On The Ball

Scotland International and Manchester City midfielder Caroline Weir on scoring goals, equality in sport and affecting change for women everywhere

By Kate Carter

Illustration by Esme Harvey-Otway

“When I was a kid, I would always say that I wanted to be a professional footballer,” says Caroline Weir. “I know all the kids say that, but I really wanted to see how far I could go.” On the one hand, she’s right – endless kids do indeed say just that. But those kids are usually boys. For girls, until pretty recently, it wasn’t that usual at all. Caroline is only 26, but her career has spanned the watch-on-fast-forward evolution of the women’s game, from sideshow to something approaching – well, let’s not claim equality, but at least edging in that direction. And it sounds like she was born obsessed – she doesn’t remember a time she didn’t love the game: “I joined the boy’s team when I was five. My weekends were playing football in the morning, then East End Park in the afternoon to watch Dunfermline. Sunday mornings, me and my brother would get up early, watch Match Of The Day at half seven… Then we would always get bored towards the end of the last games and start arguing or fighting, and then we’d go outside and play football in the garden. And that was literally every weekend, growing up!”

machester city football player collage

Even so, dreaming of a professional career must have seemed a stretch. Caroline played for a boy’s team because there was no girls team. “It was a local team, all the boys in my primary school class played for it, so we knew the parents and they all knew us, it was really nice to be part of.” Did she never encounter any resistance? “Well, yes. The boys that I played with didn’t care that I was the only girl on the team. It was more other teams, and other parents. They would make the odd comment, you know, like, “Oh, we’ll beat this team, it’s got a girl in it.” You suspect they soon ate their words. Caroline also often found herself with nowhere to change – no one had ever had to provide girls with changing facilities. Yet she doesn’t recall this with any bitterness. She was clearly an unusually determined kid, and nothing was going to put her off: “It was fine. It didn’t bother me at all. Some of the boys from other teams thought I was a bit weird, but my team didn’t care, and the janitor who took the team was so supportive and encouraging of me.”

Female football player illustration

Though she comprehensively trounced the odds and has indeed made it to the highest levels – and was BT Women’s Player of the Year 2020 – it hasn’t been quite as smooth a story arc as that suggests. Initially, the plan was to go to America, where she could play football (and learn to call it soccer) at a decent level. Then the Club Academy Scotland was set up, where up-and-coming players could train and get a degree at the same time. “At 17,18, I was going to go to the University of Stirling, like others my own age, good friends I grew up with…” And then it all changed overnight. “Arsenal came in March or April, I went down to visit – and moved there in June.” On the one hand, it was the fulfilment of a dream; but on the other? A very unsettling sudden wrench. “I was 18, literally down there by myself, and all my friends were still in Scotland going to uni, living that whole uni experience. I was really quite miserable; homesick, not really enjoying the football side of things, and not sure if it was like the right decision.”

Fortunately, happier times soon followed to vindicate that decision. A move to Bristol provided her with a more family-based environment: “I was only there for four months, but with a manager I’d worked with before. All I wanted to do was play consistently – and that’s what I did. I made some really good friends, had a good time off the pitch, got my confidence back and was playing every single week. Mind you, we didn’t do so well in terms of results-wise on the pitch, we lost a lot of games! But it wasn’t necessarily about that for me, at that time. And then from there, I moved to Liverpool, which was great – and again kept me on the path that I want it to be on.” That path has led her on to Manchester City – and to an international career with Scotland, as well as playing in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as part of Team GB, which despite all the unsettling and strict rules of the Covid-Games, she loved. “It was a huge honour and something I never thought I’d be part of. I found the whole selection thing quite stressful; it was in our heads for such a long time because of the postponement. I really wanted to be part of it, so I put quite a lot of pressure on myself to get there. So I was just so grateful to be there. You know, it’s the Olympics, you have to make the most of it!”

Most players have their unique ways of dealing with pressure before big games – their own rituals – and Caroline is no different. But hers, I think, really reflect how women’s football has evolved. Ten, 20 years ago, if a professional female footballer had said that she applies make-up before the game, you suspect she would have been taken less seriously – despite the lengths male footballers have always gone to tweak their image. Now, it feels barely worth a mention. As Caroline says, “As the game develops, and there’s more coverage, you just become more aware that there’s a lot of people watching you. And I’ve always been into make-up, it’s something I really enjoy doing. On match days, if it’s a late kick-off, you have loads of time to kill. It’s a good distraction: I enjoy it and I feel good after I’ve done it – and I feel ready. Of course it never stays on, and at the end of a game I see pictures and think, ‘Wow, that was a waste of time!’ But it helps take my mind off the game, helps me prepare.”

Female athlete illustration collage

PASSIONATE

If that’s what comes before, what about afterwards? “If it’s gone well, I’ll have maybe a pizza and something fizzy. Probably sparkling water! Boring, but healthy. But relaxing after a game, that’s one of the hardest things. I don’t like late kick-offs – all the hanging around – and when you finish at 9.30, 10 o’clock… I take a little caffeine shot before games, but I don’t take much during the week, so that has a big effect on me. If it’s a big game, or something exciting has happened – or if it’s not gone so well – I find that really difficult. I know I’m not going to sleep for hours after a match, so I don’t even try. I’ll just watch something until I’m literally ready to fall asleep; I don’t want to lie there and think about the game – that’s the worst.” Caroline is excited for the future of the women’s game, but also a little impatient for it to hurry up and get there: “It’s going in the right direction, it’s just part of me wants it to go, you know, a little bit faster. The other week we had games at Goodison Park (Everton’s ground) and the Emirates (Arsenal’s ground] and the crowds for me weren’t quite big enough, I was a bit disappointed. I thought, we’re not competing with men’s football. It was an international break for them – and I would have liked to have seen more!”

Fighting for women in sport is one her passions off the pitch and something she’s really enjoying engaging with via the Women’s Sport Trust’s Unlocked programme. “As I’ve grown a bit older, I’ve realised there’s a lot of things that I don’t agree with. When you’re younger, you are more likely to accept them, but now things really annoy me. It’s about how you make that feeling productive, how you actually change things – so being part of Unlocked is great. Especially being around other female athletes from such a variety of sports. I think in football, you definitely get sucked into the football world. We are actually in a fortunate position compared to a lot of other female athletes, so it’s really good to hear what it’s like for them and the issues they come up against. Hopefully, together we have a stronger voice and can actually make change.”

So, is this an area for her post-playing career she would consider? “It depends what day you get me on! Pushing women’s sports is always going to be something I’m passionate about. But there’s other stuff, too; I always said I never wanted to be a coach, but actually, you realise it’s a hard job and some coaches really make a difference. Then there’s skincare, maybe a make-up company… who knows! I also really enjoy the media side of things and I’m doing a broadcasting degree. But right now, I’m focusing on football!” And it is, of course, that focus – a lifetime habit – that makes her the exceptional player she is.

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