‘Leaving Arsenal was the best career decision I’ve made’ – ex-Gunner Kelly targeting shock win over WSL champions

Stamford Bridge, Anfield and the Etihad are among the grounds that the FA Women’s Super League has graced this season – but Everton’s Chloe Kelly won’t get carried away.

When the former Arsenal youngster started playing football, it was in a cage with her five brothers, and when she joined her first team it was playing Sunday league.

But some of her fondest memories come from those early experiences, not least because she was playing for the club she supports, Queens Park Rangers, and playing at a ground that, for her, will top those iconic venues.

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“That’s what shapes you really and if you forget those experiences, you take things for granted. I never take things for granted. That’s how it is and it can easily go back to that, like that really,” Kelly tells Goal, clicking her fingers.

“It was great for me as a QPR fan. My family were absolutely buzzing. It was like a dream come true really, I even played at Loftus Road in one of my first games.

“But it was only Sunday league at the time and I wanted to push myself.”

She certainly did that. Via a centre of excellence in Middlesex and a move to Arsenal, the 21-year-old striker is one of the most exciting prospects in England’s ranks, regularly sitting on the fringe of Phil Neville’s squads.

But after being given a taste of life at the top with the Gunners, the forward will be lining up against them on Sunday, having left for Everton in January 2018, when she was still just 20 years old.

It was a young age for an talented star to leave a top club, with her time potentially still to come, but she describes it as a very easy decision after enjoying two fruitful loan spells on Merseyside.

“It was tough because I knew my family would want me back home, but I don’t regret that,” she says, explaining her permanent departure, while describing her first temporary move up north as “the best decision [she’s] made in [her] career”.

“To come to Everton, a different city, and just experience something else… I was sitting on the bench at Arsenal and I learned a lot, but I wanted to show what I was capable of.

“[Arsenal] was an unbelievable experience. As a 16-year-old going into that set-up, when I went up to train with the first team, it was a big step.

“Obviously, you’re going to be nervous, but you’re there to show what you’re capable of.

“It was great to be there when such big players were, because I think you can look at those players and learn a lot from them.

“It was massive going in with the likes of Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey.

“Sometimes it is difficult when you’re not playing, but there’s big players there. You kind of have to accept it.

“I had a lot of friends [at Everton] from the England youth age groups and I knew Andy Spence [manager at the time] was really good with youth players.

“He gave them an opportunity and I think that’s what I needed: an opportunity.”

If it was a gamble, it’s paid off.

Kelly has been a regular over the last three seasons with the Toffees and is in great form this season, with four goals in seven league games – form helped by her finally having the ankle surgery needed to overcome an injury she spent last season playing through.

“It was really difficult,” she says, reflecting on a campaign in which Everton finished second-from-bottom, changing managers midway through the campaign as Spence was replaced by Willie Kirk, former assistant to Casey Stoney at Manchester United.

“I think that’s why I played on with my injury for so long. Selfishly, because I should’ve let someone else play that was 100 per cent, but unselfishly because I was like ‘I need to play, I need to help the team’.

“I’ve learned a lot now from it, but I think you learn a lot about yourself in those moments.”

The team learned a lot about themselves too, and Kelly admits they are much more together this season.

That’s helped by many things, including the team bonding exercises that aren’t always as successful as their results.

“I enjoyed the break-out room, but I wasn’t very good at it!” she laughs.

“We got out, but I think the woman was lying to be fair. We got out with like three seconds to go, so I don’t really believe it!”

On the pitch, Everton have been much more convincing. They sit fifth going into Sunday’s game, their last before the winter break, but there is something still niggling away at them.

“We haven’t really got a big result against a big team yet,” Kelly says, with Arsenal their next target.

“We know they have really top players – if you just focus on [WSL top-scorer, Vivianne] Miedema, there are 10 other players that can hurt you.

“We’ll just focus on ourselves and find ways in which we can break them down and stop them from hurting us.

“We want to call ourselves a big team, so we need to get results against top opponents.”

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