At 33 years old, England striker Ellen White should, by all rights, be slowing down.
Having lost larges swathes of her senior career to two ACL injuries, a broken collar bone and various other niggles that kept the Manchester City forward from Women’s Super League pitches over the last decade, it’s almost as if she’s still just making up for lost time.
And after netting twice in England’s 8-0 win over Norway at Euro 2022 on Monday, White is one goal away from tying Wayne Rooney’s record tally of 53 goals for an England senior team. She could tie or break the record against Northern Ireland in Friday’s Group A finale at St. Mary’s in Southampton.
“I’m just loving every moment to be honest and just grabbing it by the scruff of the neck, it’s an absolute joy to be part of this England squad and to be here at the Euros,” she told ESPN after the win over Norwary. “I’m just enjoying every moment and you can probably see tonight how much I’m loving it and I’m very proud to play for England.”
In a promotional video put out by the FA ahead of Euro 2022, White holds a photo of herself in her hands, in which she’s playing football as a child, drowning in a kit too many sizes too big. The striker notes it’s a happy memory, saying: “I feel like I was just having the time of my life, playing alongside friends, feeling really lucky.” Some 25 (or so) years later, there is still that childlike delight that comes with playing football.
Focused despite injuries, coaching changes
Maybe the writing was always on the wall for White, who in 2010 sealed her senior England debut against Austria with a goal to wrap up a 3-0 qualifying win on the road to the 2011 World Cup. Blisteringly prolific in her childhood, White stayed true to form over the first three years of her international career, finding the back of the net 17 times in 27 appearances.
However, an ACL injury disrupted White in 2014 and when she finally returned, she did so under a new national team manager with Mark Sampson having replaced Hope Powell.
As White’s league form suffered a dip, she was given a new role with England, and asked to spend 70-minute stretches running at the opposition defence in the hope of tiring them out before Sampson would swap her out for fresh legs off of the bench. The role of foot soldier suited the striker who was, even then, naturally unselfish as it further highlighted how uninspired Sampson’s England were tactically.
Two years and nine months after her 17th goal for the Lionesses, White finally claimed her 18th, in a rout against Serbia in Euro 2017 qualification. With her club form with Notts County enjoying an uptick after she returned from a broken collar at the end of 2016, and White now playing for Birmingham City, she began to tap back into her youthful form. But she didn’t fully dig out her best goal-scoring until England changed managers yet again.
With Phil Neville having taken the reigns in 2018, the former Manchester United man was keen to get the striker to stay central, as he told the Guardian in 2020, “Over the last six months she went away from being a jack-of-all-trades, just running around and doing it all for the team. We’ve worked really hard on her staying between the goalposts, being really selfish.”
In that same Guardian interview, Neville tried not to compare White to any player from the men’s game but couldn’t help but mention Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Yet off the pitch, White is a world away from what you’d expect of a star striker. Repeatedly referring to herself as cheesy, White is a big fan of pop music, once having said “Shake it Off” by Taylor Swift is her go-to karaoke song. As well as “boring,” saying she enjoys her home in Glossop, a small town east of Manchester (she joined Manchester City in 2019) where she and her husband often go for walks.
At a time when women footballers are headed toward star status with the same flash as their male counterparts, there is something wholly unassuming about White who would rather focus on helping her teammates on the pitch, or talk about her cats off of it. Far from just the one to finish the chances her teammates create for her, White, as one of the more senior players in the team, has tried to take on more leadership roles.
“As I’ve got older and more experienced I’ve tried to adapt but also to lead by example and help the younger players,” White added. “I want them to come and talk to me and I want to encourage them because we have some incredibly talented young players in the international squad at the moment, ” she told the FA website in 2021.
Scoring touch shows why Rooney record is in reach
Two particular highlights-reel goals, despite being vastly different, showcase White’s understanding of how to connect with the ball to maximise her chances of scoring.
The first was at the 2011 World Cup in Germany, when Karen Carney sent a long diagonal ball over the top of the Japanese midfield for White to race on to. The ball bounces ahead of her once as she unwinds her right leg and measures her shot to a tee. The ball kisses off of her laces, loops over Ayumi Kaihori and drops perfectly, just under the bar as the goalkeeper falls backwards into her own net.
The second occurred when White played for Notts County in 2015. As Laura Bassett takes a short run up to a free kick outside of the box, both White and Alex Greenwood flinch for it. The Arsenal players are left confused as Greenwood touches the ball to her left, and White wraps her foot around the ball and sends it through the players scattered in the box and slots it inside the far post.
Those two superb strikes demonstrate how adept White is at finding the back of the net from all angles with all types of finish, but has an understated way about her that has kept her from being talked about as one of England’s all-time great strikers.
Now on the verge of tying and, very likely, overtaking Rooney’s record goal haul for England, White was predictably humble about the milestone, more focused on helping the Lionesses to progress this summer, rather than writing personal history.
“It’s not a priority, for me, it’s an honour to be amongst that type of name [but] it’s an absolute joy and to be surrounded by the players that have the talent that we have, it’s unbelievable,” White told ESPN.
Benefitting not just from the form of the players around her like Beth Mead. who scored a hat trick in the 8-0 win against Norway, and Lauren Hemp but also from a system that allows her to prowl around in the box, like one of her beloved cats out on the hunt for a mouse.
The centre-forward is far more than just a goal-hanger, as the range of her goals shows, but there’s no place England would rather have her than in the 18-yard box.
With no signs of slowing down, Rooney’s record looks certain to fall. But how far White’s goals can propel England in their hunt for European glory is anyone’s guess.
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