Mary Earps almost quit, now she could be named the best goalkeeper in the world

England were leading 1-0 on a dreary evening at Old Trafford when Austria attacker Barbara Dunst let fly from outside the box, the ball floated through the crowded penalty area and goalkeeper Mary Earps sprang to her left, reaching out a firm glove to turn the shot wide.

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Earps would go on to make even better saves at the European Championship last summer as England lifted the trophy by beating Germany at Wembley. But it was the save from Dunst in Manchester that set the tone and saw her star rise, cementing her role as England’s No. 1. Indeed, her commanding performances helped elevate her from one of the better goalkeepers in the Women’s Super League in England to one of the standouts on the international stage, culminating in her FIFA The Best goalkeeper nomination.

The Manchester United goalkeeper was on Wednesday announced on the final three-player shortlist for The Best award, alongside Ann-Katrin Berger (Chelsea, Germany) and Christiane Endler (Lyon, Chile.)

Things could have gone very differently for England had Earps not been on hand to deny Dunst in the opener, or to bat away Athenea Del Castillo‘s cross/shot in the quarterfinal against Spain, the ball seemingly destined for the top corner. When Earps talks about the mechanics of goalkeeping, it’s evident that she is focused on the mathematics of each situation, using all of her experience to make split-second calculations and ensure her timing is perfect. It’s that very same decision-making that has played a crucial part in her career progress, making a string of considered moves along the way.

But it’s not just about the European Championship. Earps’ own journey has taken in several clubs, involved personal sacrifice and almost resulted in her quitting the game before she rose to prominence with the national team.

Spurred on by an unrelenting love for the game, she highlights a move to Leicester City in 2009, when she was in her mid-teens, as the moment when she began to take the sport more seriously. Moving from a Sunday League setup to a team competing in the Northern Premier League, a lack of playing time forced Earps’ hand as she moved to hometown club Nottingham Forest a year later, again finding herself consigned to the bench.

“You have to roll with the punches and you have to adapt, so then when Doncaster came in [at the end of 2010], I was like, well, if I’m not gonna play at Forest, I may as well not play at Doncaster,” Earps told ESPN.

However, after playing backup to Helen Alderson, Earps was given a run in the team over the second half of the season, which prompted her to sign on for the following season, as she prioritised playing time. But when her goalkeeping coach left Doncaster Belles, Earps knew she needed another move to keep progressing her game. “I wasn’t getting technical training and I was starting to feel like game time’s great, but I’m not developing like my skills and my trade, because I’ve not got that goalkeeping support,” she added.

Next stop Birmingham City, who Earps joined in 2013, where she benefited from specific coaching, but a fight for a starting place prompted her to look for another opportunities, which led to her joining Bristol Academy (as Bristol City were known at the time) in 2014. Two solid seasons with Bristol followed before their relegation, leading Earps to look again for a new club so she could stay in the top tier.

She joined Reading, and just like at Bristol, she had to juggle her career with her education, making frequent commutes to her campus in Loughborough where she was studying for a degree in Information Management and Business Studies. She said: “It’s a big old journey [from Reading], getting up in the really early hours of the morning to do like, you know, a three-hour drive so I could get to my 9 a.m. lecture.”

Earps admits she could have gone to a “big club” and sat on the bench, waiting for her chance as a backup keeper, but that wouldn’t have been right for her. “It was always to try and push myself to be the best that I could be, and to pick out the best opportunity that’s fitted me the best,” she added. “And when I graduated in 2016, that was the time that I went pro. So that was when I was like, well, I’ll see where football goes. I’ll do it full-time.”

A headstrong, determined character from the beginning, making her debut at the age of 10, Earps recalls being bored at the time, cartwheeling around the box. When her opponents won a penalty, she saved it and the encouragement from her dad — “if one of the other girls was in goal, they wouldn’t have saved that” — was all it took for Earps to be hooked.

“In general, I just love watching football, I love watching goalkeeping,” Earps said. “I think the beauty of goalkeeping is that it’s unique by nature and it celebrates individuality. If you look at, like, the 20 goalkeepers in the Premier League, every single one has a different technique and a different style, but they’re all playing in the best league in the world. For me, that’s just exactly what it’s about. It’s just about finding the best way for you.”

