Molly Miller is so crazy about football that when the boys in her first ever (mixed) team wouldn’t pass to her, she left and set up her own.
Then, when her school side struggled to attract players, she became the driving force behind recruiting girls to that, too.
Now settled at a club where football for females is a given, the 17-year-old can focus her energies on honing her game and striving for that dream of becoming a professional footballer.
However, the teenager is under no illusions that her dream might not work out. And she’s studying the sort of subjects that will guarantee her a decent career, whatever becomes of her football dream.
Molly’s love affair with the game began at the age of five, in Malaysia, where her family then lived.
“I was playing for boys’ teams, and they wouldn’t pass to you because you were the only girl and they thought you couldn’t play. So I thought [I would] make a new girls’ team. My dad and I set one up. It’s still running now.”
There was little need for self-intervention at the family’s next port of call – Norway, to where she moved when she was about nine.
“They really encourage women’s football,” she explained. “It’s kind of abnormal if you don’t do sport in Norway.”
Molly – and her team – blossomed during her brief stay in Scandinavia, winning leagues, cups and personal trophies, and reinforcing her enthusiasm for the game.
And by the time the family settled in England, when she was about 10, the concept of girls playing football was not quite as alien as it once had been – or as she had experienced in those early years.
She joined AFC Brighton and Hove, in the Sussex Girls’ League, where titles continued to be won.
But at her new school, Brighton & Hove High School, the set-up required, well, a little impetus.
She explains: “To be honest, sport at my school was not very good. There was a football team, but I really had to encourage it. It’s better now… but it was a bit weird that a football team wasn’t really in existence.
“I got a lot of people who had never played football before to come to training, and now it’s quite good, actually. But it was quite hard.”
With a mother who played hockey and netball, a father who plays rugby, cricket and football and an elder sister, Ellie, who is also at home on the football pitch, there was never much prospect that Molly would be satisfied to just stick to homework and the occasional Sunday football match.
Having helped to re-establish the school football team, Molly also at various times swam and played netball, hockey, basketball and baseball, many of which she has continued to squeeze in between her football and academic commitments.
But as her desire for football – to be tested and to improve – grew, the central midfielder had to look elsewhere for her next challenge.
“It was good (at AFC Brighton & Hove). We won the league one year and came second the other. It was a good team. But the reason I moved was to be a bit more serious and develop my football.”
Molly switched to Lewes after her mother, Frances, found out they were setting up a youth team. “I just wanted to play for a bigger and better team, and Lewes had a ladies’ team, so it was quite a good stepping stone,” she explained. “I didn’t know much about them.”
But it proved to be the perfect move for her, formally introducing her to under-16s manager Mark Currier, who had witnessed her ability at first hand while managing one of AFC Brighton’s rivals, Patcham.
It’s so good, so professional and serious – everything I’ve always wanted a team to be about – Molly Miller
The move also introduced her to a new philosophy – where the desire for commitment and self-discipline matched her own.
“It was kind of a shock, but it was a good shock,” she says. “It was kind of relieving that finally it would be very serious. Mark really wanted to win and progress us. He is a great manager, and I was really happy when I arrived.”
The under-16s enjoyed immense success in two trophy-laden seasons, winning the league twice, the League Cup once and also the national championships for her age group.
The players have grown and evolved together, and most have now progressed to the club’s young development side, which comprises the bulk of last season’s under-16s who have been denied under-18 competition this season after the proposed league was scrapped because of insufficient interest.
Premier League pathway
Instead, they have bypassed the top tier of youth football altogether and entered the adult environment of the Sussex Women’s League.
But Molly has taken an even bigger leap, figuring regularly in Lewes’ other new side – a development squad, designed to prepare players for the yet more challenging step up to the first team.
After appearing a couple of times as a substitute for the development squad, which features mainly young adults, along with some of the first team’s fringe players, Molly has played her way into a regular place in the line-up – an immense achievement for someone who has only just turned 17 and a reflection of her talent.
It means the likes of Molly, still best part of a year away from adulthood, have the chance to play with seniors, with a network in place that offers them a pathway to the Premier League stage if they maintain their progress.
“Jacquie (Agnew, the former first-team manager and now head of female football at the club) was saying it’s not about age, it’s about how good you are,” Molly told me before the season began. “Even if you’re 16, if you’re good enough you could be in the ladies’ team.
“We are training with the ladies’ and the development squad. We have a fitness coach, so we have to do loads of running and core exercises, which is really hard. And then we do football training. It’s so good, so professional and serious – everything I’ve always wanted a team to be about.”
Since then, Molly has progressed beyond even her imagination, sealing a regular starting place in the team, which in many ways is light years away from the one she played in last season.
