England star Mary Earps has said that inspiring the next generation of goalkeepers is her higher purpose, despite facing unfair backlash online after being unable to meet every single fan after recent Manchester United and Lionesses games.
On the pitch, England will continue their quest to qualify for the 2024 Olympics – on behalf of Great Britain & Northern Ireland – with two Nations League fixtures against Belgium. But, away from it, fan interactions have sparked a broad debate over the accessibility supporters have to players.
The rapid growth of the women’s game has seen a 200% increase in fans attending WSL fixtures after England won Euro 2022 in front of 87,192 fans at Wembley Stadium. The 2022/23 season had a record average crowd of over 6,000, compared to an average attendance of just 748 in 2014.
This acceleration has made it increasingly impossible for players to meet with and interact every fan after the final whistle, with some supporters even taking to social media to vent their frustration.
On Sunday, Earps responded on Instagram after being targeted with negative messages following Manchester United’s WSL win over Everton. As it happens, the 30-year-old has been among the longest to stay out taking pictures and signing autographs and has a long established reputation for being extremely generous with her time in such circumstances. But some were still disappointed.
“In terms of the accessibility that people get to us as players, of course is something that is a hot topic of discussion really at the moment,” the England goalkeeper said ahead of facing Belgium.
The Lionesses were already subjected to fans shouting, “Get off the bus” after England’s most recent home game, a 2-1 win over Scotland, despite spending time with fans in the stadium after final whistle. The crowd began chanting at the players as they waited to depart the Stadium of Light, unhappy that they could not meet every remaining person. There was also backlash when players left the airport through a private exit upon returning home from the summer’s World Cup, rather than the public arrivals hall, even though that is standard protocal for England teams after major tournaments.
“It is something that we as players are experiencing in a very different way with the profile of the game changing and we love to interact with the fans but it’s becoming really difficult at times to keep everybody happy and to interact with as many people as possible,” Earps explained.
“And we’re obviously so grateful that thousands and thousands of people want to come and meet us and talk to us but the reality of it is that if that is the expectation we’re always going to fall short.
“I think the emphasis on it needs to switch now, and we love that we can be so connected because of how the game’s grown. But, equally, we are subject to a lot of comments and unnecessary…I don’t want to say abuse, I think that is a bit strong…but at times it’s an addition to the game we don’t need.
“We love [meeting fans] but it’s becoming really difficult to maintain now so I think we’re doing our best but I think it is always going to be a hot topic at the minute.”
England take on Belgium in Leicester on Friday, with an expected sell out 32,261 crowd attending the fixture at King Power Stadium. Earps, who grew up in the East Midlands, hailing from Nottinghamshire is excited about the occasion taking place close to home and where she began her football career.
“It’s great, midlands is massive,” she said “I have no doubt they will come out in big numbers. It’s always special to play close to home. I’ve not really had the opportunity to do that in Nottingham yet; hopefully that is on the cards one day soon, hint hint, nudge nudge…
“I think obviously Leicester, that was the club I grew up playing for as well, that was my centre of excellence. That was the team that I really feel I did a lot of my developing and my younger years, so it’s really special to go back in an England shirt so I’m really looking forward to it.
“And my Gran can come as well so that is a huge huge bonus, I’m really excited about that. She never gets to come to games.”
Whilst Earps has become a household name and role model for younger generations, her devotion to the fans became apparent, with her Lionesses teammates often stating that she is one of the last players to leave a stadium in her attempt to meet as many as possible.
England defender Esme Morgan spoke highly of the shot-stopper’s faithfulness to meet as many fans as possible whilst commenting that the negativity she has received can be detrimental.
Despite this, Earps continues her efforts to be a role model to young fans, especially girls who want to be goalkeepers. England welcomed 103 young ‘keepers between the ages of 11 and 16 to St George’s Park on Tuesday, where they could meet the England GK Union and received personalised goalkeeper jerseys to continue to inspire the next generation.
“It’s incredibly rewarding,” Earps said of inspiring the younger generation. “For me this is really the greater purpose in why I do what I do. “Obviously. I love playing football, love diving around in the mud, love representing my country and playing football at the highest level but to be able to give back to people. It’s just brilliant to have that access and meet with us and to have their own personal shirt.”
Earps’ England shirt was not on sale during the Women’s World Cup, with fans outraged that they could not buy the Ballon d’Or nominee’s jersey. After Nike agreed to sell a select amount of stock, which sold out within minutes without any formal announcement – some being resold for £200 online – Earps vowed that more of her shirt would become available soon.
“I know that there is going to be more shirts coming before the end of the year so I am really really excited about that as well,” she said.
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