If the pure exuberance of England’s 2022 Euros victory could be captured in one moment, it’s goalkeeper Mary Earps climbing onto a desk during her manager’s post-match press conference, gold medal swinging from her neck as her teammates conga around her belting out Three Lions.
For the first time, the song’s insistence that “football’s coming home” wasn’t wishful thinking, but a glorious fact. In their third UEFA European Championship final – their first since 2009 – Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses beat Germany in a knife-edge 2-1 victory at home at Wembley, with striker Chloe Kelly claiming the decisive goal after 110 fraught minutes to secure the nation’s first major international trophy since 1966.
“I was just overcome with emotion and ecstasy,” Earps remembers. So much so that she found herself balancing on the makeshift desk that had been set up for Wiegman, in front of dozens of cameras. When the manager reached out to steady her star keeper, the reality of Earps’s situation dawned on her. “For whatever reason, I did not think that there was going to be anybody there,” Earps says. She only had one option: style it out.
“I’m very much a goofball,” Earps says of moments like this and how she presents herself to the world. On TikTok, where she has 644,000 followers, she shares jump-scare videos with her fellow Lionesses, or celebrates having her eyebrows done in the least glamorous way possible. “I try not to take myself too seriously,” she says. It’s an affability that – among fans and teammates – has earned her the nickname “the TikTok Queen”.
At the Euros, Earps – who conceded just twice across the tournament, and heroically deflected an attempted German equaliser in the final using just her fingertips – had plenty to celebrate. But she might not have been there at all. After travelling to the 2019 World Cup as England’s third-choice keeper, Earps was dropped from the national team. Then, in 2021, her new contract at Manchester United failed to offer enough money to live on. Earps’s future in professional football – international or otherwise – was effectively over. She was crushed. “I was down and out,” she says. “There was no way my career was going to be resurrected. It was dead and gone. Run over 3000 times and trampled by a million elephants.”
Earps has spoken publicly of this dark period in which her family members picked her up “off the kitchen floor”. But she had worked too hard to give in. A mix of familial support, Northern resilience and sheer talent made her fight back. In the space of 18 months, Earps went from down and out to helping England win the Euros, becoming a key force in galvanising national support for the women’s game and calling for nothing less than an overhaul of girls’ access to the sport. This summer, along with her fellow Lionesses, she will have the opportunity to try to win the World Cup, the pinnacle of the sport.
“Prior to the Euros, no one would have noticed if I did anything,” Earps says of the post-Euros whirlwind her life has become. Now, after two years of stark pain and effervescent highs, the whole world is watching to see what Mary Earps does next.
To the casual observer, the rise of women’s football might seem sudden. Earps – who recently turned 30 – sees it differently. “What I've enjoyed in the last four years is that it [sometimes] feels like it can take an eternity for things to change, and then it just changes very quickly,” she says. “I’m conscious of trying to be as present as possible, knowing that my time could be up at any point.”
We’re speaking over Zoom the day after another moment of triumph, this time in the domestic league: Manchester United’s historic derby win against Manchester City, which saw United reach the final day with a chance of winning the Women’s Super League. United’s success meant that, for the first time, they qualified to play in the Women’s Champions League against the best teams in Europe. Across the 2022/23 season, Earps became the first goalkeeper in the WSL to achieve 150 starts and 50 clean sheets.
Post-Euros, Earps has been unstoppable. After being fêted as the tournament’s best goalkeeper, in February she was named FIFA Women’s Goalkeeper of the Year – the first ever English woman to be awarded the prize. “You always knew Mary had something,” Marc Skinner, Manchester United Women’s manager enthused in a post-awards comment to FIFA. “It's her athleticism, her focus… she is, in my estimation, one of the best in the world – if not the best.”
“I’m very intense,” Earps says of her work ethic. “I’m very ambitious about wanting to push myself to reach my absolute maximum potential and change the landscape of female goalkeeping. You know, just small goals,” she jokes.
At one point in our conversation, Earps holds up her phone. I’m looking at a photo of her as a 10-year-old, kneeling in a muddy field somewhere in Nottingham and dressed in the yellow keeper’s jersey of her local grassroots team, West Bridgford Colts FC. “I look exactly the same, don’t I?” Earps quips. The grin on her younger self’s face is familiar, as is the flicker of determination in the eyes.
