Jill Scott is “a little bit anxious” talking about likely winning her 150th England cap on Tuesday against Northern Ireland. The Lionesses have not played since March last year and Scott had two false starts when games against Germany and Norway were cancelled.
“Good things come to those who wait and if you’re going to go on to achieve something that only one person in England has ever achieved then it’s not going to be easy,” Scott says. “So I’m just trying to keep focused on the next day as much as possible – and make sure I don’t fall into any potholes when I’m out for a walk.”
The 33-year-old Sunderland-born midfielder is the Lionesses’ second-most-capped player behind Fara Williams, who made 172 appearances, having made her debut in August 2006.
It might have been a very different story, though, with the former long-distance runner crediting Mo Marley with “taking a chance” on her as under-19 coach, saying she “would never have gone on to get one England cap, never mind over 100 without her”. Why? Because Scott did not progress through the England ranks in the usual manner. It was Marley bringing the 18-year-old, who was playing for Sunderland, into the squad Scott went on to captain that kickstarted her England career.
“I think there’s so many players that could have gone either way, and I’d probably count myself in that bracket,” says the Manchester City midfielder, who is on loan at Everton. “I was never the best technically, but she could see that I bought a lot physically and she really made that my super strength.”
The 2007 World Cup in China proved to be the pivotal moment that cemented Scott’s place in the side. Having, as her England teammate Carly Telford puts it, travelled “not really expecting to play”, Scott came on in England’s opening game against Japan.
“I remember I was coming on to replace the greatest footballer that’s ever graced our game in Kelly Smith and then here is Jill Scott, 19, skinny, someone’s probably thinking: ‘What’s she going to do when she comes on this pitch?’” she says with a laugh.
“Hope Powell has turned around to me and she says: ‘Have you’ve got your studs on?’ And I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got moulds on’, so I kind of ignored that question. She joked: ‘If you slip on this pitch, you’ll probably never play for England again.’ So I went on dead nervous just walking around the pitch.”
Despite the nervousness there was something there and she started each of the remaining fixtures. “From that moment she just made a name for herself,” says Telford.
A seemingly never-ending athleticism and physicality on the pitch contrasts with basically a big-kid personality off it. The former England manager Phil Neville called her “happy go lucky” and said she brought “a bit of cheekiness to the squad”.
That cheek has got her into some interesting situations. “In four of the regions [in the early 2000s] the best place for players to go for strength and conditioning was the local prisons because they had the best equipment,” England’s physical performance manager, Dawn Scott, told the Guardian last year. “So there was a group up in the north-east: Jill, Steph Houghton, Demi Stokes, Jordan Nobbs and, a little bit later, Lucy Bronze, Carly Telford, and they would go into the prison twice a week and lift. The trainer would meet them at the reception and lead them through the prison. Jill being Jill, full of energy, nothing malicious, would mess around and she actually got banned from going for a while.”
Chelsea’s goalkeeper Telford, who played with Scott at Sunderland and studied alongside her at the University of Sunderland and Loughborough University, is blamed by Scott for her not getting her degree from Loughborough because as roommates they would “stop each other from going to lessons at times” – something she regrets but has also led her into coaching.
“I could tell you a million stories about Jill Scott that are not probably for writing,” Telford says with a laugh.
Watching Scott play her way towards this milestone has been emotional. “She’ll never take the plaudits that she deserves,” says Telford. “She’s so unselfish, she will do anything for the team.”
The Lyon forward Nikita Parris, who played with Scott at Everton and Manchester City, says it is all about “how much confidence she gives other players around her”. “At Everton she always said to me before every game: ‘You know what Nikita, go out there, do a little dribble; whether you lose the ball or you don’t, I’ll be always there to back it up, I’ll be always there to support you to win it back.’
“There’s no better teammate, there’s no better way of playing, especially for a forward. She gives you the freedom to express yourself knowing that your teammate may have to mop up the mistakes you might make.”
When Scott steps out as captain on Tuesday, potholes permitting, she will not have a crowd or family there to celebrate with but fittingly there will be someone opposite who was there at the start and is perhaps partly responsible for her tough-tackling, no-nonsense reputation: Northern Ireland’s Rachel Furness.
“Last time I went to sleep I was thinking about Rachel Furness,” Scott says. “It is actually true. I remember when we were 10, 11, 12 and we were competing, Boldon against Chester-le-Street, she was always such a tough competitor in the middle of the pitch, I knew I was going to get kicked and I learned pretty quickly I had to defend myself as well. I think that’s a good little story.”