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Former Arsenal and England captain Casey Stoney on juggling motherhood, job hunting and the pressures of being a gay role model in the pro game

In the summer of 2015 the nation fell in love with international football again. The England women’s team reached an unprecedented and unexpected third place at the Canada World Cup – the nation’s most successful tournament since 1966 – that helped shift perceptions of the women’s game and made heroes for young girls and boys to aspire to.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Casey Stoney MBE, the 129 cap-winning former captain who made telling contributions off the bench throughout the tournament. “Before I probably wouldn’t even tell people I played football because there was almost a negative stereotype around it. Afterwards there was far more respect for the game and that was from just one successful tournament. Imagine if we’d won it.”

The centre-half was playing with an unburdened freedom, having come out publicly in 2014, and with renewed motivation, having become a mother to twins Teddy and Tilly with partner and former pro footballer Megan Harris in 2015. Now, on her twins’ second birthdays the 34-year-old reveals the struggles of raising a family as a professional footballer, how her drive to succeed in the game has only intensified and why a man coming out in professional football would only help the game and society.

Sport: Has being a mother hampered your career as a professional footballer?

CS: My life has changed dramatically. You literally don’t sit down for more than five minutes. I used to train and head home to relax and recover – that doesn’t happen anymore. Now, what I put into my body as fuel becomes even more important because that’s how I make sure I recover. Life is 6am starts. There’s no such thing as a lie-in. You have to learn to function on no sleep and the house is manic. But at the same time it’s the most rewarding thing you can ever have in your life. Children completely change your life and give you perspective. They give me energy at the same times as they take it away.

On the pitch have they given you renewed motivation?

Absolutely. When they’re born you have no idea how you’re going to cope. No one tells you how to be a parent. I was anxious about how it might impact on my football, the lack of sleep and rest. But I’ve had two of the best seasons of my career. I have three more reasons to do well. I want to give them the best future possible. I want to make them proud. I want to do something special for them. And they’ve given me perspective. They don’t care if I win or lose.

How did it impact your World Cup?

It was tough. My partner went away with her parents and took the kids to France for a couple of weeks. We made that decision because they were only seven months old. With all the flying it wouldn't have been fair on them. It was the toughest six weeks of my life but I just had to keep remembering why I was there. I was there trying to shape my and their future and also change the game for women’s football – something I’ve been so passionate about for so many years. And I managed to FaceTime them everyday. Thank God for modern technology.

What advice do you have for new mothers juggling demanding careers?

You have to find time to make time for you. I could carry on training so my life didn’t change but it did for my partner [who gave birth to the kids using IVF and stopped playing professionally for her club Lincoln Ladies]. It’s about getting that hour every day to get a bit of me time. For me exercise has been my life but I know if I’m starting to feel low or fatigued it’s normally because I haven’t exercised. Once I’ve been to the gym I come back revitalised and can give the kids the best version of me. Also, don’t eat everything your kids leave on their plates. That can become a bad habit.

How much strain was it on your partner Megan?

It was difficult. We didn’t live near anybody. We had no family support because I was playing for Arsenal and her family were up north and mine down south. Now we’re living with her family while I’m between clubs and she’s able to exercise with her mum everyday but she’ll tell you having two kids running about is exercise enough. In November you left Arsenal after securing the FA Cup and fulfilling your dream of playing at Wembley last season.

Is a career in management beckoning?

I’m actually in the middle of signing for a new club. I’ve been offered a two and a half year deal by another top flight club so I’m not thinking about retiring anytime soon. If I look after myself, eat well and train hard I think my body will dictate [when I’ll retire]. I’m a big believer that you’re a long time retired so should play for as long as you can but I don’t want to be one of those players that people think, “Oh God is she still dragging herself out?”. I want to continue to play at the top level for as long as I can but I do think I have a future in the game beyond playing so when that time comes I’m sure I’ll know.

Have you adjusted your training to help prolong your career?

I’m focusing more on resistance training and weights. If you’re strong, your joints and muscles will be protected from injury. Obviously it’s a contact sport and accidents happen but if you look after yourself in the right way you’ll reduce the risk. I’m not a big drinker. I don’t ruin my body in other ways. I look after myself. If you do that and recover properly, stretch with yoga, do all the rehab you can keep your career going but you have to look after yourself to do that. Ryan Giggs showed that especially.

What do you hope will be the impact of the Stonewall Rainbow Laces Campaign to show support for the LGBT community in football?

