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Alex Scott, Time Out cover feature July 2022
Photograph: Jess Hand

Alex Scott: ‘My happy place was playing in a cage in Tower Hamlets’

The London-born ex-footballer turned superstar pundit chats to Time Out about why Euro 2022 changes everything

Rosie Hewitson
Written by
Rosie Hewitson

‘This is where I got given the Freedom of Islington.’

It’s a sunny Monday afternoon in North London, and Alex Scott – former Arsenal and England footballer, BBC super-pundit and holder of the Freedom of the Borough – is pointing a casual, gel-tipped finger up at Upper Street’s grand old town hall. 

We’ve just passed the Grade II-listed building on the way to the nearby River Walk, the secondary location for today’s Time Out cover shoot. It’s a shoot that clearly holds a special meaning for self-professed ‘true Londoner’ who, it later transpires, grew up reading the listings in this very magazine. And yet she remains characteristically casual as she offhandedly points out the place where she picked up one of the lesser-known trophies amassed over a positively glittering career. 

‘I think when you're a Londoner, sometimes you don’t appreciate enough what's right on your doorstep and I think I've found over the last couple of years that I'm appreciating home more,’ she enthuses later on as we debrief post-shoot, conveniently glossing over the part where we saw a rat bobbing around in the water next to a discarded Coke can. 

You wouldn’t know from her demeanour that today is the start of a pretty major week for Scott. We’re two days out from the opening game of the 2022 Women’s Euros, a tournament which the 37-year-old presenter from Poplar has had a hand in making happen, and one for which she’ll be heading up a good chunk of the BBC’s coverage over the next few weeks. The significance of this tournament is massive; it’s a watershed moment. 

So Scott would be forgiven for feeling a bit nervy as the minutes tick down to kick-off. But evidently she does not do jitters. ‘I never get nervous,’ she declares matter-of-factly in her distinctive East End twang. ‘Didn't get nervous as a player, don't get nervous as a presenter. I get that count in my ear of ‘10 seconds til you're live’ and it’s just like knowing I’m about to go out and play for England at Wembley,’ she gushes in a trademark million-mile-an-hour delivery that’s been honed over countless half-time commentary segments. ‘It’s that same buzz and adrenaline, like, you need to deliver!’

Alex Scott is clearly raring to go.

Worth the wait

This tournament has been a hell of a long time coming. Initially scheduled to take place last summer, it was one of the many major sporting events postponed thanks to you-know-what, a decision that – Scott knows first-hand – was a difficult one to make. ‘I know the amount of work that's going on behind the scenes, and there's a lot of people that deserve credit for making sure that [it went ahead].’ But for women in football, you could argue that the wait for this tournament has been a lot longer than a few extra months. You could say it’s been decades. 

Alex Scott at Valderrama's
Photograph: Jess Hand

If you’re not up to speed with the history of women’s football in this country, it’ll probably shock you to learn that it was more popular than the men’s game for a brief period a hundred years ago. The men’s Football League had only recently resumed following its wartime hiatus in 1920, when a Boxing Day charity match between Dick Kerr Ladies and St Helen’s Ladies drew a crowd of 53,000. The FA reacted by declaring the sport ‘quite unsuitable for females’ and banning women from playing on registered pitches. That ban – which effectively put an end to women’s football altogether – lasted for fifty years, and was only lifted in reaction to the formation of a Women’s FA in 1969. It’s difficult to imagine the heights that the game might have already climbed to had that ban never happened. 

Where it all started

Of course none of that history mattered in the slightest to the eight-year-old girl scouted by Arsenal Ladies manager Vic Akers while playing with the boys in a Tower Hamlets football cage in the early ‘90s. ‘I didn't know then that there were women's teams,’ Scott explains. ‘Not until [Vic] spotted me and said, “You know, there's an Arsenal women's team, you should go down there.” My first reaction was like, “Nah, I don't want to.” Because my happy place was there, playing in the cage. It’s not until he made me go down for that trial that my life changed.’

Scott would go on to win it all over the course of a sixteen-year career spanning three separate spells at Arsenal, a season at Birmingham City and three years in America. She played a crucial role in Arsenal’s quadruple-winning 2006-07 season as they picked up all three domestic trophies without losing a single game, then became the first English team to win the UEFA Women’s Cup (now called the Champions League) courtesy of Scott’s solitary goal in the 91st minute of the final’s second leg. And on top of that, she won 140 caps for England, representing her country in four European Championships and three World Cups, and playing in a home Olympics in 2012 as part of Team GB. 

I’d be scrubbing the men’s kits every Monday. I was basically Dot Cotton

Yet despite having earned her place among the greats of the women’s game in this country, the lack of financial rewards on offer to female players – ‘maybe fifty pounds to a couple of hundred’ per game – meant that she also spent much of her career working in the Arsenal laundry room. ‘Vic created jobs for us. So I’d be scrubbing the men’s kits every Monday. If they’d played on a Sunday and it was winter I’d be trying to scrub the mud out of the shorts. I was basically Dot Cotton.’

Alex Scott Time Out cover
Photograph: Jess Hand

The gaping chasm between the realities for male and female players at the same club might have embittered some, but Scott isn’t the type to dwell on the negatives. ‘There’s always positives,’ she insists. Not only did working in the laundry pay for her first house deposit at 21, it also meant that she got ‘the best lunch of my life every day’ thanks to the Arsenal chefs and nutritionists. ‘And I was around the training ground learning from people like Arsene Wenger, having conversations with Thierry Henry, learning about football and about life from different perspectives.’

