Ellen White

Heart of a Lioness

Lionheart (noun):
A person of exceptional courage and bravery.

As William Shakespeare once wrote: ‘Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have greatness thrust upon them.’ 

 A college student of English Literature, Ellen White spent the mid-2000s devouring and dissecting the words of England’s most famous playwright – a self-proclaimed ‘fan’ of the bard’s works and poetry. Little did she know then that one day, she would also make history for her country. 

Today, she stands as England’s all-time female record goalscorer and will go down in the history books as a true Lionesses legend. 

Though she opted to forge a career path in playing the beautiful game rather than playwriting, the Lioness striker’s attitude to education – and to life in general – helped to shape her journey. 

Incredibly humble, grounded and personable with a tireless work ethic, White truly leads by example – her energy, bravery and dedication held in high esteem by her peers. A true ‘team player’, the needs of her colleagues are always prioritised above her own, while the forward takes the utmost care and responsibility for maintaining a high level of performance. 

Growing up in a West Ham-supporting household, White fell in love with football at a young age but during a time where there were no clear pathways to carve out a career in the sport in her home country.

Scouted to play for Arsenal at the age of eight having impressed for boys’ team Aylesbury Town and her primary school team, she would have been forgiven for placing sole focus on her footballing dream. Instead, she maintained a mature outlook, which has served her well.

It is common for people to cite their parents as inspirational figures in their life, and White’s father Jon played quite a significant role in her footballing career. While all of her family encouraged her to play, her dad also set up the Mini Dux soccer academy for local children in the area and then went on to coach his daughter’s team at Arsenal with plenty of success. 

“My parents always encouraged us to be active,” she explained. “They were too.  

“Being brought up in a football-loving family, it was a lot of fun to play in the back garden and I used to go and watch my brother play. From a young age, they knew I loved it – we had pets and I’d always put them in a pushchair with a football! 

“I played other sports – netball and athletics – and they also encouraged me to do well at school as well, but they could see I excelled more at football. 

“I loved being part of a team, being involved and looking around and feeling that everyone is on the same page, making memories together with the same desire and love of the game. 

“There wasn’t anything for kids my age – Under-4s and 5s – to play football so my dad and his friend set up a soccer centre for kids around the area, which was fun. I really enjoyed it. 

“It became massive – every Saturday, hundreds of kids turned up to play small-sided games on eight pitches. There was clearly a want and a need for it and it grew quite big. 

“From there, I played for my primary school team and then boys’ team Ellesmere Town, where I was scouted for Arsenal. 

“I really enjoyed being part of a boys’ team. They all just embraced me – they just saw me as one of them: a player playing football. They were all my best mates, and they were really nice.  

“I was the only girl on the team, but I loved it and I think it gave me a positive influence in terms of the physicality and speed of the game. 

“I was pretty much always upfront, scoring goals. I must have been alright, although I’m not sure what the other teams thought about a girl scoring against them! I did play on the wing and in the number 10 role – I think that’s the nature of playing youth football that you try out different positions and I played wherever as long as I was playing – but mostly, I was upfront. 

“I was playing in a local five-a-side or seven-a-side tournament when I was scouted for Arsenal. They wanted me to come down and then yeah, I started playing for Arsenal, which was insane! 

“We trained at Highbury in an indoor pitch underneath, and it was quite far from where I lived – a good hour and a half or two hours away. I’d go to school and my dad would go to work and then we’d come home and go straight out of the door to training. I pretty much slept the whole time we were in the car so there wasn’t much conversation!

“It was a big commitment from my mum and dad, but they loved it. My dad was the manager for a couple of seasons. I have no idea how that came about but he loved it and we were pretty good! We had some of the best players and a great team spirit – some of us went through all the age groups so we were together for eight years – and he moulded us into a team, playing a system and we did alright. 

“We went unbeaten one season as Under-12s or Under-13s and scored a ridiculous amount of goals. It was major for my development: learning about being part of a team, managing schoolwork, dealing with winning and losing and the pressure of everyone else wanting to beat you…

“It was an amazing experience as a kid to play for Arsenal. Still now, whenever I get a new kit, I get really excited: ‘New socks!’ – it takes me back to being that eight-year-old, receiving my first bag of Arsenal kit. I was buzzing and even now in my thirties, I never take that for granted!

“My dad was amazing but at the time, it was sometimes hard to have your dad as the manager. He would shout a lot on the pitch, and I would complain to my mum: ‘Tell him to be quiet because all he does it shout at me!’ but looking back, it was good for me – it built resilience and I like that it was no-nonsense. 

“It wasn’t a case of my parents telling me I’m great every day. They were proud but they also encouraged me to work on things I could improve on. That’s built me to be humble and to always drive to develop and learn, which is important. 