I hope it raises awareness. I’m a massive believer that no matter what the sport, football, rugby, tennis, I don’t care what it is, every single person on Earth should be able to play sport without prejudice. No matter your sexuality, no matter your colour, no matter your religion, no matter your background, sport should be something everybody should be encouraged to do and love. When you hear homophobic chanting I can understand it would put people off. If you’re not strong or are a 16-17 year old and don’t really know where you’re at and are struggling with your sexuality you’ll walk a million miles away from it because you’re already frightened as it is.

How does the game need to change?

I hope more people realise what you say and what you do has an impact on other people. It’s really not hard to be nice. It really isn’t. Don’t judge. Just live and let live. Be a nice person. As long as you can look yourself in the mirror and say you live your life in the right way then you’ll be OK. It’s not an easy world to grow up in. It’s hard on young people, regardless of pressures over sexuality.

What reaction did you receive when you came out publicly in 2014?

It was 98-99% positive. I was completely overwhelmed by the reaction. I had letters and support messages that what I’d done made it OK for everyone else, makes it more visible so when somebody else’s kids go to school and they’ve got two mums or two dads, it’s OK because they’ve seen me in the news and I have children and a female partner. It becomes a little bit normalised. I don’t understand why it shouldn’t be normal. You’re just loving another human being. That can’t be so wrong. As long as your kids have a loving home it shouldn’t matter if you’ve got one mum, two mums, one dad, two dads or a mum and a dad. It shouldn’t matter who you love. You just love another human being at the end of the day and it’s not a choice. That’s one thing that grates on me that people think it’s a choice.

Did you get any negative messages?

I did get some negatives but you’re always going to get that from someone. Someone’s always going to have an opinion and that’s up to them. If you put yourself out there you’re bound to get it. It’s up to you how you choose to react to it or if you take it onboard.

Is it easier for women to come out in the current game?

Oh absolutely, 100%. There aren’t any barriers in our game. It’s accepted. Players don’t care. Fans don’t care. There isn’t the spotlight. There isn’t the witch hunt to make a player come out like there is in the male game. I think they [the press] need to leave it alone. If a player is ready to come out they’re ready to come out. Don’t make it a thing. There might be gay male players in the game already. They might not feel the need to come out. They might be comfortable with who they are and like their setting as it is and they don’t need the extra attention. I really think it would help the game if someone did. I think it would help society. It’s sad to say but you’d have to be a brave person to do it because fans will use absolutely anything to make you play badly.

Do the gender barriers need to be broken down further? Can you see a time when women are managing in the men’s game?

I don’t know if I’ll see it in my lifetime. There are far too many barriers. We live with gender stereotypes all the time and there are a hell of a lot in football. There are too many protections. I just think football is football. If you’re knowledgeable enough it shouldn’t matter if you’re male or female. Would I go into the men’s game? Potentially. But the only thing you’re guaranteed of in the men’s game is the sack after a year and a half so why would you want to anyway. You can take coaching as far as you want to as long as you’re dedicated but with coaching if you want to go far it has to be your love. You have to dedicate your life to it. It becomes all consuming – as it has while I’ve been playing. I’m going through my A licence at the moment and for me it’s the next best thing to playing. I’m very passionate about coaching. I love the game. I love learning about it. I’ve got a lot to learn but I’m ready to learn and I’m going on that journey already and looking forward to it.

How much of an impact did England’s performance have on the game?

It’s immeasurable. You can’t quantify it. I’ve never seen anything like it in terms of how it’s changed perceptions in this country. The way people spoke to you. Before I probably wouldn’t even tell people I played football because there was almost a negative stereotype. Now I tell them, “Yeah I played for England, I was at the World Cup,” and people genuinely want to talk to you, want to hear about it. They’re excited about it and there’s far more respect for the game. I’m so grateful for that because I’ve lived for so many years with negative stereotypes and negative perceptions of the game and for one tournament to be successful I think what if we had won it, what would have happened then.

How high are the hopes for a good performance at the 2017 Euros in The Netherlands?

Next summer the Euros gives us a real opportunity. If we can go and win it what else could it do for football? Not for me or the team but for the game and the little girl who wants to pick up a ball or the brother who now thinks I’ll take my sister to the park or the parent that encourages their girl to play in a team or the teacher that sets up a girls team at their school. They’re the attitudes we need to change and we need to keep encouraging everybody to get into sport that brings people together. For me, football is the best sport there is.

First published on 5 December 2016 by Sport Magazine. Casey Stoney was speaking to The #fuel657 Journal powered by Upbeat Active. Click here to read more.

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