Mary Earps is fired up for the third Manchester derby of the season, this time in the FA Cup fourth round on Saturday. “We just want to beat them and take them out of the game,” the United goalkeeper says of Manchester City, with a grin. “The reality is they are great players but we have a great team too and we are more than capable of winning this game.”
Despite frustrations that the clubs’ regular encounters have watered down the magic of this tie there can be little doubt that the fans will be on form as each side push for a second win over their bitter rivals. United’s ‘Barmy Army’ have carved out a reputation for creating an adverse environment. Earps loves it, and is one of the few goalkeepers to have her own song. “When my family came [the Barmy Army] gave them a song sheet and they were very impressed it was in squad order,” she says. Told there is a PDF too, she quips: “Is there an ebook coming out?”
“I assure you that if it goes to penalties the Barmy Army will be behind my goal,” she adds. “They will move if they have to.
“When you are playing at home you want a loud atmosphere and that is where we are getting to in the women’s game now. In prior seasons it didn’t really feel different if you were home or away. But I think the noisier and more fiery it is, the more fun it is.
“I buzz off it personally and I think it is intimidating for the opposition to come to. I don’t want to say the more hostile the better but the louder the better because it really gives you a buzz on the pitch and gets you through tough moments.”
With a bigger profile and more fans comes the need for a much thicker skin. “You always play your best football on the sofa,” the 26-year-old Earps says. “I’m the same. I watch a game and: ‘Why did this person do this?’
“Lots of people have opinions now, the game is growing and there are more people on social media, more media in general and you have to have a thick skin to deal with every man and a dog telling you how to save the ball in that moment. I can assure you that in every situation I’m very much trying.”
In women’s football it has been harder for goalkeepers because whereas the game has grown, goalkeeping coaching has lagged behind. It is finally catching up, though.
“There are more trained coaches now,” Earps says. “I didn’t have a goalkeeper coach full-time until I was 18 or 19, which now sounds completely ludicrous. It can still improve but it is so much better. I would train two, three, four times a week. In Sunday League my dad would just throw the ball to me, or one of the players would warm me up before a game, which seems completely ridiculous.”
Instead goalkeepers were left to do their own research and Earps turns goalkeeper encyclopedia when asked who she admires. “I’ve watched so many. Manuel Neuer, Ter Stegen, Joe Hart, Casillas, Reina, Hope Solo, Alisson, Ederson, Buffon. So, so many, all with completely different strengths.
“When I was growing up I loved the shot-stopping of Joe Hart, the way Casillas dealt with one-v-one battles, and Pepe Reina’s side-volley was insane. Manuel Neuer all-round. Now it is probably Ter Stegen.”
If her heroes were mostly men, Earps is now part of a generation providing role models for the next layer of aspiring keepers. “Before I spoke to just young girls. Now I see a lot of young boys saying: ‘I’m a goalkeeper.’ I always like speaking to them as I think it is the best position and most important,” she says.
“I like having that interaction with the kids because it’s not easy: it is split-second decision-making; it is heavily criticised. Especially as a kid that can be intimidating. Your peers are saying: ‘Why didn’t you save that?’ and you are trying.
“I don’t think social media helps that when it broadcasts good or bad things that goalkeepers do. Eight-year-old kids feel they have to live up to a standard of Buffon, who is 41 and nobody knows how he’s still going. Maybe it is more open about the struggles of the position but I’m always encouraging of people wanting to be a goalkeeper because it is a wicked position.”