because obviously everyone was at different emotions, feelings, tiredness!

“It was just where women’s football was a few years ago.”

The recent off-season again saw familiar faces welcomed back into the red and white, like defender Abby Holmes – the fourth goalscorer in that famous Chelsea win – and Tyler Dodds. The attacking talent’s alternative career as a singer, which includes her take on Taylor Swift material, is by now not so secret.

“When I was at Sunderland years ago, I used to always try and get Tyler to sing on the bus,” Emma explains. “I thought being a confident singer who’s really comfortable performing in front of everybody, she’ll be fine doing this on the bus in front of 16/17 people, and she would never do it!”

“She was always really shy, ‘oh, no, I’m not singing in front of everyone!’ Then you saw these videos on Facebook and Instagram where she’s going in front of hundreds of people, it’s a bit baffling!

“I think she’s grown up a lot more now and she’s very comfortable singing. I was at Abbey Joice’s wedding recently and she was the bridesmaid and she wrote up her own song, and she smashed that.

“She’s got a great voice, and a great, alternative career alongside football.”

The two share a background as one-time England youth internationals, and if ‘Tyler Swift’ is ever stuck for a support act, Emma may be a ready-made option!

“I’ve been told, there’s a photo of me – I’m not gonna bring it up – I think I was at a charity ball, and I do look a bit like a picture of Adele! Abbey Joice sent me it and she really stitched it up, sending it in the group chat with all the girls.

“Ever since then, I just get called Adele. Every away trip that we’re on, whoever’s on the music on the bus, they’re always like, ‘Right, come on, Adele, get up’ and they give me the microphone; obviously, I break all the windows.

“I don’t think there’s anyone else who can compare to Tyler, it’s probably just me thinking I can sing like Adele, and I really can’t!”

It is a voice that has also been called upon frequently since her return to the club, as stand-in skipper in the absence of stalwart Keira Ramshaw. Emma would begin this season with the armband for the Wear derby with Durham, doing likewise for the Birmingham game at the Stadium of Light.

So, have there been any dissatisfied customers in the ranks so far?

“Not that I’ve been told of! All I was trying to do was just set out what every leader wants to do really, setting an example for the rest of the girls, on the pitch and off the pitch.

“I wasn’t trying to replace Keira. We’ve got a lot of respect for Keira as a captain and her loyalty to the club, so I was just trying to follow in her footsteps with what she would be saying and wanting the girls to achieve every game.

“Make sure everyone knows their jobs and that everyone feels supported, and off the pitch, just being that leader that everyone feels they can approach and talk to.”

The 2015 Sunderland squad Emma was part of would finish just a place outside what remains today as the WSL’s ‘big three’ of Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. The top of the tree may not have changed since, but so much certainly has for a league now only partially recognisable from back then, while the growing pains of an English game in continued pursuit of greater profile have been felt far deeper in some quarters.

After their demotion to the National League in 2018, having not obtained a licence for the now-fully-professional top level, Sunderland made the climb back up last year following the award of a place in the Championship. Part of an overall club notably beginning to rise again of late, the hope for the women’s team has long been to be a priority, rather than a distant relative merely sharing the family name.

As the oft-cited growth of the game is rightly celebrated, the economic reality for many remains markedly different to that of the elite. Emma was a full-time pro as recently as two seasons ago, signing for then-WSL Birmingham City, though that has not largely been the way of it in her playing career.

Alongside the ongoing assignment of becoming a holding midfielder, the ex-Middlesbrough player recently qualified as a secondary-school PE teacher.

“That’s what I’ve been doing alongside my time at Sunderland. I was just thinking long-term really, whilst I’m doing part-time football.

“I just knew that I’ve always wanted to be a PE teacher, and to pass on all the knowledge and experience, and my love for sport, to kids.”

On top of the perk of walking around in casual clothes at work, was the impact of her own former teachers a factor in leading her down that path?

“That was basically what made me want to be a PE teacher, my experience at Nunthorpe School. Laura Topham, Darren Bunn – it’s weird calling them by their first names! – they were amazing PE teachers, and every single time I was at school, I would try my best to hang around all the PE teachers, take part in any activities after school, and I just thought ‘I’d love to do this as a job.’

“Also, like you say with the clothes, I love being in sports gear all the time! Having a job where you’re playing sports with kids, I couldn’t think of much better things to do, other than playing football full-time.”

Having to combine the commitment and sacrifice of being a footballer with earning a living in the ‘real world’ can make for an interesting sense of identity for players. For Emma, even when she was full-time, there was a desire to explore other ventures, especially given the circumstances of the moment.

“Birmingham was my first realistic experience of being a full-time professional. I loved it, but it was when the pandemic happened, so it did affect my experience of what it was really like, with all the COVID testing and not really being allowed to go near the other players during training.

