Ladies 1 week ago

In Profile: Emma Beckett

By Kevin Affleck

Emma Beckett is a girl on a mission, one of those who can achieve anything when she puts her mind to it.

In no particular order, during an eight-team career (don't, whatever you do, call her a journeyman), she organised Crowdfunding for four stricken teammates, resulting in surgery for three of them, became self-taught in IT to the extent she runs her own quality assurance business, commuted from Norway so she could combine her work commitments with a dream career as a pro footballer and somehow summoned the mental fortitude to play a game of football knowing her dear nan was nearing the end of her life, knowing she had probably seen her for the last time. Oh, and she climbed Kilimanjaro to raise money for a mental health charity, something she dropped in towards the end of a breathless 37-minute interview with all the insouciance of someone telling you the weather forecast.

Just to top it off, she scored from the halfway line against Oxford United on Sunday. She didn't retweet the goal, though. Backslapping is not her style. She was more interested in disputing Adekite Fatuga-Dada being credited with her second. She feels her stunning free-kick went over the line before Fatuga-Dada headed in the rebound. That's Beckett in a nutshell: always striving for more, always challenging the status quo.

Beckett (or “Becks”, as she likes to be known, definitely more so than Emma) definitely lives life to the full and faces all its complex challenges as she does the heat of a midfield battle: with a steely determination, an iron will and a touch of class.

“I'm a winner,” said the smooth-passing midfielder. “Whether I win or not, that's my mindset. I can be playing the team above, a team below or a team in the Super League, but my ambition is to always win. It's not always possible but if you aim for the highest possible goal then you are not going to go too far wrong. I've got a lot of negative points but I'm honest and you've got to have that edge. I've always had that drive to succeed in anything I do and I apply that to relationships, friendships, work and my football. I just have this fire in my belly to succeed.”

Beckett has done pretty well for herself with that kind of raison d'être. She's a North London home owner at the age of 32, runs her own business, has played international football for Ireland, won a treble with her hometown club, played for Tottenham and is now so happy in her third spell at Watford that she would gladly finish her playing days here “if they'll have me.”

Head Coach Clinton Lancaster and General Manager Grace Williams will want Beckett around for as long as possible to, along with Helen Ward, guide a very green Watford team and get them into the second tier of the women's game. You want as many sorts as Beckett in the building as possible. For starters, the players will know Beckett has got their back. They just need to see what she did at London Bees to prove that.

“We had three girls, who were starters, suffer serious injuries,” she said. “One was self-employed and two were coaches. All three were struggling in terms of loss of earnings and I wasn't happy about the lack of support. My first question was: ‘What can we do?’ Yes, it was the second tier, but it's still the second tier and we really should have been doing something.

“I was keen to do things the right way and go through the right channels and go through the board, so I broached the idea of Crowdfunding. Initially it was all approved but then they asked me to take it down and I was threatened with breach of contract. I was never negative about the club. My only aim was to highlight the girls’ need for support. If the club took that in a negative light that's down to them. My conscious was clean.”

You see just how determined she is now? Beckett is softly spoken, very articulate and mild-mannered but when she gets the bit between her teeth, she is a force to be reckoned with.

“A fourth girl got injured in the end,” she said. “We reached out to a few people and a player from Aston Villa got in touch and recommended her surgeon. He ended up operating on two of the four girls and consulted with other two. That negated the need for finance.”

The £2,350 Beckett organised to be raised through Crowdfunding did come in handy, though.

“I think they had to pay a consultation fee and that moved them up in the NHS,” she said. “The vice-captain of the club had been waiting for ten months. It beggared belief. One girl suffered a double leg break, tore her calf and ligaments in her knee. She couldn't walk for six weeks. She was rushed to hospital at one point with a suspected blood clot.”

Beckett had already had just about enough of hospitals when, six months later, there was personal heartache. Her mum's mum was suffering from cancer, but matters took a turn for the worse on the eve of a match in March earlier this year.

“I got a call from my mum before a game saying she thought it was imminent,” said Beckett. “She would have wanted me to play. I found out after the game against Sheffield United she had passed away and it was ridiculously hard. I'm pretty resilient in nature but sometimes, after getting knock after knock, you have to take a minute to breathe. It was just a rough period.”

Beckett responded the only way she knows how: by throwing herself into her football, her thriving business and returning to the Hornets where she feels at home. She’d already scaled one mountain, the highest in Africa, in January 2016, so this emotional one was well within her capability.

“I get bored easily,” she said of her appetite for new challenges. “And climbing Kilimanjaro was always something I wanted to do. I'd totally recommend it. I got in great condition in the eight weeks leading up to it and, bar the summit day, I felt really good during the six-day trek. We had a long 8km walk the day before and was out from 8am until 8pm. We got back to base, had some dinner and then had to be woken up at 11pm for a midnight hike. I don't function well on no sleep. You move at a snail's pace and we had 100mph winds and snow. You do question what you are doing. It was awesome and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”

She raised nearly £3,000 for a well-known mental health charity. “I suffered with mental health issues when I was growing up and a particularly good friend of mine was in a bad space so I wanted to help,” she said.

What about Beckett?

“I have a little Pomeranian called Donny,” said the Manchester United fan. “He's the light of my life. He's just turned two and is a rescue. I'm such an animal lover and I saw him on a rehoming site. I went to meet him and knew I needed him straightaway. He's already had two homes and had been passed around a bit. He's the most docile thing. He's so sweet and just loves to play. All he wants to do is play football and it's usually when you get home from training and you are knackered! He's got no let up.”

Remind you of anyone else?