Having gone through various sports (badminton, swimming, judo) and instruments (clarinet, piano) in her youth, football was the one that stuck, and she admits that it was trying so many different things when she was younger that helped her. Although never the best dancer — her opinion, not ESPN’s — Earps credits her experience competing at local dance festivals for her loud voice on the pitch.

“I competed in the Nottingham and Derby dance festivals even though I wasn’t very good,” she added. “It’s more like I wasn’t embarrassed to try things. I feel like as a goalkeeper, you have to stand out and you have to communicate with people. From a very young age, I was never bothered about telling my defenders where to move, or shouting ‘keepers ball’ really loudly.”

Indeed, Earps’ outgoing nature was highlighted in manager Sarina Wiegman’s postmatch news conference following England’s final win, when she jumped up onto the desk and showed off her dance moves. It was a viral moment that emphasised the joy in the squad, but for Earps, it was a moment that almost wasn’t. Before Wiegman had come in, the goalkeeper had been on the verge of calling time on her career.

“I mean obviously, everything that happened sort of pre-Sarina … I had the floor wiped from under me kind of out of nowhere,” Earps explained. “So, I had to do a lot of work on myself to sort of figure out what I was going to do next … I wasn’t an England international anymore as far as I was concerned.

“I was playing well for Manchester United and they’d offered me a new contract, but I was sort of feeling like maybe it was time that I had an honest conversation with myself, looked at myself in the mirror. I had a mortgage, I had responsibilities, there was a lot going on where I needed to make sure that I was not putting myself in a difficult financial situation.

“I always said when it was time to call it time, I would be honest enough with myself to say, look, maybe it’s just not quite … maybe it’s just not quite worked out, you know, you’ve given it your best and it’s OK to fall short. But then Sarina came in and my whole world changed. She just basically … I feel like she just saw me.”

From feeling like she’d been invisible for two years, Earps admits to being blown away by the England coach, who instantly cultivated an open and honest dialogue with her. With injuries to more senior goalkeepers in the England pool, Wiegman asserted that there was a chance for Earps, telling her she saw her as the best goalkeeper available at the time. But unlike throughout her club career, there were no false promises.

“She said ‘look, for now, I see you as my best goalkeeper, but when the injured players come back, I’m going look at everybody the same, I’m going to give everybody a fair chance,'” Earps said. “And for me, that was all I ever wanted; just a fair chance to give my all.”

Named as the starting goalkeeper for Wiegman’s first match, an 8-0 thrashing of North Macedonia in September 2021, Earps became a regular in the team, and even when she found herself on the bench for England, she was never there for long.

“Most of the time at the beginning [of my England career], I was there just because somebody had an injury, but for me that didn’t matter because it was just an opportunity for me to learn and develop from great goalkeepers ahead of me,” Earps explained. “Karen Bardsley was there, Rachel Brown-Finnis was there, and for me to learn from them, ask them questions, to be in their presence and get an opportunity to be around on game days and see how it went for World Cup qualifiers … just to get some experience and train with the best players in England.”

As with everything in her career, Earps used her early England camps to learn and grow. Like each decision she made with her club career, it was always about improving and maximising the opportunities afforded to her.

Not turning professional until she had graduated college at the age of 23 — something that would be unfathomable in the men’s game, especially in Europe — Earps’ story carries familiar tones you’ll hear at all levels of the women’s game. From not being able to play on her brother’s team as a child because she was a girl, to the delicate balance of football, studying or work — the goalkeeper remembers she was putting in a shift at a local cinema when her Doncaster coach called her to tell her she would be his first choice for the second half of the 2014 season — and even to those tough discussions about calling her career short and focusing on life off of the pitch.

Earps’ career has been about decisions, from the moments on the pitch when she springs into the air to claim a corner rather than punch it clear, to the junctures that have seen her move clubs. Each one has taken her further down the winding path that saw her start all the way through England’s successful Euro campaign, finally earning her acclaim on the international stage and her FIFA The Best nomination, taking her rightful place among the best in the sport.

At FIFA’s The Best ceremony on Feb. 27, Earps could be on top of the world.

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