“That did affect the experience a lot, but I just like to be busy all the time, and when you’ve got training in the morning, gym in the afternoon and so much free time in the evening, I’m always wanting to be doing something. So, I was still looking to do something alongside full-time football, and a couple of the girls that I lived with in the apartment, we were all just thinking ‘what can we do?’

“I’m obsessed with dogs, and I thought ‘I might just do a little dog-walking business, or volunteer, just to get the time to pass by.’ It’s something that I think a lot of girls are in the position of at the minute; in the Championship, there’s so many girls that are working really difficult full-time jobs, alongside trying to play football four/five times a week, and I think some people don’t realise that.

“We’re watching the football and everyone just thinks ‘well, this is their job, it’s all they do’, but we’ve got such a mix in the team; we’ve got some in the fire service, social workers, school teachers. It can be very demanding doing a full-time job and all the expectations and pressure of that, and having to finish a 7-5 job and drive an hour to training, not getting home until 10 o’clock.

“It can be really tiring and hard.”

It makes the relative respite of the off-season all the more essential. Part of that for Emma this summer was spent on holiday in the US, where she was able to watch some of the EUROs on TV while out in public, such was the international reach of the tournament.

In addition to the likes of England captain Leah Williamson, Beth Mead, Keira Walsh and Chloe Kelly, she had further ex-teammates to root for in the Northern Ireland side, with ex-Sunderland pair Rachel Furness and Sarah Robson. Keeping fingers crossed for Iceland to progress would also have been natural, given the time she spent there in 2019.

Signing for top-flight ÍBV, where her colleagues included current Canada and Benfica forward Cloé Lacasse, Emma would be named the club’s Player of the Year. She has spoken before in glowing terms about the experience, but as a 22-year-old heading overseas, was there homesickness to overcome at all?

“I think what helped was moving away to university when I was younger. I only moved from Middlesbrough to Newcastle, so it’s 45 minutes up the road, but I think that helped with regards to homesickness, because I’m quite a homebird; when I used to go to England camps, I used to really struggle being away from home.

“I think it was just the excitement of finishing university and really wanting to push on with my football career, and focusing on trying to get a professional contract. Knowing that was in sight and that I’m going to be moving away to do it was so exciting.

“Obviously, it was really nerve-racking, and I don’t think I was letting it sink in straight away, but when I got there, it was just like a big holiday had started. I got a little job in a café on the island, alongside football, because you only train and do the gym in the morning and early afternoon and you’ve got the rest of the day free.

“It just felt like home straight away. Obviously, there were days where I was struggling.

“I’ve got my partner at home, and not seeing my mum, my dad and my family, it was a struggle, not having them at games all the time, but I think I was just in my own little world of enjoying day-to-day life in Iceland, thinking ‘where’s the next place we can travel after a game?’ Enjoying the football, and the standard was really good as well, I don’t think I got chance to miss home too much.

“It was seven months of enjoyment really.”

Born in Slough, where her father comes from, the family moved to Middlesbrough before Emma’s first birthday. From Boro’s centre of excellence, she joined Sunderland as a 12-year-old.

Photo: Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

Having returned last summer, she was among those this June to agree a deal for the current season. Competition in the Championship is considerable, with numerous internationals popping up across what feels an ever-strengthening division, though a group that is genuinely together always has the potential to surpass outside expectation.

For Sunderland, it is a unified dressing room of differing personalities, with a couple of willing candidates to light the fuse where necessary.

“I’d say Louise Griffiths is up there, and our new signing Abby Holmes; they’re two full-backs and I’d say they’re definitely the hotheads of the group! They lead by example with going into tackles and getting everyone pumped up to put in a big performance.

“We’ve got quite a few vocal players in the team, but we’ve got some on the opposite end of the scale, quite quiet and shy, the younger ones. We’re quite a mixed bunch, to be fair.”

As attention locks fully on to getting their first win of the season, with Sheffield United the visitors this Sunday (11th September), Emma’s personal wish is to continue making her current midfield berth her own. Having featured as a winger, an attacking midfielder and even a full-back at the club, she relishes the increased involvement of a holding role.

There is also the enjoyment of being around something that feels like it is building – steadily, together.

“The team now is coming on so much. I think the atmosphere’s so much better now, because everyone’s on the same page, we’re all part-time – it feels like a big family now.

“Everyone’s got the same goal of knowing where we want the club to get, and it’s something that we’re all willing to work for, and to wait for as well. It’s been a long time coming, I think, trying to get the club back up to where it belongs, because it is such a massive club, and it was a shame for all of that to happen a few years ago.”

Interview/article by @chris_brookes

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