“I really owe them a lot for what I’ve achieved because they pushed me to be better as a player and a person. That’s part of the reason I am like I am today.” 

Though she had grown up idolising Gary Lineker and Edgar Davids, exposure to English female footballing role models was limited. Instead, White turned her admiration across the Atlantic to the legendary United States Women’s National Team and iconic forward Mia Hamm. 

Though a career in America was not on the cards, a trip to the States did open her eyes to a potential career in the sport she loved. 

“I didn’t really realise you could be a professional footballer,” she admitted. “I think I really realised when I was about 10. 

“While I was with Arsenal, we went out to America and met up with a load of other kids and families from other countries to see what it was like there. Kelly Smith was out there, we watched a professional game, saw that they had a pro league…  

“I didn’t realise you could do that here, but I never really thought about going to America to play. It was just a great experience, especially at 10 years old. It was completely out of my comfort zone.” 

Having worked her way up through the ranks to Arsenal’s Under-16s, White’s first steps into senior football saw the forward switch red for blue, as she opted to join Chelsea where she finished as the Blues’ top scorer for three seasons before joining the ambitious Leeds Carnegie. 

Though her first season was hampered by an ACL injury, White would go on to lift the 2010 League Cup, scoring twice in the Final, but the spell would sadly end in disappointment with a lack of funding dashing hopes of an FA Women’s Super League spot. 

It was during her time at the Yorkshire club where White first met best friend and close teammate Steph Houghton. Now both donning the sky blue of City, the pair have experienced so much together for Club and country, having also both plied their trade at Arsenal where they enjoyed a glittering period of trophy success, including a treble in their maiden campaign.

Together, they have treasured the joys of lifting silverware and creating history, while they have also provided a shoulder to lean on during the lows of defeat. Though Houghton does not always approve of White’s music taste (particularly her fondness for Wet Wet Wet, as revealed in the October edition of our City Magazine), she holds immeasurable respect and admiration for her forward counterpart. 

“What can I say about Ellen?” smiled the City and England captain. “She’s an unbelievable person and player, and to have experienced some of the most amazing highs in football with her is so special for me. 

“I can’t say enough good things about her. People talk about being professional: doing all the right things on and off the pitch to be the best version of yourself you can be, and she epitomises all of that. 

“With her work rate and attitude to the game, she is an example to everyone. I’m not being biased when I say she’s an incredible professional and player and a pleasure to work with as well as an amazing best friend. 

“We’re so lucky to have her. She always puts the team first and she’s a true goalscorer – she knows how to find the back of the net and in those big moments, she’s always produced. 

“I knew she’d break the record and she’s thoroughly deserving of it with the hard work she puts in.” 

The term ‘big game player’ is perfectly apt for the prolific forward. White has finished as her country’s top scorer in each of the last three major international tournaments for England and Great Britain, finding the net 13 times in 14 appearances.

Her country’s leading goalscorer at World Cups, White also takes the crown as Great Britain’s leading markswoman at the Olympics Games. Incredibly, she was Team GB’s only scorer at the 2020 tournament, netting a stunning hat-trick against Australia.  

Matildas defender Alanna Kennedy, who came up against White in the quarter-final clash, now locks horns with her every day in training for City and has been especially impressed with the forward’s finishing ability. 

“As a defender playing against her, you have to be really switched on,” Kennedy explained, “because she can create something out of nothing. 

“Hayley Raso and I have been discussing some of the angles she scores from – beyond the near post. She’s super savvy in those positions because not only is she willing to put her body on the line; she’s also a great technical player. 

“I don’t know many players who have scored a hat-trick at the Olympics in the knock-out stages. It was unlucky for her that it wasn’t enough to progress. 

“We have a really good relationship. We’re usually together in the changing room and she picks up my GPS for me everyday! 

“She’s a great player and great person – very grounded and good to be around.” 

From Arsenal, White opted to swap red and white for the iconic black and white stripes of Notts County in pursuit of professional football. Despite her success with the Gunners, the forward was also working full-time as a Sport Development Officer and training afterwards. 

The Club would unfortunately fold but White looks back at her time at each of her former teams fondly, including her next side Birmingham, where she claimed the league’s 2017/18 Golden Boot, thanks to the Blues’ philosophy of individual development. 

Her efforts in Solihull soon caught the attention of City, who captured the White’s signature before the 2019 World Cup, as the forward sought to add to her medal collection and compete in the Champions League. She provided an exciting taste of things to come at the summer tournament in France, bagging six goals to finish as joint-leading scorer with United States duo Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. 

