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Ellen Maggs is living out a childhood dream and still can't quite believe it. The 19-year old striker who burst into the Arsenal first team this season, is being hailed as one of the most naturally talented players in England and is already knocking on the door of the senior national side. But despite all that has happened over the last 12 months, she is not getting carried away.
Ellen has loved the game ever since she can remember and says it was football that kept her out of trouble as a youngster; "Our neighbourhood was pretty rough, but I was always too busy playing football with the boys to be led astray."
She signed for Arsenal at the tender age of nine, after being spotted by Arsenal scout Bill Williams, playing for her school, Canonbury, just down the road from Highbury. Williams introduced her to Gunners' women's team coach Vic Akers, who had little hesitation in snapping her up.
Her progress has exceeded even Akers' expectations. This season she has already netted 10 goals in 16 appearances, missing just one of Arsenal's games in all competition through injury. Her partnership with Angela Banks has gelled quickly into one of the most potent strikeforces in the women's game.
Ellen is also making rapid progress on the international front. Having featured prominently for the England under-19s during the recent World Cup in Canada, where the team reached the semi-finals she was recently called up into the senior squad and she'll soon be heading out to a training camp at La Manga. But she is happy to bide her time. "At the moment I'm just concerned about getting more experience under my belt - I think it will be a while before I make it into the team. I'm the youngest one there and still getting used to the set-up. It's very different from the under-19s as you're expected to take a lot more responsibility."
Not that Ellen is finding her surroundings in the England camp too unfamiliar. Three of her Arsenal teammates are also in the senior squad, as well as a couple of familiar faces who have been promoted from the under-19s.
I wonder whether a player as talented as Ellen might be tempted by a move to the United States, where the profile and financial support for the women's game is so much bigger. This idea gets a firm knock-back. A local girl, who grew up around Islington's Essex Road, has her heart and feet planted firmly at Arsenal. "I've always been an Arsenal supporter, just like the rest of my family. And besides," she jokes, "my dad would kill me if I left the Gunners. Anyway, I'm too used too much of a home girl really and I think going abroad would be a bit lonely."
"It's true that women's football is always going to be in the shadow of the man's game here, but things are definitely getting better. Nationwide have put quite a bit of sponsorship money in this year, and now that Arsenal have turned semi-pro it allows us to spend more time training and preparing."
"We train four times a week, so finding a job which allows you to fit this schedule is tricky. I still live at home so that takes the pressure off financially. In the future I'd be interested in a training job. Arsenal help a lot. Nine of the girls have jobs at the club, ranging from Claire Wheatley who is the women's development manager to a couple of girls who help out with the kit."
Slightly built, and only 5'2" tall, Ellen is one of the smaller players around at the top level. But this, as anyone who has seen her play will testify, doesn't stop her from getting stuck in. "Playing with the boys from an early age means you have to get used to the physical side of things - it's be tough or die - so this doesn't bother me any more."
So far, thankfully, Ellen has steered clear of serious injuries. Her first real encounter with the physio's bench came after a bad fall in the UEFA quarter final against Russian team Samara that left her with a twisted knee, but even then she only missed one game.
The UEFA Cup campaign has allowed Ellen and her Arsenal team-mates to test themselves against the best clubs in Europe, and so far they have answered all of the questions thrown at them. The young striker has been one of the central cogs, and her goals have helped the team ease into the semi-finals, one stage better than they managed in last year's campaign.
Ellen expects the semi final against Danish champions, Fortuna Hjorring to be their toughest challenge yet. "They are coming over a week in advance to prepare and have a warm-up game against Fulham, who are currently setting the standard in England. We won't be under-estimating them, but at the same time there is no reason that we can't go all of the way."
The home leg against Hjorring looks set to be switched to Highbury (normally the Arsenal women play their home games at non-league St. Albans). Ellen is hopeful that this will mean a bigger crowd and is looking forward to it. "We normally play a couple of games at Highbury towards the end of the season, so we're used to playing there. We had 2,000 people for the quarter-final last year, but that was at Borehamwood, so it would be nice to think we could improve on that."
Ellen certainly won't be fazed by a large crowd. In Canada, she played in front of 20,000 for the under-19s World Cup semi-final - a moment which, along side making her Arsenal debut, she ranks as the highlight of her playing career so far. In fact, for one so young, you get the feeling that very little would faze her.
On the domestic front meanwhile, Arsenal have a fight on their hands to retain their title. Currently in third place, eight points behind leaders Fulham, and having suffered a surprise 1-0 defeat at the hands of Birmingham, Ellen says they can't afford any more slip-ups.
"Since turning professional Fulham have become the team to beat. In Katie Chapman they've got the best player in England at the moment the signing of Marieanne Spacey and Rachel Yankey (from Arsenal) has helped them a lot. They've got a big squad and, being full-timers, can obviously train every day.
"Then again, they only beat us 2-1 when we last met. They said afterwards that it was their best game of the season, while we were pretty poor. So the gap isn't very big. The return game is a must-win game for us if we are going to stand a chance of holding on to the title.
"Fulham are still the favourites but this is probably the most open season yet. It's not just about the two of us and Doncaster any more. Leeds are improving fast and Charlton are in the frame as well and can take points off anyone on their day. It's good for the game. Increased competition helps us to raise our game, and it also makes things more interesting for the fans, so hopefully more people will come and watch us."
Asked to name her main inspiration in the game, Ellen, perhaps surprisingly, names Alex Scott, who is the main pretender for her role at Arsenal. "Alex has been my best friend and biggest source of support. I've known her for years and whenever things have been hard she's been there to spur me on. She's a year younger than me and can play on the right wing or up front, so basically she's after my position. In fact," laughs Ellen, "she's probably a better player than me, so I'm going to have to watch out."
If that's true, Arsenal's rivals really have something to worry about. And according to Ellen there is quality throughout the ranks. "You should see our under-10s and under-12s. They're by far the best in the country. Then there is Emma Thomas in the under-16s - you'll be seeing her in the first team soon. Arsenal look after their young players very well, so no-one wants to leave. Things look very bright for the future."
: Arsenal Ladies
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