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Features

Meet the Newcastle United supporters preparing to make history with England's Lionesses at Wembley on Saturday

Written by Dan King

It's 276 miles from Shield Row to Wembley, but for a 12-year-old Carly Telford it must have felt like a million miles away. Growing up in the former mining village in County Durham, just north of Stanley, opportunities were extremely few and far between for a young girl to play football, other than with the boys for her school team where "you'd pull up, get out of the car with your kit on, and the first thing you'd hear was parents going 'oh my god, it's a girl, is she allowed to play?"

Almost 20 years on, Telford can afford to laugh. "It sharp went away when I was throwing in tackles and scoring goals," she smiles. Back then, she played on the wing but she is now the England woman's team's most experienced goalkeeper and could line up for the Lionesses at the national stadium in front of what may be a new record crowd for a women's match in the UK when Phil Neville's side face Germany on Saturday. The game at the 90,000-capacity venue is a sell-out, meaning the attendance might well beat the previous record of 80,203 for the 2012 Olympic final between the United States and Japan.

When the Lionesses last played at Wembley - a 3-0 defeat to the Germans in November 2014 - the crowd of 45,619 was viewed as an impressive one but, thanks largely to the performance of the England team at last summer's World Cup, where they were narrowly beaten by eventual winners USA at the semi-final stage, interest in the women's game has skyrocketed. 

Telford was born in Jesmond and attended Tanfield School and Gateshead College. She plays professionally for FA Women's Super League Chelsea but supports Newcastle United and is one of several North East-born players in the England squad. "In terms of football, the history that England and Germany have at Wembley, it's massive," she says. "It's a monumental fixture in footballing terms and we haven't played Germany in a long time, when we last played them at Wembley.

"It's going to be a fantastic spectacle and I think the job that the FA, and I guess we, have done over the last four or five years, has meant that the growth in our sport has been huge. It's a credit to everyone that we've managed to sell out - for the first time, it's not that we've sold 40,000 tickets and given away 50,000, it's officially sold out and it's hopefully going to be a night to remember for everyone."

Carly Telford's international career has spanned 12 years - and counting

Telford's dad, Colin, played cricket on a Saturday and football on a Sunday. If her mother, Yvonne, was working, she would be "dragged" along. To occupy themselves, the assorted children on the sideline would play small-sided games of their own. Telford's family had moved to London for work when she was young, but returned to the North East when she was seven. "I was a weird little kid," she grins. "I had a funny accent when I moved back, because I had a little cockney accent and nobody quite understood me, but I made friends with the boys very quickly once they realised I could play football."

In 2000, her dad took her to a coaching course at Chester le Street ran by Simon Smith, now Newcastle United's head of goalkeeping, then Sir Bobby Robson's 'goalkeeper lad'. "There was like 90 kids there, they were all lads and I was the only girl," says Telford. "Smithy took a real shine to me - he said 'you can't even tell that you're not one of the lads, you're throwing yourself around in the mud.' It was dismal day, soaking wet, and I was just in amongst it all."

She was offered, and accepted, a place on United's goalkeeping development programme, even though the Magpies had no affiliated women's team at the time. "I was there for about six months to a year until he had to let me go because I was a girl and there was no kind of pathway," Telford explains.

"But he looked after me and he actually gave me the foundation, I guess. It's funny because every goalkeeping coach I come across says 'I can see you worked with Simon Smith, you just look like a Simon Smith goalkeeper' in the way that I work, my hands, my feet, everything I was taught. He still keeps in touch now, which is brilliant."

Telford started playing for Chester le Street Ladies until, in 2002, she was faced with a dilemma. "When I got to 14 years old, the first club that came in for me was Sunderland," she says. "I had to sign on the dotted line for a semi-professional club, which was the enemy. I said to my dad 'can I not play for Newcastle?' but there was no woman's set up, or if there was it was so low down that it would never have put me on the pathway that I wanted to go on. But, as much as I didn't like Sunderland, I can't thank them enough for what they did and I just hope that Newcastle can figure out a way in which it works so that young girls who do grow up loving the club have an opportunity to play in the black and white."

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Lucy Staniforth was at Wembley as a fan when England last played Germany five years ago but this weekend, the former Blyth Town Ladies player who idolises Alan Shearer will be part of the team. "The first time they did it was amazing to watch but for me, this is an absolute dream come true and I just hope that I can play some part in it and really enjoy the occasion, because these moments don't come around very often," she says. 

Lucy Staniforth in action for England

"It's going to be pretty special, probably the most special game in my career to date I would say, given the fact that it's at Wembley and we're playing such a great rival in Germany. We've had difficult games against them in the past and I just think that there's no better place for that game to be held, so it'll be really exciting and a really momentous occasion for women's football. English football fans are, in my opinion, the best fans in the world so the opportunity to play in front of so many of them is going to be so cool." 

