RR: Good afternoon Jill! Thanks for joining Roker Report to discuss your career. How are you?
JS: Yeah, not too bad, just finished training! Thanks for having me.
RR: You’re a Fulwell lass. What are your earliest memories of falling in love with football?
JS: Playing in the back lane, mainly! I used to love playing outside in the back lane.
We had the recreation park where we could kick the ball around all day, and that’s exactly what we did! So I have to say that is my earliest memories of playing football and I used to love it.
Everybody loves sport in the North East and it was no different when I was young. Even stuff like Wimbledon when it came on the TV, we’d all sit around and watch it. The North East just loves sport really and I loved how everyone in my area was passionate about it.
RR: Were you from a Sunderland supporting family then?
JS: My family were quite split actually. My Dad is Newcastle, because he was born there but moved to Sunderland, so because of that my brother supported Newcastle, and although my sister didn’t really like football, she supported Sunderland.
It was a split household on loyalties, so derby days were interesting!
RR: How was it growing up in a male-dominated sport?
JS: There were times at school when people wouldn’t accept it, but the lads I played football with were also absolutely fine and said nothing about it.
People did make comments, just things along the lines of ‘being a boy’ because I loved playing football, but the boys I played on the team with were welcoming towards me. I never felt like they thought anything about a girl being on the team, I think they respected the fact that I could play a bit.
RR: You were a good runner growing up and ran for Sunderland Harriers I believe...
JS: Yeah, that’s correct. That came off the back of playing football though. If you were into one sport at the time, you’d suddenly start doing all sorts like the badminton club, an athletics club, etc.
I went along to a few of the girls’ events just to take part originally, the 600 metres and stuff like that, but I started winning the races! I won a few cross country races and during one of them, one of the coaches from the Harriers were there and saw me running. He gave me a pair of spikes and asked if I wanted to come along and train on Tuesday and Thursday’s and I thought it would be good, so I went down and started training with them.
It went really well. I won the North Eastern Championship and the North of England Championship and I think I still have some records there that still stand actually!
I did enjoy it, because it became tough doing it alongside the football training I was doing. I had football Monday and Wednesday, running Tuesday and Thursday and it got to the point where I was playing matches on top of that. I got glandular fever when I was 12 or 13 and whether that was down to all the training, I don’t know but then was when I had to make the decision one way or another on what I wanted to go for and that was football.
RR: Did you ever think you’d take another career path?
JS: I’d decided football before I’d even started running probably. There was nothing that was going to get in my way, I wanted to play football.
Not in a bad way, but more of a protective way, I think my family would have preferred me running around the track! I got into the girls’ team at when I was really young and there was experienced, 30 odd years old players just kicking the crap out of me, so I think my family wanted me do the running (laughs).
But I suppose opting for football has paid off really.
RR: What are the differences at the grassroots level from when you started to now?
JS: Well there’s a lot more girls teams now, some of those girls teams mix in and play against boys team, but in all honesty, the interest in football just means that the levels have gone up.
They are training more, the girls’ teams get to compete more as there’s more teams and that is producing some really good individual players. There wasn’t the sort of numbers you see now back in the day. It just seems to get more popular year on year. Participation levels are getting bigger and bigger, it’s more than doubled and it’s incredible.
It’s such a huge thing because that sort of growth just helps things continue to grow, and you can feel that change.
One of the big changes I see, for me personally, is that when I was younger the parents of the kids weren’t always able to make all the games, because you could only fit a maximum of five in a car! Nowadays it can be a bus and more people can get to the games, and the parents are so much more involved, which can be a good thing, but I completely understand the kids that just want to get on and play football too, no matter who is there.
RR: So has the growth at grassroots level benefited the growth at the top level too?
JS: Yeah, definitely. It’s more competitive, there are better individual players, so they go towards places like the centre of excellence and the levels are automatically higher.
Anything that happens at the top all comes from the bottom at grassroots level.