A landmark year 

Still, it’s a far cry from where we are now. From female referees officiating in men’s leagues across the continent, to women’s national teams achieving parity with their male counterparts, these past couple of years have been marked by major milestones being achieved on an almost weekly basis. Audience figures for women’s matches are skyrocketing too, particularly here in the UK, where the 21/22 season signalled a new era for the Women’s Super League thanks to a landmark broadcasting deal with Sky and the BBC that has already seen viewing figures increase almost fourfold.

And now, at the end of a pivotal season, we’re in the midst of the largest women’s sporting event in European history. Half a million tickets were sold before a single ball was kicked, England’s group games have been sold out since April, and the Wembley final on July 31 will break the attendance record for a women’s football match for the third time this year, with tickets snapped up in just over an hour when they went on general sale back in March.

The road to Wembley

With the tournament already a success by any other measure, the pressure is now on for the Lionesses to make it a successful one on the pitch too. Having made her tournament debut during England’s first home Euros back in 2005, Scott has some idea of what the current crop of England players are experiencing. ‘It's huge, the pride and honour that you feel wearing the badge. For the fans to go out of their way to buy a ticket and want to cheer you and support you, I almost felt like I'm not just playing for myself, I know I'm representing other people. It's a huge pressure. But for every little kid playing like I was in a football cage on the estate, it’s those situations you dream of being in.’

England might have exited at the group stage back in 2005, but there are real hopes that they could reach the final at Wembley this time round under the tutelage of their formidable new Dutch manager, Sarina Wiegman, who hasn’t lost a game yet since taking charge in September. Could this England team go all the way? Alex reckons so. 

If England team were to win it, it would take the women's game to a whole new level

 ‘I feel really positive. When you think about the depth to the team, the young talent as well as the experience in it, we're in a great place. If this England team were to go on and win it, it would take the women's game in this country to a whole new level. That's what I'm hoping for. Hopefully we’ll be celebrating at Wembley in a couple of weeks' time.’

Playing her part

Seeing an England team aspire to such heights just a few short years after Scott called time on her own career, it’s hard not to wonder if it’s bittersweet for her not to be walking out onto the pitch alongside them, but you can probably sense by now that that’s not her style. ‘I know I've been blessed,’ she says. ‘I've helped the women's game get to where it is. I knew when I had to retire [and that] there was a new path for me. I could help push women's football onto another level from a different seat.’

Alex Scott Valderrama's
Photograph: Jess Hand

Push it on she most certainly has. From being featured as the first female commentator on FIFA, to becoming the first permanent female host of the BBC’s flagship footie chat show ‘Football Focus’, to being named the first female winner of the FSA’s Pundit of the Year award, her list of off-field achievements is just as impressive as the long list of accolades she achieved during her playing career. 

‘What people don’t understand is that I’m a kid from the East End that just wanted to travel the world and meet people,’ she says. ‘And now I’m in a job where I’m sitting on ‘The One Show’ or filming documentaries or I’m doing ‘The Games’, and I feel like a big kid. I just love my job.’

The next challenge

It’s just as well that she does, given her punishing schedule this summer. As soon as we’re done in Highbury, she’s rushing home to prep for an interview with Natalie Portman that she’s recording tomorrow for an upcoming half-time segment, lamenting the fact that she won’t have a minute spare to get one of her nails fixed after it fell off at some point in the past few hectic hours. 

I’ve lived my whole life putting on an act, and there's a lot of things that people have no idea that I went through. 

Scott probably won’t get much of a break once the Euros are wrapped up either, with the league resuming just a week later and her memoir, ‘How (Not) To Be Strong’ due for release in September. She might be known for her openness around her struggles with mental health, but, even so, the book sounds like it’ll be a pretty revealing read. ‘I think the title sums it up.’ she explains. ‘I’ve lived my whole life putting on an act, and there's a lot of things in it that people will have no idea that I went through. I'm at a stage in my life where I just want some freedom, and I've managed to feel like it's a time where I can [be open.] I think everyone will be shocked at the stories in the book.’

Alex Scott New River Walk
Photograph: Jess Hand

And once that’s out in the world, is there anything else she’d still like to achieve? ‘Yeah, cover of “Vogue”,’ Scott answers without missing a beat. ‘Now that I’ve ticked “Time Out”!’ She might already have two successful careers under her belt, but Alex Scott wants you to know that she certainly isn’t done yet.

‘I feel like there's so many people that try and put you in a box, that [think] you should be one thing,’ she explains. ‘Why? Life is there to be lived, like have fun, show those different sides. And I feel like that's what I want to continue to show people. Like you think you’ve just put me in this box? You think you know Alex? Well, I'm gonna show you another side.’

Photographer: Jess Hand; Art Director: Bryan Mayes; Picture Editor: Ben Rowe; Video: Oli Riley; Styling: Kiera Liberati; Bespoke England shirt: Sophie Hird; Hair: Jay Birmingham; Make Up: Heidi North; Location: Valderrama's.

Alex wears: Vintage England shirt, Daily Paper jacket; MSGM top, Casablanca skirt, Custom England shirt by Sophie Hird, Completedworks earrings, CD Femme dress, Page Denim jeans, Rejina Pyo shoes

‘How (Not) To Be Strong’ is available to pre-order now

‘Alex Scott: The Future of Women’s Football’ is out now on BBC iPlayer.

Watch every Women’s Euros 2022 game live on the BBC.

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