Staniforth was born in York, and started playing at school alongside boys for Copmanthorpe Primary School, but moved to Northumberland when she was ten years old. Her dad, Gordon, played for Hull City, York City, Carlisle United and Plymouth Argyle, while her older brothers Tom and James were professional footballers too. "I think it was in the genes," she says. "I ended up playing at Blyth and I was really lucky that I actually lived round the corner from Lucy Bronze's mum, who was a huge advocate for women's football, and still is, so she helped massively with getting me into Blyth and then progressing from there.

"I just didn't really have a choice - my dad and brothers played and my stepdad's crazy about football as well so I think it was just inevitable."

Diane Bronze, whose daughter recently became the first English footballer to win the UEFA Women's Player of the Year Award, was so infuriated by a Football Association rule that girls could not play in mixed teams beyond the age of 12 in case they got hurt that she took her child to a camp in North Carolina before Blyth provided her, and Staniforth, with the opportunity to continue playing. 

Staniforth, now 27, has overcome two cruciate ligament injuries to become one of Birmingham City Ladies' leading lights and, like Telford, was part of the pioneering World Cup squad which captured the imagination of the nation in June and July.

"It felt so special over the summer, what we were trying to achieve and all the support that we had," she reminisces. "It almost felt a bit similar to the men's World Cup in that everyone had got so behind us and were supporting us so much, even back home. One of my mates told me that on a roundabout in London they had a huge screen on showing it, so that was fantastic.

"It's a funny one, because we had such high expectations and we really wanted to go there and win it, there's almost a little bitter taste still left in my mouth from that. In terms of the whole experience it was mindblowing, incredible. It just would have been nice to come home with a medal at least."

In the thrilling semi-final against the USA, England saw a goal controversially ruled out for offside by VAR, then captain Steph Houghton saw an 83rd-minute penalty saved as the Lionesses lost 2-1. "We had chances didn't we?," Staniforth says, ruefully. "It was so hard to take but that was an incredible game. The highs and lows within it were just crazy, and I was just so lucky to have been a part of something like that."

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Telford, who made her England debut in 2007 and had waited patiently for the opportunity to finally play in a World Cup, played three times at the tournament, including the semi-final. Her 12-year international career means she is better placed than most to comment on the growth of the woman's game over the last few years.

"The biggest change is that since the World Cup, for the first time ever, people just turned on the TV to watch England play," she explains. "They didn't turn on the TV to watch women's football, they didn't choose not to watch it because it's women's football. People rushed home, rushed to the pub, planned their weeks, their days and their nights around a football game, like they would have if it was a men's game, and I think that was what was really nice about this year.

Carly Telford celebrates a goal - which was subsequently controversially disallowed - in England's World Cup semi-final clash with USA

"People were just cheering for an England team. They kind of put gender to one side for the first time in a long time and just looked at it as a group, and maybe bought into us as individuals, kind of what happened with the men's team - we opened ourselves up to a lot of opportunities for people to know who we are, where we've come from. At the end of the day we all started the same path, which was kicking a ball around in a garden, or outside in the streets with your mates, and then you're on a platform on the word stage. If everyone can see where you started - as a little kid loving the game, to where we are now, just big kids loving the game, then I think they buy into it."

Telford had been given a West Ham shirt by a family friend when she lived in the capital but that was quickly forgotten about when she moved back up north. "After that, my first shirt was a black and white shirt, the grandad collar, Brown Ale," she remembers. "We never saw the West Ham shirt again and I never wanted to support anyone else once I knew that I was born and bred in the region.

"My first goalkeeper shirt was the blue star on the sunset, from when Shaka Hislop used to play in goal. He was an absolute cat and I remember standing in the garden thinking 'I'm going to be like him one day.' If I was playing outfield, I'd pretend to be David Ginola. It was such an exciting time, we scored so many goals, there were so many memorable moments, the games against Liverpool and Man United. That's what who we were fighting with back then. We were such an exciting team. It's hard sometimes because I know how much people love Newcastle up there and you just want them to be doing well, giving them something to hold onto; a good run in a cup, trips around Europe again.

A young Carly Telford wearing her first Newcastle kit in the mid-1990s

"I am a fan and I can't not speak about the club in the way I want them to get back to what we used to be doing, the Shearer, (Faustino) Asprilla days. That was why we loved going and watching Newcastle, but I think the local boys who are getting introduced now know the history of the club and are starting to get some of the lads who have been brought in from further afield to really appreciate what Newcastle is about. 

"Hopefully with someone like Steve Bruce, who is a local lad, he can really instil that in the lads, keep us up this season and see where we go."

Staniforth's stepdad, Michael, grew up in Dudley, North Tyneside. "For him, Newcastle was part of his childhood all the way up to the present day, so it was hard not to love Newcastle," she says. "He was just a big influence on me and obviously had good taste in football team!

"We would sit in the Leazes End and I remember one game especially, when we played Arsenal; I think they had someone sent off and we ended up winning one or two-nil, and my stepdad actually strangled me through excitement. I think it was at that point that I knew there was no hiding from the love of Newcastle in our family! I was lucky to go to a lot of games when I was younger - my stepdad gave me a fantastic football education in that sense. 

