Beth Mead is all smiles as she joins us on a Zoom call from the National Football Museum in Manchester.
The Arsenal forward has good reason to be happy. Despite the Gunners missing out on the Women’s Super League title by a single point, it has been a standout campaign for Mead on a personal level. In her fifth year with the north Londoners, the 27-year-old has scored a seasonal best 11 goals in the WSL, making her the division's third-top scorer behind only Chelsea ace Sam Kerr and Arsenal teammate Vivianne Miedema.
Throw in her eight assists – a joint-league high – and she has 19 goal involvements for the season, again, second only to Kerr and Miedema.
It has been a standout year for Mead at international level, too. With 12 goals in her last 11 appearances for England – including hat-tricks against Northern Ireland, Latvia and North Macedonia – she could hardly be in better form ahead of Euro 2022 on home soil.
But despite all of that, and Mead’s obvious excitement for a home Euros, that isn’t why she is smiling. She is smiling because as we chat to her, she has just finished launching the McDonald’s Fun Football Programme, the largest grassroots football programme in the UK that aims to provide over 10.5million hours of free coaching to kids over the next four years.
"It’s a great initiative," she tells us after the launch, which was also attended by Jordan Henderson, Jack Grealish, Micah Richards and former Team GB and England Cerebral Palsy captain Jack Rutter.
"We’ve got a lot of different kids, boys and girls and a lot of inclusivity. Basically, a million kids and a million smiles. There have been a lot of smiles today and it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a really enjoyable day for myself and it looked like the kids had a lot of fun, too. It’s amazing that they could have a day to enjoy themselves for free and to be able to enjoy themselves in this environment."
With families around the country feeling the squeeze as the cost-of-living crisis really starts to bite, a project such as this offering coaching for nothing could not come at a more important time with parents struggling to make ends meet.
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It's something that Mead is acutely aware of, partly due to her own upbringing. "Maybe kids right now don’t understand the time we’re living in," she admits. "I guess when I was that young, I’d be like 'mum or dad will bring me to something.' When I was younger my parents had a lot of struggles financially trying to get me to places and to fund me for my subs and stuff.
"To be here today and for the kids to have the free access somewhere close and local is amazing. It’s a stress off the parents and a stress off the kids. They’ve come here today, played a game of football and loved what they’ve done. It goes a long way.
"The struggles and stress my mum went through working two jobs to get me places and things like that, I now feel like I need to give back a little bit. I think every parent would want to do what my mum did, or they want to do the best that they can, and the fact that this is available is amazing and will go such a long way with a lot of families."
Grassroots football, particularly for girls, has come a long way in the last 15 or 20 years. Mead recognises that, but she knows that there’s so much more that can be done. With the women’s game riding the crest of a wave ahead of the Euros this summer, the Arsenal star wants this to be just the start.
"Where I lived, something like this would have been non-existent," she says. "Maybe not even thought about at the time. I think when I played I went to a local Saturday morning session at my local village field with a man who ran it because he lived in the village and had his qualifications.
"He just wanted to bring some joy to the kids in the village. Whereas now you’ve got these initiatives. Where I’m from back home has a brand new 3G pitch and they have soccer camps and nights for boys and girls. That’s 15 minutes from where I live.
"When I played there was nothing nearby and it took an hour to get anywhere even close. Things have come such a long way in 15 years, but I think it’s important to continue to push and not accept that this is ok. This is amazing but we want more."
The growth of the women’s game is measurable by its role models and recognisable figures. Whereas in the past, the likes of Kelly Smith and Brazil icon Marta might have been among only a few who managed to break into the wide public consciousness, now there is a glut of talent known by fans male and female, young and old, around the UK and the world.
The aforementioned duo of Kerr and Miedema, Steph Houghton and Nikita Paris or American icons Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe are household names. So too now is Mead, even if she’s struggling to get used to it.
"Role Models? There weren’t any really," she says. "Kelly Smith was the female footballer I looked up to and Thierry Henry was a male player I watched a lot, so it’s funny now that I play for Arsenal. There wasn’t a lot going on.
"I think I watched a lot of men’s football. I didn’t know a lot about women’s domestic football. Obviously, I watched England and Kelly Smith but that was about as far as my knowledge went. So, to think now when someone shouts in the street 'Beth, Beth, Beth' or they have your shirt on at a game, it’s insane.
