A few days ago, I caught up with Anna Patten while she was in England prior to the England u21 camp, to chat about her 2018.

Brazil's Kerolin Nicoli vies for the ball with England's Anna Patten during the Women World Cup U20 football match Brazil against England on August 8, 2018 at the Clos Gastel stadium in Dinan, north-western France. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)
Brazil’s Kerolin Nicoli vies for the ball with England’s Anna Patten during the Women World Cup U20 football match Brazil against England on August 8, 2018 at the Clos Gastel stadium in Dinan, north-western France. (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP)

The interview was recorded at Borehamwood in the bar during the Arsenal v Birmingham half-time break as the weather was freezing outside. When I went back for the second half, the ground’s doors were already closed! I had to go home and missed the rest of the game, including the excellent fightback in the last 10 minutes!

For those not too familiar with Anna, she came through the Arsenal ranks and made her first-team debut aged 18 under Pedro Losa. She was ever present during the 2017 Spring Series and is a versatile defender who can play either at right-back or centre-back.

From the beginning to the first team

We went back to the beginning and spoke about how she started playing football.

“I started at a very young age, I would play with my two older brothers just in the back garden and then I joined the local boys’ team at u-8 level,” Anna said and it’s important to note that, even if there are more and more girls-only teams being created, the main option for many young girls is to play in a boys team. It is something that I think actually helps with their development to an extent as they face certain physical challenges they would not get in girls-only football.

Anna then joined the Arsenal Centre of Excellence a few years later: “I joined at u13 level and played all the way up to the Seniors until I joined FSU,” (Florida State University in the USA where she now studies ). As per Anna’s profile on the FSU website, she has collected a lot of honors on her way to the first team and many England youth caps.

After winning the u17 double twice with Arsenal, she was promoted to the Development team and on the normal pathway. That means playing a couple of seasons in the development teams and then, potentially, getting a few games for the first team for the lucky few who actually get a chance.

Then, something happened just before the Spring Series started. The 2016 season was the last summer FA WSL season, as the FA decided to move women’s football’s top tiers back to a winter season. A shortened eight-game tournament was organized from March to June.

Three senior centre-backs ended up with injuries as the team went into pre-season in early January. “At the time there were a few injuries in the first team and I just got the opportunity to get a couple of training sessions with them,” Anna explained

What is really interesting is that most youngsters coming into the first team have to adapt to the speed and intensity of the game at that level. The gap between the development team and first-team football is huge and most youngsters come out of their shell quite slowly. But it did not go that way for Anna. “I went in there, not acting like I was gonna make up the numbers, trying to prove myself and show that I could compete at that level. I took those opportunities and I am very thankful that I’ve got those opportunities.”

Alongside another youngster in Lotte Wubben-Moy, who had already made her first team debut aged 16 in the previous season, Anna was then invited to take part in the preseason camp in Spain and given the number 32 squad number. “I thought this would mean more chances to train in front of the manager and I was glad I managed to prove myself.”

This promotion came as a big surprise to me and to many Arsenal fans, who had probably not heard much about Anna at that point. The u17 team’s League and Cup double did not get much publicity and the Development team’s games are attended mostly by friends and family as they are usually played at the same time as the first team games. I asked if she had been surprised by her quick elevation to the first team: “I was definitely not expecting it, but when I had the opportunity I grabbed it with both hands.”

Following the preseason camp, Anna was installed as a first-team regular and played every Spring Series game, anchoring the defense alongside Lotte Wubben-Moy. The team finished that mini-season in third place but unbeaten after a very strong defensive showing.

Credit must go to Pedro Losa for believing in two 18-year-olds at the heart of his defense and that they could play against seasoned centre-forwards. They repaid his trust with excellent performances way beyond any expectations.

Then, in the summer, Anna left the club to study and play in the NCAA at FSU. “When I was thinking of going to Florida State prior to the Spring Series) it was because I was not making the step to the first team and I knew quite a few players had,” she explained.

There were many England youth players that summer who went to the USA as they had been scouted the season before while playing the Nike u17 tournament in the US with England. All the Unis kept tabs on them, for example, Lotte Wubben-Moy and Alessia Russo ended up at the University of North Carolina, while Hollie Olding went to the University of Kentucky.

It was a clear sign that lack of first-team opportunities for youth team players was and is still a problem at Arsenal. Only special circumstances meant they could get a chance of first-team football. This is what we saw again last November and December when many academy players were drafted to cover for the numerous first-team injuries.

She carried on: “At the time, when I was getting opportunities in the first team and playing every single minute in the Spring Series, which was an amazing experience, it was harder to leave. But I knew at the time it was a good decision.” Winning the College Cup certainly validates that choice alongside the life-changing opportunity to be a student-athlete at one of the best women’s soccer Universities in the US.

It’s also important to note that for the 2017/18 season, the expectation was Pedro Losa would go back to his tried and trusted senior players once they returned to full fitness. He had already added a centre-back in Louise Quinn who was signed when Notts County collapsed as their owner decided to cut the women’s team money.

Tune in at the same time Monday night for part 2 about her World Cup adventures and life in the States.