Fern Whelan – “You’ll get over it, you’ll do it – and I did do that!”

In this #YesSheCan blog, we talk to Fern Whelan, former professional footballer and the executive of Women’s EDI at the PFA.
We chatted with Fern about her career journey, her advice to those who want to get into football, recovering from serious injuries, managing her work/life balance and the importance of representation and diversity.
To start off – tell us a bit about your career and your career journey. How did you decide that you wanted to be a footballer?

Well, we’re going back a bit now!

I started playing just for fun, obviously, as most people do with my brother. He started off at Liverpool, then he ended up with Shrewsbury and Chester City. So, I think that was the reason I started to take a shine to football – and being from Liverpool, you can’t knock football, it’s just thrust into your face.

So, I just played the school with friends at the time, all boys. No girls, not one girl, would play football with me at the time. My school teacher basically just said, “do you want to come and play? I’m setting up a girls team.” and that girl’s team ended up transpiring into Liverpool ladies.

It was always for fun until the age of probably about 13 and that was when I got my first England call-up for the under 15 and I was like, ‘oh, okay, maybe I’m actually quite good at this!’

That was the first time I thought, yeah, this is something I might do going forward because at that time, it wasn’t professional and no one would have seen it as a job, as a career. I just saw it as ‘okay, I’m going to go and play with my mates’ and then even in England, it was still about making friends, all that kind of stuff, until it got more to tournament phases and things, and it got a little bit more serious.

“This is my dream, I’m just going to keep pushing on.”

What gave you the motivation to carry on to that?

I think at the time, it was people around me, so it was like friends and family and things like that. They were like ‘no, you’re actually quite good at this, you can probably do well in this and travel the world, go and explore’ kind of thing.

At the time, again, it wasn’t monetary, it wasn’t financial – it was genuinely because just loved it. I love football and I loved getting the callup letters and when they came through my mum would be like made up, so I’d be kind of doing it for her as well. So that was the kind of motivation for me at the time.

Every month we get a training program sent through and I think it was just like, it just became routine, and it became a habit for me that that was life at the time, and I’d be missing a lot of social events, things with friends. It never really occurred to me at the time that I was missing out on those things.

It was more later in life where I thought ‘oh, yeah, I didn’t go to so and so’s party’ or, ‘I didn’t go to this’, but at the time it was more just I was just so zoned in on football, football, football, that I never looked into the future and thought ‘Will I be professional?’. It was kind of just, I just want to do this forever, no matter what it looks like.

“I never looked into the future and thought ‘Will I be professional?’. It was kind of just, I want to do this forever, no matter what it looks like.”

What has been your proudest career moment football-wise?

So, obviously, I think I’ve got to say, being captain for your country. I think it’s definitely one of my proudest moments, because that’s like the pinnacle of my career.

I think definitely at the time, the way it was when we beat Arsenal in the FA Cup Final, when I was playing for Everton, it’s something we strived to beat Arsenal for years. Like, we played against them so many times, it was always so close, and we just never beat them. So, to beat them in front of like 26,000 people, I think it was in Nottingham, in the stadium, on telly and stuff, and it was just a memory that sticks out in my mind quite strongly.

We beat that barrier then and they weren’t unbeatable anymore. So definitely that’s probably one of the highlights.

“We beat that barrier then and they weren’t unbeatable anymore.”

How did you deal with a serious injury and the challenges of that?

My first ever injury was a serious one and I think at the time, what was so hard about it was I had never been injured before.

I was kind of at the peak of my young playing career, I just got Young Player of the Year, things like that, and I never saw it coming and I think it was the hardest thing to take because I was so high. Then to find out I was going to be out for like, up to nine months, it was like, ‘oh, I’ve never been out, I’ve never not played for six years.’

So I think originally that was the hardest thing to take but when I was so young, it was kind of like, well, okay, we’ll do it, we’ll deal with it, it’s nine months. You’ll get over it, you’ll do it – and I did do that!

I think the hardest part about injuries is that you never know when you’re going to get another one, so you can kind of deal with the first one and it’s okay but for me, it was spiralling. After that, I ended up having to have that same knee operated on a couple of years later, which clashed with the Olympics at the time. So that one put me out for 22 months.

That’s the hardest one I think I’ve definitely gone through because it was the time out off the pitch. It was being isolated from teammates, friends and things like that. When you’re so used to doing something and it’s what you love and it’s all you know, it’s really hard to do something completely different and not be out on the pitch with friends.

I think the understanding of myself now going forward is that it’s really important as a player to be aware that these kinds of things can just hit you at any point. It’s always important to prepare for that because the mental side of it is a hell of a lot harder than the actual injury itself.

At the time I got in contact with the PFA, they were great. They put me in touch with counsellors to talk through the process, and to help me gain some strategies. What I found really helpful were just really small, kind of day-to-day goals.

Everyone talks about these goals, but they’re so important when you’re trying to get through an injury, be it how big or how small so for me, if I’d have gone right, I’m injured, and I’m not coming back for two years, my goal is to be back playing, and what you’re going to do in the two years in between.

At the time it was more about taking each day as it comes and I think that’s the most important thing because you can’t kind of get wrapped up in the long term. So, each week for me, it was on Friday I see my counsellor, and that was something to kind of look forward to. Not looking forward to, but just to being able to talk about stuff was really important.