"It’s still a weird feeling. When I speak to family and friends back home, they find it quite surreal. To them I’m just Beth. To me I’m just Beth. It’s amazing for kids, boys and girls, to have so many role models. And it’s also nice to aspire to because when I was growing up professional football wasn’t a thing for women. The game’s come such a long way and it’s exciting because it can only continue to keep on getting bigger and better."
The game’s growth in this country has gone hand-in-hand with the WSL. Established in 2010, the league is now recognised as one of the best in world and has attracted big name players from across the globe.
Even Mead is a little surprised at how quickly it has become fully professional, doing so from the start of 2018-19 season. With that growth set to continue, she believes it is important that the league strikes a balance between attracting big name signings and promoting young, English talent.
"It’s becoming a very competitive league, maybe one of the best leagues in the world," she gushes. "There are big players from all over the world wanting to play here. I think that’s the balance. You want to get the young English talent coming through, and there’s plenty of it in academies and ways we’re trying to do that. But you’ve also got the attention from elsewhere, so it’s about that balance of trying to get it right.
"But if you’d have said that about four or five years ago we’d probably have laughed at you. The fact it has become a full-time professional outfit in the last three years, you’d have probably laughed. But that’s the direction the game is heading in, and we’ve got to get the balance right between pushing local talent and keeping the game at a competitive level so that it moves forward. It’s a difficult one toe to juggle for clubs but at the same time it’s where you want the game to be."
Could Mead ever foresee a time when the Championship also turns fully professional? She’s not ruling it out. "Obviously our league is professional," Mead says.
"Teams like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have started to creep away, and then there’s the gulf in the middle. Don’t get me wrong, the league is very, very competitive but we need to try and get the balance of it right. We would love the Championship to become a full-time professional league.
"Liverpool have just been promoted, and they have backing from the men’s team and that will help them settle into the league much more than another team that maybe doesn’t have that."
For that to happen, Mead knows more financial investment is required, but that not such a simple ask at a time when everyone is feeling the pinch.
"I think it’s important that sponsors and men’s teams try and help the best they can to provide for the women’s team. It’s going in the direction that it’s getting better but we need specific things to help us get there, whether that’s physical, nutritional or psychological.
"Not a lot of people outside of football would think about, but it’s what’s needed to take the game to that next elite level. As a women’s professional outfit, we don’t like to settle anymore, we want to keep pushing. We’re not trying to be divas; we’re not asking for the world, but the moment we settle is the moment the game plateaus again. We’ve got to continue to demand for the next generation.”
Generational talk will be a big thing this summer with a home Euros to look forward too. And Mead knows the impact a good run at a tournament can have. The Lionesses reached the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup before bowing out to the USA in a run that captured the nation's attention.
"I was obviously a part of the World Cup team, and I remember we had such an effect on young girls and boys because of how well we did. The fact the Euros are in England in front of everyone, people can be involved and be there and see it with their own eyes.
"We need to try and inspire that next generation because we want them to be doing better than us. We want to push the game further. This summer could be an incredible summer to get us there.
"I’m very proud of what I do, I’m very proud of where I come from, how I got here and who helped me to get here. I know people back home are very happy and supportive of how well I’m doing. And I guess that the same for a lot of other girls.
"I love what I do, it’s the best job in the world. I wake up in the morning to play football and I hope that another young girl will do that 10x better than I do in years to come. If I’ve helped 1% of getting them there, I’ll be a happy woman.
The men’s team have often suffered under the weight of expectation going into major tournaments. And after three semi-final defeats in a row at major tournaments, the Lionesses could be forgiven for being concerned about the pressure they might be under. Not on your nelly.
"Don’t get me wrong, we’ve been to three semi-finals recently and not gotten through them in major tournaments," Mead says. "But I think we as a team are using the expectation and the pressure in a better way.
"Especially with England, we know where we’re at and we believe in the squad we have, and I think that’s what we’ve got to push going forward. We’re in a good place in terms of the culture to think we can do well and not buckle under the pressure.
So, can they do it? "For us personally, it would be insane if we won it," Mead says with another big smile on her face. "We’re a proud country and we’d love to do it.
"We really want to do it and fingers crossed we can perform and do well and we’ll see how we go from there."
Beth Mead and McDonald’s Fun Football is calling on parents to kick start their child’s football journey by signing up to their brand new and largest grassroots football programme in the country. Visit McDonalds.com/Football and follow @FunFootballUK on Twitter and Instagram to find your nearest session
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