Perched atop the pigeon-hole
Updated: May 30
Much has been made recently of the ex-Rangers star now plying their trade at Chelsea. We at A\M are no different and have them front-and-centre in our excitement over the National Team.
Their journey from Ayrshire to London was a big one in more ways than one and many wondered if the teenager had what it took to break into the first team of the League Champions, competing for domestic and European honours season after season.
Many wondered from afar because few knew personally the mental strength of this particular footballer, and whilst Billy Gilmour was still playing u16s in Glasgow, an 18-year-old Erin Cuthbert was forging a path few had trod.
When I went to Chelsea I had to work for my opportunities. The main thing is, be ready. Train as if you're playing, train as if you're in the starting eleven, because, you never know... You have to be ready mentally, physically, technically, tactically... when you're ready, you don't want anyone to take your place.
- Erin Cuthbert, May 2020
No one has. Still only 21, Erin Cuthbert is one of the best players in the FA Women's Super League, represented by her nomination for PFA Women's Players' Player of the Year last season, and Player of the Year in the 2020 London Football Awards this season.
Awards are nothing new for the Scot, she won the SWPL Young Player of the Year in 2014 at the age of just 15, this at the beginning of a breathtaking spell in which she was top-scorer for an all-conquering Glasgow City side, from midfield. Champions League appearances followed with Scott Booth's side, including a tie with Chelsea in the 2015/16 season. A match which current Chelsea and England vice-captain Millie Bright, her main competitor that day, remembers all too well.
When we played you in the Champions League I always said you stood out straight away just because of your pure drive and attitude... you were hunting around! You are the worst type of player to play against because you never stop, you never give in, you're always keeping people on their toes.
- Millie Bright, May 2020
Such boundless exuberance has been apparent since childhood, with the first 'scout' of her prestigious talents a parent of another child who was kicking the ball around with Cuthbert on a school trip, aged 5. The parent invited Erin to train with her local boys' club in Irvine and after pleading with her secretly-very-pleased dad to go to the first session, the training ended with the coaches pleading on her behalf to attend the second.
It was always a part of me... I joined a local boys' team at five-years-old... I went to the football and I surprised myself, I was better than the boys... I was running rings around them and got signed up there and then.
- Erin Cuthbert, London is Blue, January 2020
A child playing football is the most natural occurrence. See a ball, kick it. They might not enjoy kicking it, or run after to kick it again, but that first kick belongs to every child. Not everyone is born to kick a football for a living, just as not everyone is called to make ice-cream, write poetry or run marathons, however, for Cuthbert, 'it was always a part of her'.
I wonder how many of these 'callings' were denied because that primal urge to kick the ball was discouraged from the outset. Perhaps they didn't kick the ball because the ball wasn't provided. Perhaps their love of the ball wasn't encouraged because there were 'more important things to do' when in fact what was meant was that there were 'more appropriate things to do'. I wonder how many missed that 'part of them'.
For a talent like Cuthbert's to be recognised took simple affirmation and invitation from a person who simply saw a child who had a love of the ball. That this act could be recognised as 'bravery' in 2004 is a wake-up call for those who think as modernists that sexism within football isn't a problem in 2020.
Cuthbert was fortunate in this instance that it wasn't just her father who welcomed her to the back garden to kick the ball about. Unfortunately, however, this little girl would have to be forced to encounter residual prejudices still very present in our game.
She may have kept people on their toes, but she also put their noses out of joint, and for our benefit, thank goodness she did.
The transition from 7 to 11-aside was quite hard for me... The coach didn't really see me being able to cope with the demands of 11-aside, he didn't think I was physically strong enough or capable like the boys were... I actually moved club because I didn't really feel appreciated. Which was a bit sad because I left all my friends, and it was close to home. The club I went to happily took me on and we ended up winning every single trophy. It just shows you it's still a challenging time for females to try and prove people wrong all the time.
- Erin Cuthbert, January 2020
This is very sad. No one, much less a child, should have to contend with the prejudices of a pre-existing mindset; how much more painful then if at the expense of seeing her friends and playing for her local team?
Thankfully we know this tale to have a happy ending, but careful consideration of it reveals a central tenet of A\M; the assertion that growth takes time, and is often painful. Let's have a look at this example in detail before relishing in her ability; enabling us to appreciate her talents all the more.
Exclusion is an interesting topic. If it were the negative tails of a coin, then you are perhaps more familiar with the positive head, inclusion, a subject very close to the heart of A\M.
One involves stagnation and rigidity. The other involves creativity and expression
If you'll stay with me a little longer, perhaps surprisingly, it is far easier to include people than it is to exclude. The latter requires a lot of work to preserve existing models, structures and norms which by their very nature exclude, and the other involves dismantling, circumventing or altogether removing barriers in order to include. One involves stagnation and rigidity. The other involves creativity and expression, and Cuthbert's example here is a good place to see both.
That's not to say that difference does not exist, but in this case, it wasn't only proven to be irrelevant, but ill-founded; Cuthbert could handle eleven's alongside the boys, as proven by her difference being embraced elsewhere in a team that won everything.
