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Features Interviews

Lianne Sanderson: England Lioness

Words by Alex Stewart
Photography by Perou

Lianne Sanderson is the sort of person you notice. You might not recognise her for what she does, though plenty of people do, but when she walks into a room there’s something about her that demands attention…

It’s not the Mohican haircut; that’s pretty in-your-face, yes. But this is a woman who radiates the quiet confidence that comes from being content and focussed, whose lively eyes suggest friendliness and warmth but determination too. Even when she’s just loped off a transatlantic flight with little to no sleep and to strut and play for a photo-shoot before heading to an intense training session in the afternoon. Because that’s what Lianne does.

First and foremost she is a footballer, one of the most talented strikers in the game, a pro who left the comfy confines of the English game and domestic dominance with Arsenal at 21 to forge a career in the States and then in Spain, before returning to the US. She is now back in England, back at Arsenal, the club that was her home through the various age-groups and, to the relief of England fans, returned to the international fold after a lengthy hiatus. Though she’s been back with the England squad for longer than she’s been back at Arsenal, there is something of the prodigal daughter about Lianne, a footballer who went off and discovered herself as an athlete and, to some extent, as a person, away from our shores and has now returned to her rightful place in England’s most dominant domestic team and the international side.

I asked Lianne what it was like to be back home. “It’s not been an easy transition and it wouldn’t have been wherever I played in England because my life has been in America for the last five years. It’s not been easy but I’m trying to be adaptable. When I moved to America I became a full-time, professional footballer and that was a dream come true. It’s not easy but I’m training well, trying to be the best team mate and player I can be.” These things might sound like rehearsed phrases in the mouth of many professional sportspeople, but there’s an earnestness to Lianne that means you know that’s what matters to her. The nudge to be that way came from her time in America: “In America I learned to push my limits. Before when I got tired, I’d be like I can’t do anymore, but over there my first manager, Paul Riley [now at the Portland Thorns], he taught me how to push myself beyond what I thought I could. I think it’s an American mentality: win at all costs and work as a team.”

Despite being an outsider to start with, Lianne found that the way her teammates approached the game, the esprit de corps generated by communal endeavour, made the transition easier: “There were times over there when I won the Player of the Week or made the Team of the Week and my teammates would clap me into training, text me, and that meant a lot because they were saying I was a good player but that was good for the team, that we can be good as individuals but we succeed as a team.”

It seems that, in fact, for Lianne a nudge was all that was needed to see professional sports in that light; there’s a directness and an openness about her that seemed perfectly suited to the American temperament that actually went beyond sport, as she explained: “I felt at home because that mentality was so me. I love when people talk rather than walking with their heads down. In south London where I’m from if you say hi to some people they’re asking what you want, what you’re after, rather than you just wanting to say have a nice day. That’s a real difference.”

The American women’s game is often seen as being a bigger sister to its more puny younger brother, at least until the USMNT did rather better than expected at the recent World Cup. Unencumbered by the same levels of competition for interest as the fiercely crowded men’s sports arena experiences, where baseball, ice hockey, basketball, and gridiron all compete for the affections of most Americans before ‘soccer’ even gets a look in, women have found their game growing and growing. This has been spurred by the early successes of the international team, and bolstered by a strong infrastructure, a competitive league, and the attraction of college scholarships for talented players across the globe. In many ways, the NWSL is for women what the Premier League here is for men. For Lianne, the experience of playing there was enormous: “The American league [has] the professionalism, the crowds, the way they embrace women’s football over there because the men’s game isn’t as big. In England, soccer, men’s football is our religion. We don’t have all those other sports like they do in America. The women have had a lot of success; they are on bill-boards in Time Square.”

She thinks that the English league has an edge, now, in other respects: “If we could mesh the two leagues together that would be the ideal situation, I’ve always said that: the game over here has become a lot more physical; in America it’s a lot faster but that doesn’t make it better. If we could merge the technical ability we have here with the fitness levels over in the States, that would be brilliant.” Of course, playing abroad has its disadvantages, or challenges, things that we as football fans would do well to remember when slating the latest expensive signing from abroad who’s failed to live up to the hyperbolic expectations we and the press foist on them. As Lianne says, “I used to think if you were a good player you could play anywhere. Having done it, I know it’s more complicated than that: there’s the food, the culture, missing your family, loads of other things that play a part in being right to play. Footballers are still human beings, regardless of how much they get paid. It’s not as easy as people think. People think of the money but money doesn’t buy you happiness. I know it sounds clichéd but I think it’s true. For example, players have a right to be with their families.”

This process toughened her as a player and a person: “I’ve grown up a lot through doing those things, like living in a village in Spain and not speaking the language. You still have to do life, go to the shops, talk to people.” This toughness is part of what spurs her on as a professional, but it’s interesting to hear that she feels that the men’s game lacks something in that regard: “In the men’s game, there’s too much too soon. Sixteen year olds getting huge signing on fees and boot deals – what do they then have to aspire to? A lot of players don’t seem to fulfil their potential. I think a lot of them lose that hunger because it’s all handed to them so early. Win, lose or draw – you’re still picking up a pay cheque. I’d like to think that’s not the case but I think that’s what our game is turning into at the moment and I don’t like it.”

Travelling to what is in some respects the home of the women’s game, being forced to train harder and longer than ever before to prove herself to her fellow professionals, gave Lianne an edge and an insight that allows her to draw that comparison: “In England I was a big fish in a small pond, over there in the States I was a small fish in a big pond. I learned in America how to be professional, what it took to be a professional, eating properly, sleeping properly. It’s about being disciplined. And it’s about me being disciplined. In England I used to be able to get away with that because Arsenal would win games without much effort but in the States I finally found out how to be a professional. I’m proud of the way people in America know who I am for the right reasons.”