"Obviously when I was growing up, Shearer was the main one for most Newcastle fans. He was fantastic; what he embodied and how he loved the city was just so special. He connected with so many Newcastle fans in that way. But I used to love people like Joey Barton, I did enjoy his passion and commitment. I used to like Laurent Robert, a bit of flair. I suppose you sort of connect more with the ones that are the life and soul of the team. That's what I like to see anyway, just giving 100 per cent for Newcastle, and that's what Shearer did."

Earlier this year the FA came up with the idea of getting a host of celebrities, including David Beckham, Emma Watson and Prince William, to announce Neville's World Cup squad via social media, and it was Shearer who confirmed Staniforth's place on the plane.

"The way they announced the whole squad was so unique, and it was exciting," she recalls. "I was just waiting and waiting, and then it ended up being Shearer! To get the news that you're going to a World Cup given to you by an absolute legend in your eyes was just the icing on top of the cake. I couldn't really believe it."

Lucy Staniforth has supported Newcastle United from a young age

Manchester City's Georgia Stanway is another Newcastle fan in the England set-up - she was added to the squad on Friday after recovering from injury - and Staniforth says: "We do talk about (Newcastle) quite a lot - we love Newcastle and it's always good to chat to them because I don't get to talk about Newcastle too often, living in Birmingham now. It was a cool moment when Matty (Longstaff) scored - I enjoyed that one.

"We were in Portugal and we were having a recovery session. I was watching the game on my phone against Man United and I was just sat in the sauna by myself, and all of a sudden I just went (gasps) when Matty Longstaff scored and I sprinted out, 'Carly, you'll never guess what!.' We were both buzzing for him and the team."

Telford adds: "Sean (Longstaff) follows us on Twitter - Lucy actually spoke to him and said 'tell your brother well done', and he replied to say 'thanks and good luck when you're away,' which was really nice.

"You need people like that, people who understand the club. I think Sean will become like an Alan Shearer. He's only young but I think one day he could captain the club and hopefully lead them back to some sort of success."

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UEFA Women's Euro 2021 will be held in England in 18 months' time, another signal of the increasing popularity of the sport in this country. Newcastle is not one of the eight host cities - in fact, there'll be no games played in the North East - but the Lionesses were supported by 29,238 fans when they took on Brazil in a friendly at Middlesbrough's Riverside Stadium in October and both Staniforth and Telford have long harboured the ambition of pulling on the Three Lions at St. James' Park one day.

"I think always playing in an international tournament will be one of the highest highlights, but that might overtake the World Cup," laughs Telford. "It would 100 per cent be up there - your home town, standing at the Gallowgate End, there are so many emotions you would feel that would be so different to anything you've ever done before, just because of how passionate and how proud you are of where you come from and knowing that there's 40 or 50,000 Geordies cheering you on."

Staniforth adds: "I've always dreamt about it - that's one on my bucket list of my career. No matter where we travel, and all the places that we get to go to, I can't imagine how special it would be to walk out at St. James' - especially if they played all the matchday music - Local Hero, Blaydon Races...

"I think my dream would be to retire at Newcastle, and enjoy wearing the black and white shirt, and kiss the badge when I score. I'd come home and play and captain and be player-manager - a fairytale ending!"

Both Staniforth and Telford are passionate in their belief that Newcastle needs a thriving women's football club. Newcastle United Women relaunched as part of Newcastle United Foundation two seasons ago, and recently-established links with Northumbria University - a designated FA Women's High Performance Centre - are helping to further boost women's football in the city.

Almost half of the England squad - including Bronze, skipper Houghton, midfielders Jill Scott, Demi Stokes and Beth Mead - hail from the North East, despite the dearth of top-level clubs becoming even more apparent following Sunderland's demotion from the Women's Super League last year, so what is the secret?

Lucy Staniforth says playing at St. James' Park one day is on her "bucket list"

"I actually couldn't really tell you, to be honest," says Staniforth. "I guess it's just something about people from the North East; they're talented and hard working, and I think in our particular age group, the competition between us served us well because even when we ended up all playing together in the same team, we were always pushing each other.

"I was lucky to live round the corner from Lucy (Bronze), so we'd always go round, kicking a football on the pitch for hours, and I think we all just brought the best out of each other in that sense. Steph and Carly and Jill, they were all really close in age too, so I think it was probably quite a similar situation for them."

Telford agrees: "I think we were lucky to come through in an era where we had some really good coaches, some really good people who were willing to push and knock down doors and barriers for us to be able to keep plying football. I'll always be grateful to the grassroots coaches who took the time on evenings, night times and weekends to make sure we could go and play football and do what we loved. 

"I do think we're grafters, we don't like to give up, we're hardy. If someone says we can't do something, we usually spend a damn good part of our lives proving that we can."

Should Telford and Staniforth take to the pitch at Wembley on Saturday, in front of a record-breaking crowd, there's no doubt that they will have done exactly that.

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