Eni Aluko: an indomitable spirit once dubbed Wayne Rooney of women’s game

Eniola Aluko attends the Football Black List 2016 at Village Underground on March 28, 2017 in London, England.

As Mark Sampson’s Lionesses were reaching record audiences on their run to the semi-finals at Euro 2017, Eni Aluko was anlaysing her former team-mates as a pundit for Channel 4 when many felt the Chelsea striker should have been on the pitch.

Aluko was one of the first wave of English female players to come to the attention of the wider public at a time when the Football Association has put an unprecedented focus on the sport.

Yet the 30-year-old Chelsea striker, one of the best known female footballers in Britain, has now found herself at the heart of a case that has thrust her into the spotlight for other reasons.

Aluko, who scored 33 goals in 102 games for her country but has not played for England since last year, hit the headlines when details of a complaint accusing the England setup of fostering a culture of bullying and harassment, including from manager Mark Sampson, emerged in recent days.

Sampson was cleared of wrongdoing following a confidential independent investigation but an £80,000 payment to Aluko and a continuing £20,000 central contract, for a player who has said she will never play again under the Welshman, has left many unanswered questions.

Not least whether the eloquent Aluko, herself a qualified lawyer, is able to speak about the case. The FA, effectively her employers, insist she is at liberty to do so despite making the payment to “avoid disruption” in the run up to Euro 2017. But the player’s lawyers insist that it prevents her from doing so.

Aluko’s indomitable spirit was evident from an early age, as was her footballing talent. Having been born in Lagos in Nigeria, she moved to Birmingham with her family at just a year old. It was at her home in the south of the city, Kings Norton, that she began to play.

Illustrating a deadly accuracy in front of goal that would see her rise swiftly though the England ranks, she bagged an impressive 50 goals in 16 games for her Broadmeadow Junior School team, aged 11.

It was inevitable that scouts would be interested. Snapped up by Birmingham City from Leafield Athletic Ladies, she scored on her debut, aged 14, against Leeds United - earning her first England call up.

Despite her ties to Nigeria (for whom her brother, the Fulham winger Sone Aluko, plays), she chose to progress with England.

“The main thing for me is for people to understand that choosing to play for England doesn’t mean that I don’t support Nigeria. I’m as much Nigerian as I’m British,” she later told the BBC. “Of course Nigeria means a lot to me, it’s part of me, but I’ve been brought up by English coaches.”

In her three years at Birmingham, where she played alongside fellow England international Karen Carney, the now 15-year-old was a part of the young team that lost 7-1 to Fulham in the FA Women’s Premier League Cup Final. The final, now played at Wembley in front of 35,000, was then staged at the home of Wycombe Wanderers.

But she then helped the side to win promotion to the Premier League National Division (then the top flight) and finish runners-up in the Premier League Cup. Her electric form in front of goal led manager Marcus Bignot to describe her as “the Wayne Rooney of women’s football.” The FA agreed, naming her young player of the year in 2003.

A career as a footballer doesn’t set you up for life in the way it does the men, particularly in the days before the professional Women’s Super League - launched by the FA five years ago.

Despite the evident potential for a longlasting playing career, Aluko always saw football as passion, something to do alongside building a strong academic foundation for a future beyond the game.

Her fight on the pitch is reflected in her fight off it. She moved to Charlton from the Midlands and juggled club football, her first senior England cap at 17 and Euro 2005, with her A-Levels, working to fulfil a life-long ambition of studying law. With England the hosts of Euro 2005, she sat a history exam on the morning of England’s second group game — a 2-1 defeat to Denmark.

Following more success at Charlton — twice league runners-up, FA Cup winners in 2005, Premier League Cup winners in 2006 — Aluko found herself in a situation many top players are all too familiar with.

With the men’s side relegated from the Premier League, 2007 saw the controversial disbanding of the women’s team and almost all of the senior side departed before a rescue deal saved the women’s set up.

Aluko then embarked on what would be her first spell at Chelsea, joining alongside England goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain and fellow Charlton castaway Casey Stoney.

After the 2007 Women’s World Cup, which England excited at the quarter final stage losing 3-0 to the US, she shone in England’s march to the final of Euro 2009. She scored in the group stage against Russia, bagged a brace in the quarter-final against Finland and provided the assist for Kelly Smith’s semi-final opener against the Netherlands.

Following their defeat to Germany in the final, the striker took the route followed by a number of senior England internationals at the time and headed stateside to join St Louis Athletica in the Women’s Professional Soccer league (WPS) and was the club’s leading goalscorer and assist provider.

Again thrust into the unknown when Athletica folded midway through their 2010 season, she joined Atlanta Beat before being traded to Sky Blue FC in December. In her two year odyssey across America, she scored 19 goals in 54 appearances - a run which was only brought to a halt by the collapse of the WPS in 2012.

Aluko returned to England and rejoined Birmingham for one season, lifting the FA Cup in the process by beating Chelsea on penalties to win the side’s first major trophy in 44 years.

She then returned to west London where she has 26 goals in 60 appearances for the Blues, won the Women’s Super League in 2015, was WSL topscorer in 2016 and has been nominated for numerous individual awards as part of an exciting, attacking Chelsea side led by Emma Hayes.

It is one of many ironies about the current situation that she has found herself at odds with the FA and Sampson - she won her last cap in May 2016 and was left out of the Euro 2017 squad in April this year - at just the time the governing body is backing women’s football with unprecedented investment.

It has vowed to double the number of girls playing the game by the end of the decade and invested £17.7m in the sport last year.

Aluko’s football career didn’t put her academic aspirations on the back burner. In 2008 she graduated from Brunel University with a First Class Law degree and went on to qualify as a lawyer at the end of 2014.

The last time I saw Aluko, she was speaking to an array of academically disenfranchised primary and secondary school pupils brought together by the charity Football Beyond Borders trying to be the role model that she feels she didn’t have growing up.

“When I was growing up I didn’t have female role models in football. It was the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena that I looked up to, but they didn’t play my sport. Hopefully now, that’s what I am to a young girl that plays football,” she said.

She has never been afraid to give an opinion. From diversity and the Rooney Rule, to Jessica Ennis-Hill’s stance on the return of Ched Evans to Sheffield United, the player is always ready speak up on issues she feels are important.

Perhaps it’s that honesty that led to her being chosen as the first female pundit on Match of the Day. Aluko was also part of the ITV team at Euro 2016 in France last summer and was recruited by Channel 4 to cover Euro 2017 in the Netherlands, where England ultimately lost in the semi-finals to the hosts.

She was similarly vocal in her displeasure at being left out of the England fold, publicly accusing Sampson of choosing his favourites above those in form, while privately submitting the complaint we’ve now become privy to.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Suzanne Wrack, for The Guardian on Thursday 17th August 2017 18.07 Europe/London

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