And people do know her, in America and, increasingly, here too. She relates with glee a story about when the Liverpool team came to Boston: “I got to meet Steven Gerrard, Daniel Sturridge, and the other players. It was really cool because I went up and said, “Hi Daniel, nice to meet you, I’m Lianne” and he said, “Oh I know who you are”, and he started laughing. That was nice, I was really taken aback that they knew.” Meeting fellow footballers clearly means more to Lianne than meeting other ‘celebrities’; that’s understandable because it’s her thing. But also, it’s clear that, growing up, there was a lack of female role models in football for Lianne to follow. She says her heroes were Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp, David Beckham. She admired the Williams sisters and knew about how much Billie Jean King had done for women in sport, but time or the difference in sport made it hard for her to identify quite so much with those people. Now, Lianne finds herself in that position. She is a role model, a recognisable face (and haircut) at the top of her sport. What does that mean to her? As an openly gay woman, Lianne is exposed at the intersection of two of football’s major prejudices, sexism and homophobia. And she uses her profile and her intelligence and perspicacity to talk about these issues.

I asked her first whether, as a female sportsperson, she felt a pressure to look or act a certain way, especially for marketing campaigns? “There’s a good documentary called ‘Misrepresentation’ and it talks about how on CNN all the women have to be in low cut tops and all the men are in suits. I think that’s the way the world is. But I also think it’s important to be feminine. Don’t think just because of my hair and my look that I always want to wear baggy clothes. It’s important to be who you are, as long as you’re happy with who you are. I don’t dress any way that’s not me, whether it’s to do with sexuality, image, whatever, I dress for me and in a way I’m comfortable. I don’t feel pressure.”

Interestingly, Lianne thinks that, as long as athletes are comfortable doing it, showing them as feminine or even sexy is actually a good way of dispelling another misogynistic prejudice: “I think it’s good that [the media or advertisers] want to show women in a sexy way. I think it’s good to get away from the stereotype that women’s soccer players all look like men. I think that’s what people used to think but that’s changed”. This stereotyping of women’s football extends to sexuality. When I asked Lianne about being an openly gay player and whether the women’s game was more progressive in its view, she laughed and spun the idea on its head: “People outside the women’s game automatically think that you are gay. I think the stereotype is that, even though it’s improved. So a female footballer saying they’re gay: I don’t think anyone goes ‘oh wow’. And that’s not a good thing, because there are a lot of people in the women’s game who are straight.”

But what of the men’s game, where terrace homophobia is still rife, and players pulling out of tackles are labelled fairies or girls? Lianne is positive about the general movement towards a more tolerant sport, which reflects a more tolerant society: “Times are changing and a lot more people feel comfortable coming out. I think people like Thomas Hitzlsperger coming out after he’d retired helped.”

Not that Lianne thinks it’s changed enough, and she has real sympathy for any gay players in the men’s game: “People are kidding themselves if they think there isn’t a gay footballer in the Premier League at the moment, there definitely are. But I can see why they don’t come out. Hopefully, though, as time goes on…but it’s really hard, living a secret your whole life. It must be so hard. I was lucky because I didn’t feel trapped being who I was and my family supported me and loved me no matter what.”

With sexuality, one often hears people say that if a Premier League player came out, his colleagues wouldn’t care but the fans would. Lianne agrees, and also says that her male colleagues are not sexist about the women’s game: “Male professionals treat us with respect. At the PFAs, the Chelsea men sat on the same table as the women’s players and when Ji So-Yun won the Players’ Player of the Year they were all on their feet clapping.” She agrees, though, that they could do more to help break down the wider prejudice, be more vocal in their support.

Lianne sees educating people as the key to effecting societal change. Individuals have a responsibility to challenge discrimination where they see it, even in what might appear small instances: “We need to make people more aware of how they say things. If I’m around people and they say certain things I sometimes say to them how it might be hurtful. For example, saying let’s go to a ‘gay’ bar or a ‘normal’ bar – they’re not meaning to be insulting but it’s habit, it’s ingrained. We need to educate people. I’m not trying to go round correcting people all the time but it’s important to let people know, especially young people.” Lianne takes her responsibilities as a role model seriously, and it’s not hard to see why when she talks very movingly about some of the letters she receives: “I get loads about different subjects, a lot about sexuality.

Some of the letters I get move me to tears because there are people struggling with being who they are and they say, “You’ve literally saved my life’ and I don’t even realise I’ve done that, it’s just by being me, being open about being myself. I just want to help as many people as I can and use the platform that I have in a positive way to help people. Don’t get me wrong, I like to go out, I like to enjoy myself, I like to socialise, but for the most part I’m conscious of being a good role model, being a good person, someone for kids to look up to.” This sort of thing can often sound trite coming from sportspeople but there’s a sincerity to Lianne that is striking.

She also feels that it’s crucial that this comes from people other than those in the affected groups: “I think we need people like David Beckham talking about stuff like this. It can’t just be gay people talking about sexuality, or black people talking about racism.” That’s something we could all do with remembering.

And it’s the last thing she says to me as the car in which we’ve been chatting gets to the Arsenal training ground. It leaves a very genuine impression of what Lianne is like, thoughtful, assertive, prepared to speak her mind, and all of that coming from her own inner determination and a self-confidence born of knowing who she is and what she wants to be. It is reflected in the way she plays her sport but for me, and I suspect for Lianne, it’s how it manifests outside of that sport that really matters.