It is five years since Gabby George became Everton Women’s first full-time professional footballer but, sometimes, that watershed moment feels more like five decades ago.
“With everything that’s happened recently, 2017 seems like quite a long way in the past,” says a left-sided defender harbouring realistic hopes of inclusion in England’s Australia-bound 2023 World Cup squad. “But it was a dream come true. I remember getting a text from the club and, literally overnight, football became a job.”
George’s new contract also solved a practical problem for the then 20-year-old. “I literally have no clue what I’d have done if I hadn’t turned professional then,” she says. “Playing football was the only thing I wanted to do.”
That perspective changed in February 2020 when she ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament. There is never a good time to sustain a serious knee injury but, with the first Covid-induced lockdown beckoning, it proved a particularly bad moment.
George’s surgery was delayed for four long, and mentally extremely tough, months. “The delay was the worst part,” she says. “I wasn’t able to do anything.”
When, a couple of months after the operation, she was finally able to bend her knee sufficiently to walk up and down stairs unaided, she began realising the enforced rest had produced some unforeseen benefits.
“It was hard sitting in the stands and watching everyone play the game I love but, in a way, it was probably good for me,” she says. “I’d played almost every minute of every game since I was 16 and I think I’d played so much I was starting to lose my form. That time out and concentration on getting fully fit and focused was important; all the rehab meant that, when I came back into the team, I was in a good place.”
Throughout 12 months on the sidelines George could rely on the support of her cousin, Nottingham Forest’s former England and Manchester United attacking midfielder Jesse Lingard.
“I speak to Jesse frequently,” she says. “We don’t always talk about football though, we speak about life a lot. Jesse supports me a lot; he’s someone I can turn to and talk to on a different level to other family members because he understands exactly what being a footballer’s like.”
That ruptured ACL reminded her of her chosen career’s inherent fragility. “It’s why I’m studying accountancy in my free time now,” says George. “You asked me earlier what I’d have done if I hadn’t turned professional and I couldn’t tell you; football had been my life since I was nine. But, when I injured my knee, I realised how important it was to have something to fall back on. An injury like that’s a real eye opener – you start thinking: ‘What do I next?’ So I began the accountancy course and I’m enjoying it.
“I enjoy taking my mind away from the game. Before it was all football, football, football but I’ve realised it’s important to switch off from it sometimes and make your brain do something else. Without the knee injury, I’d never have done accountancy.”
George’s studies dictate that her life, on and off the pitch, is dominated by the detail that adorns balance sheets and the tactics board at the Finch Farm training base Brian Sørensen’s Everton share with Frank Lampard’s men.
“Brian’s very, very detailed so this season has been about getting used to that,” she says. “But I think, so far, we’re adapting quite well.”
It is Sørensen’s first campaign on Merseyside, where the Dane’s arrival has introduced the sort of stability notably lacking last season, when Willie Kirk’s time in charge ended last October, his successor Jean-Luc Vasseur departed in early February and Chris Roberts and Claire Ditchburn took joint interim control until the summer.
Now a relegation skirmish – Everton finished 10th in the 12-team WSL – has been replaced by a push for Europe with Sørensen’s side fourth, three points behind the joint leaders Arsenal and Manchester United.
A litmus test of the team’s potential – not to mention their new 3-4-3 formation – comes with Sunday’s home game against Marc Skinner’s Manchester United but George is quietly optimistic. “Last season wasn’t our best,” she acknowledges. “But Brian’s been a breath of fresh air. There’s times in football when you’re standing still as a player but he’s pushed us all forward.
“He’s brought in good people as well as good players and we’ve got a very good dressing room this season. Everyone speaks to everyone else and that’s key.”
Sørensen’s love of tactical nuance is matched only by his belief in bonding. “Brian really likes bringing us together so we went to Snowdonia in pre-season and we make sure we socialise a lot now,” says George. “We’ve got several foreign players and not everyone has family with them so it’s about making sure we’re all happy off the pitch. If people are unhappy they rarely play well.”
Unlike certain Premier League counterparts, Lampard is also doing his bit to foster togetherness by endeavouring to ensure that the men’s and women’s squads do some bonding of their own. “We had a joint pre-season barbecue for the men’s and women’s teams and our families and it was really good to all socialise together,” says George. “I think Frank’s trying his best to integrate us.”