“It shows how much more powerful love can be than hate,” Beth Mead says as she reflects on a year of tumult and glory which has changed her life. The Arsenal striker won the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament as she helped England become European champions in the summer but also had to endure the pain of her mother’s cancer and the upsetting memory of how, last year, she had been excluded from the GB squad at the Olympic Games.
Those football woes, and her worry and care for her mum, meant that Mead began last season in a frame of mind which, I suggest, seemed to fuse anger and love. The 27-year-old replaces “anger” with an even starker word in “hate” as she conveys her hurt. “I would say me hating that situation I was in [after missing the Olympics and with her England future unsettled] was my main motivator in pre-season. But the perspective of what my mum is going through meant I needed to snap out of it, stop being a baby and enjoy my football again. I wanted to find the enjoyment I had as a six-year-old girl when I started playing football.”
Mead smiles on a dark afternoon at Arsenal’s training ground as she says: “A lot of people have mentioned that the last year was a revenge tour for me. Actually, it’s been more of a love tour.”
She has just written a book where the most moving pages emerge in a chapter about her mum’s cancer. The situation is so raw that Mead asks not to talk about her mother in too much detail. Even the memory of how she found out that her mum was ill, when Mead answered her phone while having a bath, is bruising and still very painful. “I felt dazed, winded. I put the phone down reeling with shock, unable to register everything Mum had just said to me. My tears mingled with the bathwater until I couldn’t tell which was which.”
Mead explains that the brave and stoical way in which her mother has confronted the disease inspires her. She has spent all year “trying to put a smile on my mum’s face. Obviously this summer was incredible, to share that moment with her when we won the Euros. I try to find where my parents are during the warm-up to every game. But for me to get to them straight after the final was special because all I wanted was to share that moment with them. We had so many happy tears but lots of emotion came out about the struggles I’ve had throughout. We were thinking of everything that went before that moment and for us to share that together in front of a packed-out Wembley was incredible.”
Mead’s voice remains steady when I ask how her mum is coping with her treatment. “She’s in hospital at the moment. There’s obviously a lot of repercussions about management of chemo. It’s taking its toll on her a little bit but she’s doing OK.”
The admirable way in which Jen Beattie, her Arsenal teammate, has kept playing football while recovering from breast cancer has been a source of comfort and hope for Mead. “Jen’s been amazing. All the Arsenal girls and the staff have been incredible to me but Jen’s experienced cancer. She understands how it affects the family as well as the person involved. She’s been great.”
Mead suffered anxiety as a young girl and her book captures how she sometimes claimed to be ill, or even developed psychosomatic symptoms, as she tried to avoid leaving home or going on England youth training camps. “They made me the player and person I am today,” she says of those early insecurities. “Lots of things unsettled me. I was very much a home girl with a great family around me. Leaving that was always difficult.”
At the same time Mead felt she “always had a point to prove. I’m still doing that to this day, to prove people wrong, but that set in from a very young age.”
Her formative years were spent playing for a boys’ team and she got used to the sniggers and mocking words when the opposition and their parents saw she was a girl. “It became the norm but I love playing football and as soon as I got on that pitch, over that white line, I didn’t hear them. By the end of most games, I had so much respect from the other boys and their parents.”
Life became more complicated as she began playing girls’ football. Her prodigious goalscoring meant that she was offered a chance to join Sunderland – which she initially resisted by telling her parents that, after throwing her kit and boots in the bin, she was giving up football. They were patient and helped her find the confidence to accept the opportunity. But when she was picked for England youth teams, “I would never sleep the night before. I curled up on the end of my mum and dad’s bed and then I would make up that I was sick or I made myself sick because I was that anxious and nervous.”
Even when she signed for Arsenal in 2017, at the age of 21, Mead found the transition from the north-east upsetting. She needed her mum to come south for a while to settle her homesickness. It did not take long for Mead’s talent to flourish and she was soon called up for the national side. She made her international debut in April 2018 and set up Ellen White’s equaliser in the World Cup semi-finals a year later. England eventually lost 2-1 to the United States in a defeat which Mead believes fired her and her teammates with the resolve they needed to become European champions.
Mead had a “love-hate” working relationship with Phil Neville when he was England manager. He recognised her potential but often warned Mead that she was “too nice” and needed to develop an angrier edge. That anger duly came when Neville’s replacement, Hege Riise, echoed an earlier England manager, Mark Sampson, in making it clear that she did not have much faith in Mead. Riise left a devastated Mead out of the GB Olympic squad.
