The restrictive weight of tier-three local lockdown rules govern Chloe Kelly’s home life in Liverpool and her Manchester-based job but the England winger welcomes one particular emergency regulation.
Although it has nothing to do with the government’s coronavirus suppression strategy, Kelly finds herself the beneficiary of a unique measure designed for unprecedented times. After swapping Everton for Manchester City during the summer she feared being cup-tied for the final rounds of the delayed 2019-20 FA Cup and was immensely relieved to learn that, for one edition only, it is possible to play for different clubs in a cup straddling two seasons.
“One of the first questions I asked Gareth Taylor [City’s manager] was: ‘Am I allowed to play in the FA Cup?’” says Kelly, who appeared for Everton in the competition last term and faces her former teammates in Sunday’s Wembley final. “It really mattered to me.”
The only downside to her impending reunion with old friends from Merseyside is that Wembley remains closed to supporters, dictating the 22-year-old’s family cannot make the short journey across London from their home in Ealing. Similarly her boyfriend, Scott, must watch on television from Liverpool alongside Otis, their 10-week-old Poochon puppy.
Given that Kelly is extremely close to her parents and six older siblings, the ache of absence will be keenly felt but the hope remains that the conclusion of the soon-to-begin 2020-21 FA Cup could be played out in front of an at least partially fan-filled Wembley in May.
“There’s an opportunity to make history in these crazy times,” says a woman who, before moving in with Scott, shared a house with the Everton goalkeeper Sandy MacIver. “Our aim is to win two FA Cups in one season.”
Doing so will involve disappointing a manager Kelly cannot praise highly enough. Willie Kirk has transformed Everton’s once-flagging fortunes to the point where his side sit second in the Women’s Super League.
They are, unexpectedly, five points ahead of a fifth-placed City side brimming over with high-profile talent including England’s Lucy Bronze, Ellen White and Steph Houghton as well as the US internationals Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis.
“I’ve huge respect for Willie, he’s done a great job and I still talk to him,” says Kelly. “I remember being in a pre-season Everton team meeting last summer when we said we’d get to the FA Cup final so I’m delighted it’s happened for them.”
Her defection to City was driven primarily by the prospect of playing Champions League football alongside a raft of England teammates. If WSL results, most latterly a defeat by Chelsea and draw with Reading, suggest a slightly slow-burn start, Kelly begs to differ.
“The performances have been good so it’s not going to knock our confidence,” she says. “It’s unbelievable to play alongside World Cup winners like Sam and Rose, to be captained by Steph and up against a world-class full back like Lucy in training or in front of her in games. I feel I’ve learnt a lot already, that my performances have matured.”
A winger sufficiently versatile to play anywhere across the front line scored nine goals in 12 appearances for Everton last season and has already registered five at City. Outrageous long-range rockets – or dipping, swerving, curving “worldies” – are a speciality.
Her amalgam of incisive finishing, scorching pace, audacious dribbling and adhesive close control was honed from the age of seven when she began playing against her five older brothers, including a set of triplets, and their friends amid the confines of a gravel-pitched football cage on Ealing’s Windmill Park Estate.
A throughly streetwise Kelly emerged from the cage to join QPR and, later Arsenal, imbued with considerable mental and physical toughness; not to mention the creativity required to succeed against faster, stronger older boys. Her brothers play Sunday League football but the competitive instincts born in the cage still burn bright. “They keep me grounded,” she says. “I’d like to think I’m the best player in the family but they’ll say they’re better.”
She speaks with an engaging blend of candour and poise but, even for such an instinctively upbeat character, breaking the ties binding her to home initially proved hard. “Leaving Arsenal for Everton was difficult, very challenging,” Kelly admits as, in the background, Otis demands her full attention. “I’m a proper Londoner and being the youngest of seven made it even harder. But everyone’s so friendly in Liverpool and I’m really enjoying living in the north now. Manchester actually feels like it’s got a lot of similarities to London.”
Taylor, too, has surmounted culture shock following his switch from the men’s under-18s. “Gareth’s a very specific manager, very much into the fine details and I really like that,” says Kelly as she prepares to offer him invaluable inside knowledge of Everton’s modus operandi. “He knows that, if we get the little things right, the bigger picture will look a lot better.”
Her job now is to embellish Taylor’s final portrait with the bold, vivid brushstrokes Wembley’s wide open spaces are made for. “Playing there’s a dream come true,” says Kelly. “And being up against my old team makes it extra special.”