Watford FC Ladies host MK Dons at Kings Langley tomorrow night (Wednesday October 8) at 7.45pm.

The Ladies will be taking over all social channels, with the game receiving complete coverage including pre-match punditry, in-game coverage and post-match analysis.

Tickets cost £6 for Adults, £3 for Over-65s and Students and £1 for Under-18s. Watford FC season card holders get 50 per cent off entry. Tickets are available to purchase on the day of the game. Cash turnstiles operate on a matchday.

Location: The Orbital Fasteners Stadium, Hempstead Road, Kings Langley, Hertfordshire, WD4 8BS

First Team 1 week ago

Affleck's Angle: Defence Is The Base For Everything

By Kevin Affleck

For a coach who has helped to shape the careers of some rich attacking talents – David Silva, Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa and Pablo Sarabia – and whose godfather, Alfredo Di Stéfano, is one of the great all-time forwards, Quique Sánchez Flores sets an awful lot of stall on defence.

He could talk about its value all day, but one line from his first interview on his return to this club sticks out and sums up his philosophy. “Defence is the most important thing in all collective sport,” he said. “It's the key for everything.”

It's true at the Raptors, who clinched an unlikely NBA title on the strength of their suffocating defence. It's true at Saracens, who have turned themselves into the best club rugby side in the world on the back of their insatiable appetite for defence. European Champions three times in four seasons and winners of the Premiership title four times in the last five years, Sarries celebrate a turnover or a piece of defensive play on their own line as heartily as they do a try. It means that much. Defence breeds spirit, it provides a common goal and is the basis for a culture.

It's why Sánchez Flores was so desperate for a shut out on Saturday. He would have liked one sooner, ideally first up against Arsenal, but a combination of a tricky fixture list and a lack of time to get the necessary work in with this new group of players meant it didn't happen. It was top of the agenda on Saturday. “It was very obvious we wanted the clean sheet,” said Sebastian Prödl after the game in a soundbite that made it very clear it was a message that had been drummed in all week.

The Head Coach knows the importance of one and the belief it can inject into a squad lacking in some.

“It's a good base,” he said. “Finally we believe in the idea of not conceding goals and this is the only way we take confidence, to build, to grow. It's necessary if you want to grow, it's the base for everything. You feel safe, you feel secure and it's the way you can take confidence. Being out of control is not good for you.”

Those close to him and familiar with his work know he would have been much happier with the game against Sheffield United than the one against Arsenal. The comeback draw may have been thrilling for the crowd, but it was too unstructured and loose for his liking. It isn't, he figures with a significant body of work to back it up, sustainable to play with such abandon. The next two league results, at the Etihad and Molineux, prove that. You are not going to come back from two goals down every week. It isn't repeatable. Consistent results and performances are not achieved by playing helter-skelter football.

Look at two rescue acts in recent times for evidence of that. Crystal Palace went seven games without a win or a goal the season before last but stopped the rot with back-to-back goalless draws, kept four clean sheets in a further eight games, including one at home to free-scoring City. They finished 11th. Prödl's Werder Bremen began the 2014/15 Bundesliga campaign with nine winless matches. They then kept three clean sheets in five matches and that was the launchpad for a revival that saw them finish 10th. Getafe recorded 13 shut outs when Sánchez Flores kept them in La Liga at the first attempt. You get the idea.

Closer to home, and in challenges at the other end of the table that show defence isn't confined to acts of escapology, Graham Taylor's promotion-winning side in 1998/99 finished the season with three clean sheets in their last four matches. And the one they did concede, at St Andrew's on that crazy night, preceded one of the great rearguard actions in the club's history. Aidy Boothroyd's 2005/06 side finished a riotous season by going unbreached for 411 minutes.

Sánchez Flores is not the only coach to preach the value of good habits at the other end of the field. It's why Javi Gracia was so annoyed when Huddersfield netted a late consolation at the John Smith's Stadium in April. He knew good sides, with good habits, ruthlessly kill the game stone dead and don't give the opposition a sniff. “I was very, very [angry],” he said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Saturday felt like one of the pair of goalless draws Sánchez Flores choreographed in successive matches at home to Southampton and West Bromwich Albion in August 2015. Everybody expected more from those back-to-back matches, feeling it was four dropped instead of two gained, especially with bigger tests to come, but Sánchez Flores knew there was a bigger picture, that that kind of defensive shape would stand them in good stead for the defining pre-Christmas period. Eight further matches yielded five clean sheets and a haul of 15 points. Craig Cathcart, Prödl and Josè Holebas were in the squad then. They will know what Sánchez Flores is trying to do. They've seen it before.

“Defensively we were stronger,” said Holebas on Saturday. “What's happened this year is we have lost control of matches, but we didn't do that today and it's a start.”

There is a view, one this writer subscribes to, that a goalless draw on Saturday was more beneficial in the long-term than, say, a frantic 4-2 win. The team can now go to Tottenham next time out knowing they can keep the back door shut, albeit against a newly-promoted side. It would be tough to go to Spurs’ shiny new stadium, and indeed anywhere else, in the knowledge that you might have to score three to win the game. You stand more chance of getting something if you keep things tight at the back and nick one, via one of an assortment of talented attacking players, at the other end. The team were a whisker away from executing what would have been hailed as a Sánchez Flores masterplan on Saturday.

“If we take the chances everybody says we had the right plan,” said Prödl. “One of those goes in and we are talking about a very different story,” added Tommy Smith in the club's post-match show, Added Time.

The margins are so just terrifyingly fine at this level. It's just important you are still in the game first for the result to be able to decisively swing your way. Sánchez Flores will seek to make sure that is the case more often than not.