Parris certain of her goals on the pitch – and in life
There is no surprise why striker is record scorer in Women’s Super League, writes Katie Whyatt
Nikita Parris perches on a blue-and-white sofa at the gleaming City Football Academy as she recounts the journey that has already seen her, aged 24, win every domestic title with Manchester City and become an England mainstay.
It is some story for a player who joined Everton’s Centre of Excellence aged 14 and made her senior debut five months after turning 16. Last month, Parris became the Women’s Super League’s all-time leading goalscorer, eclipsing Eni Aluko’s 36. It was a landmark moment in a career Parris rightly insists is “just getting going”.
At Everton, she spent hours poring over DVDs of Thierry Henry. As a teenager, she sat her maths and English GCSEs at an England camp – “our invigilator would just be one of the coaches” – and recalls a childhood watching the former Arsenal striker Julie Fleeting “once a year on the BBC” during the FA Cup final.
In the days when she would finish training with the athletics team at St Patrick’s Primary School and immediately descend on the local Methodist Youth Centre in Toxteth, Parris dreamed of emulating Fleeting. “I’d play football all night,” she remembers. “It would just be a whole group of kids from my area. There was an indoor tennis court, two goals either side, and you’d play shooties – you wouldn’t play a match. Two touch, and if the ball goes out your half, it’s the opposition’s. Two goals and you’re off.”
She was never intimidated sharing a pitch with boys often six years older.
“It was never about who was macho, if you were a boy or a girl, how old you were,” she says. “If you were good enough, you’d stay on.”
This summer, Parris launched the NP17 Football Academy, offering sports qualifications to students in her native Liverpool. She wears her Toxteth heritage proudly and her words tumble over one another as she speaks of the area that “is probably the reason I am the person I am”.
Since the 1981 riots, Toxteth has found it difficult to shirk connotations of unemployment, racial tension, crime and urban dereliction. Toxteth was one of the sites of the 2011 riots but Parris, born in 1994, found a deterrent in football from the moment, aged seven, when her neighbour invited her to the local field to play. From then, there was little else.
“You have to sacrifice time with your family, your time as a teenager,” she says. “You don’t experience life like any other, outside of football. When you go to uni, you can’t live the uni lifestyle. But I’ve never, ever thought about quitting football.
“I knew from a young age what I wanted to do, but that’s not the case for everyone. Some go through different paths to reach their destination. My academy is all about ensuring they see the opportunities – aged seven, 15, 20. It doesn’t really matter, as long as they realise what they’re capable of. I think I had a lot of friends that didn’t decide to do the right thing early. You’re going to have that in inner-city areas – but through me, they realised there’s a way forward.”
Her roots provide constant inspiration, and she holds close “the values instilled in me when I first started going to the youth centres: love, support, hard work. I wouldn’t say I got out, because I’m still in it. I go home every day and my mum still lives in the same house. It’s not one of the most affluent areas of Liverpool – some may say it’s deprived – but we have an abundance of love and support.”
Are those success stories, though, always accepted? Does the coverage devoted to her City team-mate Raheem Sterling, for instance, and its largely racist subtext, indicate a problem celebrating the successes of those from disadvantaged backgrounds? “I don’t think we have a problem,” Parris says. “It’s not a problem we have with dealing with these people. It’s maybe a lack of understanding. If you’ve never been in a situation, you’re never going to know what gets people going.”
Parris, like Sterling, has grown from a move along the M62. “I was a natural talent, a raw talent. Then I came to Manchester City and I learned philosophies.”
City’s women train on a pitch 50 yards from Pep Guardiola’s side, but Parris first became acquainted with Sterling during his days at Liverpool. “He’s lovely. I’d say we’ve both got a similar personality: fun-loving, love a joke and a laugh. He’s got good banter – well, it’s all right, but it’s not as good as mine.” Does she think Sterling gets upset at some of the coverage? “That’s not for me to comment on.”
Today, Manchester City host an unbeaten Arsenal side for whom a win would see them pull eight points clear. It will be the biggest domestic test of the season for a City side who, Parris admits, “started off slowly.”
In the coming months, her attention will turn to the World Cup. A lot has happened in the 17 months since Parris featured in her first major tournament, Euro 2017. Does she feel different from the girl who, last summer, lay awake with nerves on the eve of the squad announcement?
“No, I don’t, because I remember the feeling of getting that email at 8am,” she smiles. “I get that feeling every time. I’ll be scrolling through [my inbox], and if it’s not happening, I’ll be reloading it, just to make sure I’m in the squad. That feeling, for me, has to always stay. Because that shows the hunger and desire I have to play for England. If that feeling ever went, I’d be disappointed in myself. That feeling should never change.”
Shooting star: Nikita Parris and Manchester City face an undefeated Arsenal today