To understand this, we must briefly consider something called the 'dilemma of difference', which simply means if someone is different, then who are they different from? Or to put it another way; 'difference' is a comparative term based upon belief structures, which we all have.
It is astounding how little people are aware of operating in these structures every day, in everything they do. It's why traditions escape critique. Football is no different. Things are the way they are, except... are they?
It's a bit like The Matrix, you need the eyes and ears to hear, and sometimes it's easier just to take the blue pill, so if you're unconvinced by the merits of women's football, let's look at one of its shining talents - who happens to be Scottish - and see how deep the rabbit-hole goes.
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep Erin Cuthbert's ability goes.
In order to better understand Cuthbert's game, we first need to mine a little deeper into pre-established mindsets, just as the diamond glimmering underneath the caked-on dirt is freed by first painstakingly chipping at the granite holding it in.
What was the barrier that stopped Cuthbert from continuing in her local side with her friends?
Have a good think about what she said,
'The coach didn't really see me being able to cope with the demands of 11-aside, he didn't think I was physically strong enough or capable like the boys were'
The key phrase here is 'the demands of 11-aside'. The coach had a preconceived notion of what constitutes 11-aside football (as we all do). The barrier was attitudinal.
He had a way of playing in his head, the right way of playing. This was the construct, and structure, in which the players found themselves, Cuthbert included, except she didn't fit.
Now, this might have been on the grounds that Cuthbert simply wasn't good enough, or she consistently objected to the philosophy, or she was not at the skill level of her peers. If that's the case, then that is tough, but that is also how football works professionally too, players and coaches don't see eye to eye, sometimes they're not good enough, and one leaves. Cuthbert acknowledges this, as we will see later.
Unfortunately in this instance, it seems that the fundamental issue was that Cuthbert was a girl, and in order to play the way, or achieve the philosophy, that the coach wanted to establish - you had to be a boy.
This is exclusion. It might be blue-pill ignorant exclusion, but it's still exclusion, and we can learn from this.
So what was the way around it? What was the circumventing, dismantling, creative solution?
Well... this is where it is both very simple and very challenging; the coach's mindset must change to change the way he plays. Change the philosophy. Adapt and adopt another style of football that doesn't rely on purely physical means to succeed and appeals to the joy of the game every child can access. This is inclusion, and it's often easier, more productive and a darn-sight more enjoyable for the neutral to watch.
She can't play elevens... oh wait: goal against N. Ireland (March 2020)
In encountering such adversity at a young age, Cuthbert has developed an uncanny ability to adapt her game, and it is here that we find that diamond talent uncovered.
I remember the first couple of sessions [at Chelsea], and I thought, 'oh well this is a bit different!' I don't have as much time on the ball. They're physically faster, fitter, stronger... more technical. I'm going to have to adapt here, I'm going to have to learn fast 'cause I'm not going to survive in this environment if I rest on my laurels.
Erin Cuthbert, London is Blue podcast, January 2020
Where did such fight come from? You often see this question answered with the mention of footballers being from a 'working class' background as if that somehow meant it was only a matter of time before a battle-hardened, elite-mentality appeared.
You might read of this trait being described as 'graft', and it's a writer's dream when it accompanies growing up near the dockyards or other places of industry. Whilst this is obviously admirable and does result in a tremendous work ethic and may have been true for some (my hero is one, my unmet Grandpa, who worked up to foreman in the Govan docks), see Ferguson and Shankly as oft-cited examples, it doesn't hold true for everyone.
Furthermore, it also greatly demeans the incredibly astute intellectual ability and mindset with which these individuals were able to communicate across cultures and nationalities. So rather than solely attribute 'Scottish fight' and 'graft' to Cuthbert's game, let's listen to what she says;
When I was younger I looked up to Julie Fleeting... she was from my local area so I used to always see her training and playing and I kinda saw behind the scenes... I was lucky enough to see that... it's not just the game, [she made me realise that] I'm going to have to work hard every session. She's Scotland's most prolific goalscorer [and] I just want to be like she was.
- Erin Cuthbert, May 2020
Julie Fleeting scored an incredible 116 goals in 121 internationals. Whilst Cuthbert's current tally may be more conservative, understandable as an attacking midfielder, she has won the SWNT player of the year in the last two years and scored the goal of the year to boot. Not a bad start. Her goal that day, against Jamaica in the sunshine, will live long in the memory of those who saw it, particularly my 9-year-old daughter and I.
In dropping deep at pace and receiving the ball on the turn with her left foot, she bought the time to turn, anticipating that she was in space to do so. Her first touch brought the ball onto her right, with her body between her and the defender. With her stronger foot she killed the ball, touching it often and keeping it close whilst taking in her options. Having lost her initial marker by dropping deep, Cuthbert drove at the space between players, in front of the defence, giving her opponents the choice; come out of position and risk a pass in behind, or back off and welcome the shot. Cuthbert continued to dribble and the opportunity opened up 30 yards from goal. 'HIT IT!' came the shouts, and she did, as sweet as a nut. In striking across the ball, Cuthbert put on such spin that it arched into the top corner akin to Paul Scholes' vs. Barcelona.