White’s England career had begun when she was scouted for the the Under-16s and she has worked her way through the youth set-up to earn more than 100 caps for her country. In total, she has scored 48 goals for England and has played a major part in the Lionesses' recent rise. 

She credits two international coaches in particular to her success: Mo Marley and Hope Powell but admits it could all have been very different, if the England coaches had not seen something in her she did not see at the time. 

“My trial for England was the most nerve-wracking experience of my life!” she recollects. “I think I pretty much cried on the phone to my mum and dad every night! 

“I wasn’t away from home for long and some of the girls were even younger than me at 14 but I was away from home and I didn’t know many people. I was sharing a room with strangers and it was the pressure of playing for your country. 

“I found it hard. I think it’s overwhelming as a kid but thankfully, they liked me. I’m not even joking when I say: I thought I was awful, that I don’t think I performed well, and I don’t know why they picked me, but they did and I started out with the Under-17s! 

“I think Mo Marley was a huge influence. What she did for us as Under-19s coach on the pitch but also off it – developing us as players and women, bringing in discipline and structure – she was a massive inspiration and the driving force for me to go on to play for the seniors.

“I remember one day that she pulled me into a room and there were clips everywhere of me touching and moving my hair in games. She said: ‘You do this all the time. Why?’ and it was that attention to detail – the little things she noticed and zoned in on to make you better, making sure you were switched on. 

“Then Hope Powell gave me my first England cap and I went on to get a fair few under her, including my first World Cup, Euros and Olympics. I’ll always be forever thankful for her believing in me. I owe her a lot in terms of her helping to develop me. 

“Getting your first England cap is one you look back on. It’s a dream for a kid to make your debut for the senior team.” 

Under former City striker Gareth Taylor’s stewardship, White highlighted her biggest areas of improvement at the City Football Academy as her hold-up play, timing of runs and finishing, while she has also showcased her leadership skills, deputising in Houghton’s absence with the captain’s armband.  

For compatriot and Club teammate Keira Walsh, it’s White’s bravery that stands her above others –  a quality that was never more evident than the striker’s courageous winner in the Olympic group stage victory over Japan, in which she quite literally ‘stuck her neck out’ to meet Lucy Bronze’s looping delivery, nipping in ahead of the flying Ayaka Yamashita. 

“It’s the way she arrives in the box,” Walsh said. “She’s just got a knack of being in the right place at the right time. 

“Sometimes, she just throws herself at the maddest crosses! There could be studs flying and she’d still go for it, while I stand there and watch, thinking: ‘There’s no way I’d be putting my head on that!’ 

“That’s why she’s scored so many goals – she’s fearless! If it’s there to be scored, she’ll do everything she can to arrive on the end of it. 

“She leads from the front and leads by example with her work ethic. She does everything right – everything you should do as a professional. She comes in early, leaves late; she takes her recovery seriously and she pushes herself every day. 

“A lot of the team look up to her and if we can match that energy, we’ll do well.” 

Though she is no stranger to such praise and individual acclaim – named England’s Player of the Year and shortlisted for both the Ballon d’Or and TheBest FIFA Women’s Player this year alone – White is not motivated by fame or personal glory and much prefers to shy away from the spotlight. 

Instead, her personal drive to consistently perform at a high level is inspired by those whose opinions she values the most – her peers, her manager and her loved ones. 

“I’m just trying to do as much as I can on the pitch to help the team and any other bonus is great for me,” she added.  

“I find it hard to talk about myself. I don’t like bigging myself up. If someone said they thought I was good at football, I’d just be like: ‘Erm, well, I’m alright I suppose.’ 

“I think that’s the way I’ve been brought up: ‘Celebrate the highs but don’t get too low’, which I think is important. I always try to keep things at an even keel. I try not to get wound up about things and keep things centred around everything else. 

“It’s all about the team. I love being part of a team so I just do what I can do to help. In my case, it’s contributing by scoring goals and I work really hard to do that – making sure I’m in the right place and putting the work in at training so it hopefully comes to fruition in a game. 

“There’s often a lot said in the media and on social media. Some of it can be positive but I try to stay away from that. I keep my private life private and try and just do what I can on the pitch and let that do the talking. 

“It’s escapism for me as well. I have my home life and I have my footballing life, and I try to keep the balance. 

“I listen to my close friends, my family, my teammates. At the end of the day, if my teammates say I’ve done well, that means more to me than anything else. If I go home and my husband says I did alright, then I’ll take that, and if my brother says I’ve done well, I must have done something good! 

“As a person and a player, I continually want to get better, asking questions, developing and learning. I’m in my thirties but I still want to develop and I’m surrounded by very talented players so there's real competition. 

“I never want to settle – I constantly want to improve and win and do more for the team – and that’s what pushes me and drives me to achieve.”