“This was the first time I’d not been selected for a squad,” Mead says. “I struggled mostly with the reasoning she gave me. My bread-and-butter is being aggressive on the pitch, being on the front foot, winning balls back, and she basically told me that was the reason for me not going to the Olympics. For the next four weeks I was pretty low, not in a good place, and hated the way I was thinking. I didn’t want [GB] to do well even though I love some of the girls in that team. I was borderline depressed but then I got back for pre-season and things happened with my mum. I knew I had to stop being a child, snap out of it and work hard.”
Her new determination coincided with the arrival of Jonas Eidevall as Arsenal manager and he surprised Mead by suggesting she was good enough to win the Ballon d’Or. By the time the Euros were under way Mead, after an outstanding domestic season, was in superlative form. She picks out her hat-trick performance against Norway, when she was described in this newspaper as being “absolutely unplayable”, as the highpoint in terms of the sheer quality she produced in an 8-0 victory: “I felt I could have done anything and it would have gone right that day. That was a game where nobody was going to bring me down.”
She stresses that so much of England’s European triumph was down to Sarina Wiegman, who transformed the squad and an atmosphere which Mead describes as “flat” and “bitchy” towards the end of Neville’s tenure. “It was difficult for anyone to come in but she stamped her authority, and what she wants the culture and environment to look like, as soon as she got here,” Mead says of the Dutch coach.
“In a short period she changed the environment to one we love. Sarina has this amazing knack of helping you know exactly where you stand and her communication is impeccable. She also has this incredible ability to make you feel so calm as a team and an individual when it’s a high-pressure moment. In the changing room before the final she was as calm as you like. She is just an incredible human being and obviously she’s won a Euro championship before in her home country.”
Mead stresses that the quarter-final against Spain was England’s most difficult match of the tournament. “Germany in the final was hard but coming from behind against Spain, and getting the equaliser so late before going on to win, was so tough.”
Spain were without arguably the best player in the world as Alexia Putellas missed most of last season with a bad knee injury. Putellas’s absence from top-flight football meant that Mead should really have won the Ballon d’Or as the European game’s most prestigious individual prize is meant to be awarded to the player who achieved most in the preceding season. “Yes,” Mead says simply. “I didn’t think I was that invested in it until I came second and it was so close, by one vote. It was something like 163 points for her and 162 for me. Considering what we did at the Euros, and my individual achievements, I could have won it. But I’m even more hungry to win things now.”
Winning the World Cup next year is Mead’s and England’s next testing target. But I am curious as to why there are so few black players in England’s squad. Mead shakes her head when asked whether this anomaly suggests there might be a residual issue of racial prejudice in the development of English women’s football: “I think it’s completely coincidental. We put out our best 11 and you don’t think of anyone’s race or anything like that. I think that’s more an outsider’s perspective.”
Mead, who has spoken out against homophobia in Qatar, where the men’s World Cup is about to be played, highlights how healthy the women’s game is in regard to sexuality. “I’d love to bridge that gap to make it more normal [in men’s football], but it’s a culture,” she says. “The men’s game needs to catch up and get in the 21st century. As women we don’t sit there and put out a big fancy statement that we’ve got a girlfriend or we’re gay, bisexual or whatever. We’re normal human beings. If you’re happy it doesn’t matter who you fall in love with.”
Mead is settled in her private life as she and Vivianne Miedema, the brilliant Dutch striker and her Arsenal teammate who was also nominated for the Ballon d’Or, have a happy relationship off the field. Their parents first met each other in Zwolle in 2007 when Miedema and Mead made their international youth debuts in the same under-15 game between the Netherlands and England. “Small world, eh?” Mead says with a grin. “It’s crazy because we both scored and our families met.”
It still took years for them to fall in love because Miedema’s arrival at Arsenal came just as Mead was trying to establish herself. “Obviously I had to move positions [and play in a wide role rather than as the central striker] because Queen Viv came in.”
Mead laughs. “It worked out well because that position suits me much more. In our first few years we weren’t jumping with excitement for each other but things have worked out great for us. We know and understand each other’s life and schedule and expectations and we’re pretty good at being able to switch off and not bring football into the house. I was buzzing about the Ballon d’Or, as it was my first, but Viv did remind me it was her fourth.”
She is still worried about her mum, and adjusting to fame, but Mead sounds secure as she says: “The football pitch has always been my safe space and that’s still true today. It’s the place where I switch off and enjoy myself. You’re supposed to call it a job but I just love it. I don’t think too many people in the world can say that every day.”
Beth Mead’s Lioness is published by Hachette