Hampden roared in amazement. Many of us who had seen her many times before shared looks of wide smiles and shaking heads, it was only the latest incredible thing we'd seen her do. We'd seen it all before for the u17's.
For Cuthbert has a habit of providing the spectacular. Again, in March of this year, she reproduced the same technique against Northern Ireland resulting in arguably an even better goal (see above gif), surely securing goal of the year for a consecutive year. She was at it again against the best team in Europe, Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, in the semi-finals of the Champions League, showing her technical ability by scoring UEFA Goal of the Season in the process.
Whilst her work-rate may have stood out to Millie Bright, and it is central to her game, it is really only a means to an end, in that it buys her the opportunity to do what she does brilliantly, anything with the ball. Influenced directly by her assiduous dedication to preparation 'train like you're playing'; Cuthbert's game is the personal embodiment of what she admired in Fleeting, perhaps captured in the old phrase, 'you need to earn the right to play'.
She does have graft and fight, and as we've seen it's most likely risen from adversity, but my goodness the girl can play.
Earning the right to play... like this
So how does she play? We've covered her long-range strikes and intelligence in using space, coupled with indefatigable energy and a steely determination; however, it is Cuthbert's unpredictability in using her ability which sets her apart.
Her small stature, strength, speed, change of pace and close control make it almost impossible to consistently thwart her game. Such attributes have led to the Irvine-girl placed 5th in shot-creating actions (SCA) for the whole league, creating an incredible 4 chances on average for her teammates to score per-game.
She could of course place much higher in particular areas of statistics if it wasn't for her insatiable, unrelenting desire to be involved in the game, accompanied by a high team-ethic and selflessness. Nevertheless, Cuthbert has a spread of high-ranking statistics rarely seen in one player which can help us to appreciate just how much of a handful she is for her opponents.
For the season 2019-20, Cuthbert was placed in the top 10 players in the league for Assists (8th), Assists/90 (9th), xAssists (5th), xAssists/90 (3rd), Key Passes (5th), Crosses into Penalty Area (7th), Corner Kicks (5th), Crosses (4th), SCA (5th), SCA/90 (6th), xGoals+/- (9th), xGoals +/- /90 (4th) and Fouls Drawn (6th).
In short, Cuthbert is an exhausting torrent of incessantly positive energy which moves in single-tracked focus towards the goal. With such results, at one of the biggest clubs in Europe, you might forgive her for the odd foray into hubris, but the Chelsea player knows where she wants to improve her game, and considers it with humility.
It's a difficult one, but I'd say goals, I think I scored ten or eleven last year but I want more goals... it's a difficult one because if you do loads of assists it's the same, I celebrate an assist more than when I score because I feel really awkward when I score, I don't know how to celebrate!
Cuthbert on her ways to improve, Chelsea is Blue podcast, ibid
In considering her ability alongside this quote, we can now make a safe assumption of the 'difficulty' Cuthbert speaks of. It is the balance between achieving the team's purposes and the will to max-out her individual ability.
As exposed in the statistics, Cuthbert is a provider, a creator. With a bigger ego, she could demand more space in the team, she could host a highlight-reel party with her numerous awards on the table alongside her birth certificate, just to make sure people understand not only how good she is now, but how good she can be. With such an incredible ability to run with and strike the ball, you can understand why she would like to score more goals, and no doubt this will come.
Instead, for the moment, we see a footballer playing with a focus that puts the team first, as revealed in yet one more statistic; in the two actions immediately leading to a chance for a shot, either tackling, passing, intercepting or drawing a foul - Cuthbert ranks as Chelsea's highest.
What then have we gleaned from this all-too-brief glance at Cuthbert's already burgeoning portfolio? We certainly can't ignore the depths of struggle found in her childhood, and the need for a fuller consideration of the challenges and struggles our female players have had to overcome to be where they are. We will return to this issue repeatedly at A\M acknowledging we have only glimpsed it through one example of Cuthbert's lens.
In doing so, however, we've charted some encouraging ground, yet ground that is far from the earth. We freed our minds, took the red pill, and rather than burrowing down the rabbit-hole, found by casting our glance upwards, we were able to see the talent of the player, perched atop the pigeon-hole, and looking ahead over what is possible.
From her vantage point, perhaps somewhere Cuthbert spies the little girl who developed a love of the ball with her dad in the back garden, or maybe I'm just being overly sentimental, yet again we're best to listen to her say it best.
He said 'don't leave without saying goodbye' and disappeared back into the house, which I thought was strange. Then he came out and gave me this wee picture, maybe about the size of a bank card, of me when I was a kid outside Ibrox with a Rangers 'trackie' on. He said to me, 'I know how much you say you do it for us, but you have to do it for yourself' and he had written on the back of this picture 'Do it for this wee girl who had a dream and practised and practised until it came true'.
Erin Cuthbert, writing in her BBC Sport World Cup column, June 2019
Cuthbert, moments after scoring against Argentina in the World Cup