LAST year, when the BBC made Alex Scott the first female pundit they’d ever taken to a men’s World Cup, the only person who didn’t bat an eyelid was Alex herself.
She was hailed as a trailblazer, changing the face of a male-dominated broadcast industry and paving the way for other women to break into the field.
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But cool-as-a-cucumber former Arsenal and England right-back Alex didn’t feel an ounce of pressure.
“I think I was naive to all that,” she says. “I just felt like a big kid: ‘Oh my goodness, I’m working at a World Cup!’
“My attitude as a footballer was to always be prepared – make sure you’re the fittest and know who you’re up against. And that’s exactly how I treat the media side. I didn’t do that just because I’m a woman and I have to prove I know everything.
“This is me thinking: ‘This is my job and I don’t want to let down the people who have shown faith in me.’”
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The hard work paid off. Alex shone at last summer’s tournament in Russia, and thanks to her encyclopedic knowledge and insightful analysis she was the Beeb’s standout star.
Ditto her former England colleague Eniola Aluko over on ITV, whose detailed and eloquent thoughts on the Costa Rican team earned her a patronising round of applause from French international Patrice Evra (who surely would not have done the same to former Barcelona striker Henrik Larsson, sitting to his left).
Last month the BBC launched its Change The Game season to kick off a scintillating summer for women’s sport featuring, among others, the football and netball World Cups and the women’s Ashes. In the photo to accompany the campaign, Alex, 34, took centre stage in a line-up of brilliant female sports broadcasting talent.
“It’s such a strong statement from the BBC – we’re not here to tick boxes. This is a huge summer for women’s sport and it should be celebrated. Whereas before there was only really Gabby Logan, Clare Balding or Sue Barker to present it, now there’s a whole array of different personalities and wonderful women.
“Some people don’t like change. Some embrace it. But the way it’s going – not just in football, but in society generally – it’s more diverse. People want freshness.”
Alex is also The Sun’s latest signing, with a column running in the paper and online throughout the World Cup.
That people are surprised to discover she knows her stuff is more a source of amusement than frustration, given the fact she joined Arsenal as a young girl, going on to win a historic quadruple of major trophies in 2007 and 140 caps for England.
“People say: ‘Wow, she actually knows what she’s talking about.’ I’ve been playing for Arsenal since I was eight, so what did they expect? I can back everything up with my playing career. I don’t get caught up in it.
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"I know what I do, I know I can play football and I know I can talk about it. It’s about getting to the point where people don’t speak about me as ‘the female pundit’, I’m just a pundit like everyone else.”
Alex rolls her eyes and sighs at mention of the crude “banter” that has long been part of football culture – the sort that got Richard Keys and Andy Gray sacked from Sky Sports in 2011 after leaked footage of their sexist remarks about a female assistant referee.
She’s very familiar with that kind of conversation, but insists it’s dying out thanks to a more enlightened generation.
“I’ve been around that sort of thing since I was eight, but it’s changing. It doesn’t matter if it’s in a sporting environment or in an office, it’s so old-school now. And it’s not just women calling it out – men are also saying this simply isn’t funny any more.”
There has been speculation that some of Alex’s male colleagues are less than enamoured with having a woman in their midst. Earlier this year Graeme Souness was criticised for interrupting and dismissing her during the half-time analysis of Manchester United V Leicester.
“Every time I’m on screen with Graeme people say: ‘He doesn’t like working with Alex,’ but he’s like that with everyone!
"If Graeme has an opinion he sticks to it, and I love that he doesn’t treat me any differently from how he would anyone else he disagrees with. That shows the utmost respect. Off-camera he’s lovely and we’re fine.
“I get on more with Jamie Redknapp because we have a similar sense of humour, but every time I’m →in a studio with those different personalities, it helps me grow and be better.”
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Alex was discovered by an Arsenal scout while playing in an east London football cage with her brother and his friends. Football was her “escape” and she had dreams of playing at Wembley, but as a girl she never believed it was possible.
“I was lucky someone spotted me in that cage, and once I got to Arsenal I never wanted to let it go. Walking in at Highbury and seeing the likes of Ian Wright, I was just like: ‘Wow.’”
The women’s game has since changed beyond all recognition. For much of Alex’s career it was under the radar, attracting little attention. As she rose through the Arsenal ranks to become semi-professional, earning £300 a week, Alex and her teammates were found jobs around the club to make ends meet.
By contrast, last September all 11 teams in the FA Women’s Super League became full-time professionals for the first time, although the players’ average salary of £26,000 is still a fraction of the £2.64million commanded by their male counterparts.
Alex says: “These days the girls are at the training ground full-time with the same schedule as the guys. But, yeah, our manager at Arsenal, Vic Akers, would always try to find us jobs within the club because he knew the girls needed some income.
“Some worked in the office at the training ground, I worked in the laundry, and then we’d train in the evening as Arsenal women.”
So they were washing the men’s kit between their own training sessions? It would be hard to find a more stark example of the imbalance between the sexes than this.
“It was about making what money I could. I never complained because I was out there watching Arsène Wenger and his training sessions. That helped me. But it shows how far the women’s game has come that now you don’t even have to think about having a part-time job.”
