FROM#SK66: The past season saw Sophie Walton step back up the pyramid, joining Sheffield United in the FA Women’s Championship after spells with Guiseley and Nottingham Forest. During those stints, she was finding her feet again on the field following the birth of her son, which has proved perhaps the toughest challenge of all for the experienced midfielder.
SK: How has this season been for you, joining a new club but during a pandemic, and going into a season with uncertainty and restrictions?
SW: It was a little bit of the unknown but I think it came at the right time. I dropped down the season before that, just to get back playing, and at that time, my partner (current York City forward Jake Cassidy) was away in London playing.
I had to put family first and something at that level was the most I could commit to. I really enjoyed my time at Forest, it stood me in good stead, but I was ready for the step back up.
SK: You knew some of them already but who are the characters in the Sheffield United squad?
SW: There’s a few really. I’ve known Leandra (Little) for years, I played with her when I was
at Lincoln, in the first season of the WSL. She’s brilliant, I think everyone needs a Lee in the team. She’s well respected, she knows the game, but she’s one of the funniest people I’ve met. Wilko (Katie Wilkinson) can be funny on her day. Little Lucy (Watson), to say she’s only 17, she’s not afraid to be right in the mix. I wouldn’t say it’s the loudest team but we’ve definitely got the right mix of people.
SK: Coming back to play again after becoming a parent, while there are shared similarities for players doing that, it is also unique to you. How much of a challenge was working your way back?
SW: It was a lot tougher than I expected, to be honest. I just assumed I was at peak fitness and that I’d be able to have Alf and come back within a few months. That was definitely not the case, and I can still tell the difference now, but that’s probably me personally; I had to have a C-section, which didn’t help things. You were looking at probably 18 months before I felt somewhere like I was.
SK: Is there anything in particular that you notice or is it hard to define?
SW: A bit of everything. The C-section absolutely killed me physically; it sounds silly but I had to learn to run and pretty much walk again properly. It’s a feeling that you probably can’t describe; I just didn’t feel right. I had to build on my core again and get the balance. I was getting a little bit older as well. Mentally, I was always okay, so it was more physically for me.
SK: In terms of your friendship with Steph Houghton, did that all begin when you were playing for Leeds or did you know each other beforehand?
SW: We knew each other from our time at England. Steph was slightly older than me and we just clicked. We had a trio back in the day, there was me, Steph and Fern Whelan, and we were inseparable at the time. Steph was looking for a new chapter from Sunderland, and luckily, I could bribe her to come to Leeds! We’ve stayed the best of friends ever since really.
SK: Alongside playing, how much fulfilment do you get from supporting Steph, celebrating the highs with her, but also feeling it all the more with tougher moments?
SW: It’s massive. Her and Darbs (husband Stephen Darby) have become part of our life, we do everything together and they’re going to be godparents to Alfie. Alf’s been right at the forefront wherever Steph’s been, so we travelled to France (for the last World Cup) to support her. It just allows us to give her that support, and also someone who understands the hard times that she’s going to go through, with playing football ourselves. We really enjoy being able to share those moments with them.
SK: As well as your partner Jake, there’s obviously your brother Simon (ex-Leeds United midfielder) also in football. Who is the feistier one, out of the two of you, on a pitch?!
SW: I would definitely say Si; I’ve got the edge to me but I think he had a bit more of the petulant side! But to be fair, that got him where he went. It’s funny, as much as people say we’re quite feisty, we’re also the ones who seem to take on the role of helping the young ones. My twin brother was probably the worst on the pitch for it, as much as he didn’t reach the same levels we did. I don’t know where it comes from; I’d probably have to say it’s my dad!
SK: You obviously stepped away when starting a family but you had played at the top level for years. Have you ever looked in more recent times and thought ‘that could be me playing in that final, or getting that England call-up’? Is there ever any sense of that?
SW: It’s something I’ve definitely thought about. It’s not necessarily the crowds that they’re getting now, as much as that would have been brilliant. There’s always an aspect where I’m not sure I quite fulfilled that potential. I was 16/17 playing in cup finals and was talked about as the next England midfielder for the next however many years. There were times when I was playing at a level where I believed I should have had the chance to get the call-up and it never happened. I was getting Player of the Season at club level two or three years on the bounce but it just never came. I’ve had some great experiences but you do wonder ‘what is that little missing piece that stopped me getting to the level of Steph and people like that?’
SK: For individual battles you have had with opponents through the years, which were especially memorable?
SW: The earlier days, Jayne Ludlow. She still is really my favourite player, and Chippy (former Leeds manager Julie Chipchase) once said to me ‘you can be the next Jayne Ludlow’, but she was physically so far ahead, box-to-box. Being a 16/17-year-old playing against her, it was a privilege, but it was also probably the most physical challenge I’ve ever had. When I was shifted to right-back, I wouldn’t look forward to playing Eni Aluko or Gem Davison. They had the quickest feet you could imagine and I wasn’t blessed with pace, so they served a different challenge.
SK: Finally, tell me about the (children’s) clothing brand (AJ Wears) you’ve got going, and was there a modelling agency back in the day?
SW: There was, back in the day. I went to uni and I studied business management. I’ve always had the football v work battle, and wasn’t 100 per cent sure which route to go down, so I tried both, moved to Lincoln, and the training commitments got a bit more. It wasn’t quite full-time and it was too much for me to juggle everything. At the time, at my age, I chose football, so the agency was put to bed. When I was pregnant with Alf, and with Jake’s job too, I didn’t want to go back to work and be putting him in nurseries. I just started the clothing business and luckily it took off, so it is now a full-time job, and takes up probably more time than it should, but it’s a passion of mine. So that’s given me that fulfilment, spending time with Alf and managing to get that creative side out as well.