RR: There was a lot made about England’s team in summer World Cup and how many of them came from Sunderland’s academy. Yourself, Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Beth Mead, Lucy Staniforth. Why do you think Sunderland, and the North East, has such a production line of talent?
JS: I always say there’s something in the water (in Sunderland)!
I think the North East, in general, is all about football. You don’t get the option not to love it and so many people’s lives are based around football.
You look at the game against Brazil at Middlesbrough the other week and there was 30k there. People on the North East are so just so passionate about football. When I grew up people were just so passionate about the game. Sunderland versus Newcastle meant the world when I was younger and growing up. I remember the whole family scrambling to get the fixtures on the day it came out, you could sense the tension around the streets of Sunderland in the weeks leading up to a derby day!
But I think a lot of credit needs to go to Mick Mulhern. When he first started Sunderland women, he really knew how to develop players, his coaching was very good and we were getting a good level of coaching at a young age which meant when you got picked for international camps, you weren’t behind on your knowledge.
You’ve got Mel Reay now who has been there and done that. She’s played for Mick, she’s worked alongside him and she has so much experience. I think they just know how to develop players and how to treat them and it’s why you see so many of them go on to play for England. You see so many of them doing well at the youth teams level now too.
RR: We’ve touched on it a little bit already, but have you had the chance to catch up with the fortunes of Sunderland AFC this season, and what do you make of the young Lionesses in the team Neve Herron and Jess Brown?
JS: I’d be lying if I said I watched the games, because I tend to be playing here (Manchester City), but I was speaking to Mel (Reay) about it on the phone the other day about how pleased she was with them as a group, and I’ve also been told to keep an eye on the girls you’ve mentioned. It’s great to see them top of the league, unbeaten and that it’s going so well for everyone there.
I was as disappointed as anyone when the team got demoted two divisions and fall through the leagues due to maybe funding and things like that. What Mel has done well is to accept the situation they’re in and that, at the time, she couldn't change it and concentrated on getting the team back up the leagues.
It’s great to see them getting some of the girls into the England set up like Jess and Neve, but the coaching they are getting, coupled with the passion that exists in the North East means they are in good stead for becoming future international players.
RR: If there’s one thing you could change over the next ten years within the women’s game, what would it be?
JS: I think, for me, it’s getting away from the fact it’s women’s football and men’s football.
There’s all of talk about the money we get paid, some people who watched the World Cup talking about standards and things like that and, to be honest, it’s gets a little tedious at times. I really hope that in the future people want to take the kids to the ‘match’ at the weekend, instead of the ‘women’s football’.
I think, for me, one thing that made me really happy the other day as I was walking around the Manchester City Academy, one of the young lads, about eight or nine, pointed at us and said “that’s the professional team” not the ‘women’s team’ or the ‘girls’ team’ and it was great to hear, because that is the job that I do.
I understand why it happens, because it’s getting so much more attention but hopefully one day there’s less comparisons, and I do think we are starting to get towards that.
RR: Finally, tell us a little about what you’re doing outside of playing - I believe you’re getting involved with grassroots levels often?
JS: I run some soccer camps, and it was a great opportunity to get involved at a grassroots level.
The first one I ever did only six girls turned up and I was debating if it was that right thing to do, even though we had a great three days with them, but the last one I did the numbers were up to 77!
To see how much the game has grown like that is brilliant. I ran several camps over the years, my schedule can get a little tight, but I want to make sure I am there and coaching and getting fully involved in. I don’t want to just be there at the end to hand out the trophies.
I’d like to try and give them a ‘day in the life’, implement some of the training we do and show them what it’s like to be a professional footballer. There’s a lot of learning involved, but we also make sure we have fun and we get some of the other girls down to sign some things so they get to meet other professionals, but it’s always good days.
I remember when I was young and what it meant for me to meet players I looked up to and I feel very privileged to be able to offer this to the kids now.