There was no fallback. I remember my mum’s friends laughing when she’d tell them I wanted to be a professional footballer
For Alex there was never a plan B – football was all she ever wanted to do.
“There was no fallback. I remember my mum’s friends laughing when she’d tell them I wanted to be a professional footballer, saying: ‘Don’t worry, Carol, she’ll grow out of it.’
“But my mum never once tried to push me into something different, even though there was no way of making a living out of women’s football. She supported me because she saw I was happy and that it gave me a focus to not be hanging around on the street.
“I never thought: ‘What happens if I don’t make it or I get thrown out of Arsenal?’ I knew if I worked really hard they couldn’t let me go. My East End background meant it was about going after an opportunity, and once I’d got it, making sure it never got taken away from me.”
Mum Carol – a warm, jovial woman – has come with Alex to the shoot today. The two of them are very close and Alex says she’ll never forget the sacrifices Carol made as a single mum to ensure she reached her potential.
“My dad left when I was young and she raised me and my brother on her own. I saw how hard she worked – she wasn’t at every single game I played, but I knew why.
“She was doing everything away from the field to make sure I had those moments. She had lots of jobs, and whatever I needed she’d try her utmost to get me and make sure I never went without in my football career.”
After a three-year spell in America where she played for Boston Breakers, Alex returned to Arsenal in 2012.
With one eye on a post-footie media career, she did a degree in professional sports writing and broadcasting through the Professional Footballers’ Association, travelling to placements while training for the 2015 World Cup. She submitted her dissertation moments before England’s opening game against France.
By the time she retired last summer, she was a regular on Final Score and begged BBC head of football Steve Rudge to take a chance on her by bringing her to the World Cup.
For now she has no plans to return to football in a coaching capacity, and is relishing a second career as a pundit as well as the opportunities that come with it, such as this shoot.
“This is my first cover shoot and I love showing you can be this strong, sporty role model but also enjoy other stuff like fashion and music. Women don’t have to be one thing.”
Women’s football is exploding at the moment.
With England V Scotland kicking off at 5pm today, Alex says the build-up to this tournament has felt like no other. The Lionesses go into their opener as one of the favourites to lift the cup. The anticipation is palpable.
“Every World Cup gets bigger, but this is the first time I feel we’re going in with this level of buzz and excitement. People are talking about meeting up: ‘Where are you going to be when England play Scotland?’ That’s a first.
“Women’s football is exploding at the moment. When people come to a game they enjoy the environment. The girls stay around afterwards signing autographs and taking photos because they know the importance of it. Having that accessibility is huge.”
She acknowledges the enormous disparities in wages, investment and sponsorship compared to the men’s game: will it ever be a level playing field?
“I can only sit here and hope. I don’t think I’ve ever viewed it as ‘the men get this and why don’t women get that?’ We have to push for more and hope that one day we’ll be there. It’s about enjoying the journey, knowing we want to take it to new levels.”
She feels strongly about encouraging young people, especially girls, into sport and says she wants to use her platform “in the right way”.
Softly spoken but passionate and forthright, when asked about the debate around transgender women who were born male competing in female sports, Alex doesn’t shy away from a controversial topic.
“It’s a big talking point and it really needs to be looked at. We need more science. Could I compete physically against a male footballer? No. Do I have the skills to? Yes, but they will outrun me, they are stronger. So those are the barriers. We need time to look at this.”
Should women be able to discuss the issue without being dismissed, as Martina Navratilova, Sharron Davies and Kelly Holmes have been, as bigots and transphobes? “Yes, absolutely. If you’re trying to fight for something then you should have a voice.”
Away from sport, Alex is single and says work is too full-on to even consider a relationship at the moment.
“It’s about concentrating on work and enjoying this. If it happens it happens, but I’m fine. I love working with kids, so I’d love a family one day. I’m just very busy!”
People stop her in the street all the time wanting to talk about football and tell her how much they admire her.
“When girls tell me about how inspirational I am for them and it’s made them think they could do this, too, that’s amazing to me,” she says. “I can’t stop smiling about it, because when people see me on the cover of Fabulous and every women’s World Cup game is on the BBC, that’s cool. They have something to aspire to.
“My role models were all men, so I can see why there was a drop off in girls playing. I’ve helped pioneer women’s football to where it is and now I’m doing the same in the media, too.”
Her eyes widen in disbelief. “That blows my mind.”
● Catch Alex’s thoughts on the World Cup in The Sun throughout the tournament.
Book you read?
Michelle Obama’s autobiogaphy. She’s a badass.
Box set you watched?
Killing Eve. Loved it!
Podcast you listened to?
The Gurls Talk. Dolly Alderton was a guest.
Time you lost your temper?
I don’t. Even when I was playing, the referees knew I was the one they could talk to.
Time you got drunk?
I had a few drowning my sorrows over Arsenal not getting into the Champions League.
DM you received?
From Lindsey Russell, the Blue Peter presenter, asking me for the number of the woman who does my eyelashes.
Time you cried?
With my agent the other day. We were talking about family stuff and
I got a bit emotional.
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