Earps discovered football at the age of eight, when her dad and younger brother were having a kickabout in the backyard. She realised she wanted to be a goalkeeper almost immediately. “I was playing a local Saturday match and saved a penalty,” she says. Inspired by legendary US keeper Hope Solo, Earps had found her calling. “Goalkeeping is a very individual position,” she says, “I never wanted to do anything else.”
While her parents were supportive – she recalls dragging her dad to practice and her mother ferrying her to away matches – it wasn’t easy being a girl in football. “Why are you letting her play football?” the mother of a childhood friend asked Earps’s parents. “She's never going to be anything. You're setting her up for disappointment.”
Earps laughs about this now, but that school mum had a point: until very recently, football hasn’t been a viable career path for women. Growing up, Earps remembers seeing just one televised women’s football match per year. “The players weren’t professional; they all had ‘real’ jobs,” Earps says. “They just played football because they loved it.”
Earps was determined to succeed, but she was also pragmatic; in 2016 she graduated from Loughborough University with a degree in Information Management and Business Studies. She says that although she achieved 12 caps for England Under 23s alongside her studies, certain lecturers wouldn’t grant extensions for missed deadlines.
After graduating, she joined the England Women’s senior squad as fourth-choice keeper for the UEFA Women's Euro 2017, and moved to United after a 2018 stint with Bundesliga champions VfL Wolfsburg. To the kid in the yellow jersey, she would have been a hero. But when it came time to renew her United contract in early 2021, Earps found, amazingly, that the amount on offer wasn’t enough to live on.
According to an August 2022 BBC analysis, WSL players earn an average of £47,000 per year, while the average (male) Premier League player might earn £60,000 in a single week. “It’s a different wealth to the men’s game. We can’t sit on a cushy wad,” Earps says. Instead, she had to face the sobering reality that continuing to play would put her financial future at risk.
Her family offered advice; United Men’s goalkeeper David de Gea urged her not to make a hasty decision. “It was really sad,” Earps says, “I didn't want to give it up but I couldn't see a way out.” For the first time in her life, she took out a credit card to make ends meet.
An updated offer came through at the 90th minute. Earps realised she could just about afford to keep playing, squeezing every drop out of the next two years while making plans for retirement. She accepted, signing with United until 2023, with the option of a further year’s extension.
Then, in September 2021, something miraculous happened. New England manager Sarina Wiegman asked Earps to fill in while other keepers were out injured. The offer hit like a lightning bolt. “Sarina came in and my world did a double, triple backflip,” Earps says, with the disbelief of someone still suffering whiplash.
She wasn’t about to let a second shot at the national team slip through her gloves. She doubled down, appearing as the Lionesses’ starting keeper in Wiegman’s first game – an astonishing 8-0 World Cup qualifier win against North Macedonia. She would start in eight of Wiegman’s first 11 matches. In May of this year, Earps announced she was “proud as punch” to have been selected for the England squad as first-choice keeper for the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup.
Led by captain Leah Williamson, England’s performance in the Euros galvanised interest in women’s football, making it clear, as a popular Twitter hashtag proclaimed, that this was #NotWomensFootball – just really great football, full stop. A crowd of 87,192 fans crammed into the Wembley stands for the final – a record attendance for any women’s European Championship match. An additional 17.4 million people watched from home, making the final the most-watched women’s football game in UK history. UEFA estimates that the tournament as a whole was watched by 365 million people globally – a massive increase from the 165 million-person TV audience for the 2017 women’s Euros.
Riding this groundswell of support, the obvious question is whether England can do one better at the World Cup. “Well, we'll have to find out,” Earps hedges (and really, what else can she say?). “I think each of the teams in Group D has tremendous strengths. We’ll give it our best go. I think we've got a spectacular team.”
Among fans, there is a justified concern that the current team isn’t as strong as it should be. Beth Mead – the Euros’ top scorer of any nationality – will miss the World Cup due to injuring her anterior cruciate ligament. Williamson has also ruptured her ACL and will sit the World Cup out. Assuming she is fit to play by England’s 22 July match against Haiti, defender Millie Bright will now captain the team, despite her own ACL injury resigning her to the Chelsea bench in March. Midfielder Fran Kirby is also out with an unspecified knee injury and will miss the tournament.
“They’re big losses because they all played an important role in our success in the summer,” Earps says. “We have that shared experience of winning so it’s a shame to lose anyone.”