Even now, I started to do meditation, which I never thought I would ever do, but when it really does start to take its toll, just taking a step back and being able to see things from a bigger perspective is really important because you can get so bogged down with your injury, what’s going on with you, rather than actually seeing a bigger picture and a bigger perspective.

“We’ll do it, we’ll deal with it, it’s nine months. You’ll get over it, you’ll do it – and I did do that!”

How does it make you feel knowing that you’re a role model?

It’s amazing and I think, you know, when I couldn’t play and I was injured through 22 months, that then became a real focus for me. It kind of was like, well, how can I then go and help and inspire people to play like my niece plays?

She’s eight but she plays like she’s eleven, she’s brilliant and she’s got that inspiration and I’d like to think a lot of it’s come from myself and watching me play growing up. So if I can do it as part of my family, I can do it as part of the girls who come and watch the game.

I speak to a lot of the master games and take time out to just answer their questions and try and help them to get into sports. Even if it’s not about them getting to the elite levels things, if they can get some enjoyment out of sport and out of football, then, you know, I’ve done my job and that’s that really is really important to me, that side of things.

What advice would you give to young people wanting to get into sports?

I’d say you’ve got to be driven and you’ve got to be willing to work hard. It’s not the easiest industry to play in because there’s a hell of a lot of pressure that goes alongside it. So, it’s being realistic and understanding if you’ve got that work effort and if you are going to work hard and you’re quite a driven person, then you will go far.

I think the main thing for me is to always try and keep that enjoyment as well when you’re playing because that’s the reason you start playing, that’s the reason you get into it in the first place. When you start losing enjoyment for something, that’s when you stop putting the effort in, so try and make it as enjoyable as possible.

Try not to take yourself too seriously too early on, because that’s what I did because it got serious really quickly, but just enjoy it moving forward and you’ll definitely get the best out of yourself.

“If you are going to work hard and you’re quite a driven person, then you will go far!”

You spoke to Sky Sports about the importance of representation, diversity, ethnicity, and cultural representation within football and the sports industry as a whole. Why is it important that we have these conversations?

I think it is really important because for so long now it gets brushed under the carpet about levels of kind of BAME representation in our elite leagues, especially in the female league. If you look at the number of players in the men’s league playing and who are visible to the nation, you’ve got potentially quite a good proportion whereas if you look at the female league for some reason or other it’s just not there, the visibility is not there.

I think that filters down into young girls coming into the game and do they have these role models to look up to? If they’re a young black girl, potentially from a poorer background and stuff, do they see it as being too high of a bar to reach? Does that stop kind of the participation early on before we even get these girls into kind of academies and then potentially into the elite level sport?

It’s a really important conversation to have to look into the numbers of elite professional females who are BAME again, we’ve already looked into kind of the coaching side of it and put people in kind of hierarchy I think that’s really important as well when you have that whole representation across the league.

We can’t just have a blanket league and it’s white and it’s plain and I think going forward or going back it was all about females and getting females into the sport, but we have to delve a little bit deeper.

“It’s really important that myself and other black players take a little bit of a stand as such and just stress how important it is that we feel that we’re part of a whole community rather than playing as a black player in a white team.”

Having different lived experiences from some of your white professional colleagues, how have you been able to use your voice, use your experiences to try and influence that representation?

It’s really important that as players we do speak up when we do try and help out as much as possible. I was having a conversation with the PFA not so long ago, and they were saying they’ve done these campaigns, they’ve done all these interviews and things like that, but they’re not getting the uptake from it because they’re not players and they’re not in the eye of the people. And people, not that they won’t listen, but do they take attention straight away? Maybe not.

So I think it’s really important that myself and other black players take a little bit of a stand as such and just stress how important it is that we feel that we’re part of a whole community rather than playing as a black player in a white team because that’s what I’ve done for most of my career.

I’ve played around white players and there’s nothing wrong with that but if there was some diversity and some culture, I think it just makes it a better environment for everybody. I had discussed that I want to get all the players in the league together and make it quite a powerful statement such that these are your role models, this is models, this is what you’re looking at and it’s a small number.

I think that in itself is quite powerful to show that there are not actually that many black players represented at the top elite level of female sport and then going forward these are role models, we want more. So really driving it and then collating that data of where the black players are or the BAME players are in the league; collecting that data across from Southern right up to Northern and seeing can you allocate areas where maybe for some reason, players have fallen away and that’s then where you would target to help increase participation and access to kind of training facilities, things like that.

A lot of the elite training facilities now are in the middle of nowhere, you can’t get to them and if you’re like what I was when I was younger, I had no car to get places, I relied on my mum and things like that but if you’ve got parents who haven’t got the time to take you to these places again, if you’re falling back into these kinds of categories, into these poorer backgrounds, if you can’t get to training, that for me, is where it all starts, right at the bottom.

Before we even look at getting all these elite players in, we have to get girls being able to get to training as a starting point.

This #YesSheCan blog was transcribed from a video interview that you can watch in full via our membership. If you want to read more about women in sports, read our blogs with Jessica Creighton and Rupinder Bains.

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