“It has been great,” she said. “It’s exactly what I wanted to do this year, playing in this kind of football. It’s a massive step up. You progress every single game, [whereas] at county [league level], sometimes the opposition can’t get a team together.”
The development squad, the bulk of whom are still in their teens or early 20s, have yet to win in the FAW Premier Reserves League, but far from being deterred by such an experience, Molly is thriving under the challenge.
‘Normal to play sport’
“To be honest, last season (when her under-16 side was winning nearly every game) we were not really progressing and it didn’t really feel like we were winning,” she said.
“But this season it’s like we win every game because we are playing so well and improving, even though we’re actually losing.”
Coming from a family that is consumed by sport, Molly finds it difficult to contemplate a life without it, or where, as in some cases among girls of her age, a player might be tempted to give it all up because of outside perceptions of teenage sportswomen.
She said: “A lot of people are quite shocked at how seriously I take it and how often we train – even some of the teachers. But nobody has ever been cynical about it. Well, maybe behind my back, but never to me.
“I have never had a feeling that I was embarrassed to be doing sport. It is quite normal for a female to be playing sport.
“There were about six of us (at school) who took sport seriously. A lot of people in my school didn’t play football, and I usually got called the sporty one. But they are very supportive of sport. Whenever it is sports day, they always do stuff and play sport.”
Molly uses words like “serious” and “professional” liberally in our conversation. It’s her way of conveying the importance of playing sport the right way and looking to better yourself.
But it also means there must be sacrifices along the way – a heavy price for a teenage girl to pay, surely?
“Last year our training was on Fridays, and we would always have parties on Fridays, so I had to sacrifice going to parties or going out with my friends. But it’s all worthwhile,” Molly assured me in the summer.
“Some homework might be missed because I was at football training or doing sport, but to be honest, I haven’t really sacrificed that much. It is quite easy to get a balance between sport and work (she used to volunteer in an Oxfam shop) and social life.”
That was then.
Molly is now at Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College (BHASVIC), where she is studying A-level Spanish, politics, history and biology.
The balancing act has become tougher, with college work making a much bigger call on her time. But she still manages both – and refuses to contemplate giving up either.
What has become trickier is fitting in playing football for her college side – yes, BHASVIC did already have one. “I can’t really quit that because I’m captain.” As if the thought would ever seriously enter her mind.
Molly is level-headed – and capable – enough to take the new challenges in her stride.
Others with less determination to succeed in their sport might fall by the wayside, succumbing to the inevitable attractions of Saturday nights out, where a nice bowl of pasta doesn’t quite satisfy their hunger.
Friends for life
In our summer interview, just after she had celebrated winning the Under-16 Division, I asked Molly whether there were sanctions if players reported for a match on the Sunday a little the worse for wear.
“Only that you would be on the subs’ bench,” she answered, as if that felt like the ultimate punishment. “They don’t really tell you off. It’s more, ‘you won’t be playing’.”
Of course, any disadvantages for a committed footballer are outweighed by the advantages – the joy of playing, the satisfaction of bettering yourself, and the friendships and camaraderie that are forged on the football pitch and the training ground.
“I’ve made so many friends through football,” she says. “Friends for life. It’s great.”
She elaborates: “You have your school friends, who are not necessarily that sporty, and you have your football friends, who are very sporty, and you can talk about sport with them.”
Her role model on the pitch is Birmingham City’s England international Karen Carney – “I’ve always loved watching her play; it’s kind of what I want to be like” – and more locally is Agnew, the woman who runs the club she is so honoured to represent.
“She has had to go through a lot to get the ladies where they are now,” she observes, with an awareness of others not always associated with teenagers.
And her male football icon is Bastian Schweinsteiger, the German World Cup winner, who’s not averse to a bit of commitment to his sport himself.
Reluctantly and hesitatingly, she reveals what she considers to be her strengths as a footballer, describing her style on the pitch as “more of a pass-and-play, winning the ball and passing to players rather than doing skills and tricks” – which essentially reflects her character, of which both her parents and club should be proud.
But, unsurprisingly to me after spending an hour in her enchanting company, she then asserts that her goal is to work on her perceived weakness – “I’m not really a skills kind of person, so I want to incorporate more skills into my training, practising step-overs in the garden, because if you can beat one player, that’s one player out of the game.”
She adds, tellingly: “And then you can pass it.”
And her ambition? Yes, she really does want to be a professional footballer, and no, she realises that’s a pretty daunting task that only a few will ever achieve.
Just in case, she’s studying subjects she feels might help her achieve a career in medicine or law.
But as you’ve probably guessed by now, Molly Miller is nobody’s fool – least of all her own – and while she’ll do everything in her power to make her dream come true, be it extra training, striving to improve or measuring her progress against her older club mates, you get the feeling that whatever profession she eventually practises, she’ll probably excel at it.