There’s a clear pattern here. The ACL is one of four main ligaments that help the knee to function, joining the femur to the tibia. Treatment can be long and painful, involving physiotherapy and occasionally surgery. It’s a common enough injury among footballers, but endemic within the current women’s game.
Writing for football365.com, John Nicholson summarised the problem in a piece titled “Leah Williamson is latest footballer to fall victim to a sport designed for men”, pointing to data that suggests women are three times more likely to sustain an ACL injury – and take around three months longer to recover – than their male counterparts. The culprit is that women are still playing in boots designed for men, which fail to take into account the fact that women’s feet and arches are shaped differently, leading to blisters, stress fractures, and the current spate of ACL injuries. Of the 20 nominees for the 2022 Ballon d’Or Féminin, five sustained an ACL injury in 2022: Mead; Spain’s Alexia Putellas; French striker Marie-Antoinette Katoto; the US’s Catarina Macario; and the Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema. All but Putellas have been ruled out of the World Cup.
“It's sad that something so significant needs to happen to so many players before this becomes a conversation,” Earps says, adding that until recently, such injuries were accepted as part of the game. It isn’t just boots that are borrowed from the men’s game. “I think I still wear men’s training kit; it’s a common thing,” Earps tells me. She says brands need to be more inclusive, tailoring their thinking to female athletes and making sure the women's kit is available for fans to buy. But progress is being made, like brands changing the colours of shorts to take menstrual cycles into account.
Earps rejects arguments that women shouldn’t use the standard-sized balls from the men’s game, or that goalposts should be shrunk to reflect womens’ slighter physicality. “I think there should be a certain amount of things that stay the same,” she says. “If you change the pitch size, if you change the ball, then what does it become – tennis? We want to be considered footballers. There are certain things that make football football, and that's why everybody loves it around the world, because it's a universal language.” Having fought so long to be included, she isn’t about to see the game watered down now.
Fairness isn’t about turning the women’s game into the men’s, but providing equal opportunities of access, a question that extends to whether men and women should share the same training facilities. Recently, Arsenal women’s team sold out the Emirates, while Spurs have hosted back-to-back men and women’s games for the same ticket entry. Earps, ever the pragmatist, sees benefits in both sides of the debate. “I like the idea of the women's team having their own stadium, but I also think there's a lot of value in sharing the main stadium,” she says.
Training side by side at St George’s Park, the England men's and women’s teams benefit from the overlap, sharing invaluable insights in the canteen or gym. “We have this common ground of what it feels like to represent your country,” Earps explains. But at Manchester United’s £50 million Leigh Sports Village, where the women’s team trains, things are different. While Old Trafford is located in the heart of Manchester, the United women’s ground is far less accessible. “The parking isn’t as good. Public transport isn’t as good, so you’re limited with how many people can get there,” Earps says.
“It's hard, because I feel like there are other things that take precedence in the fight for equality over football boots or training kit,” she continues, explaining that since her FIFA Awards win, she feels an increased responsibility to speak out, particularly on behalf of goalkeepers present and future.
“Kids don’t want to go in goal,” she explained in a recent interview with Sky Sports, lamenting that at every youth club she visits, it’s a struggle to find a child willing to don the gloves. She wants to change that narrative, and stresses to kids that goalkeeping is fun, and a valued position.
Last year, after the Lionesses penned a letter to prime minister Rishi Sunak calling for equal access to football in schools, Earps appeared solo on the BBC Breakfast show to argue that football should be on the school curriculum for girls. “The women before us were pioneers, and I feel like we're getting to a place where players are able to be professional at a younger age, which allows the quality of the product to improve,” she says.
For someone who’s always gone her own way, Earps isn’t interested in demanding that the women’s game copy the path laid out by the men’s. That’s too easy. She believes women’s football can borrow from what came before while remaining its own entity. “I'd really like to see girls being able to pursue education as well as football,” she suggests. “Now I have a voice, I'm going to use it in a really positive way.”
Her online presence and Euros contributions have undoubtedly lit a spark, but it’s her openness – that combination of approachability and determination – that has really helped Earps make her mark. After opening up about her struggles in her FIFA Awards speech, she received countless letters of thanks from the next generation of players. “There’s only one of you in the world,” an emotional Earps said at the ceremony in Paris. “That’s more than good enough. Be unapologetically yourself.” And if you can change the world along the way, all the better.
Photography by Jack Johnstone
Styling by Itunu Oke
Hair and makeup by Jennifer Gooding