Few defenders in football history have been more perfectly named. Sure, there was Blackburn centre-back Nicky Marker. Hull City’s former captain Peter Skipper too. And who can forget Jonas Hoofd and Mark De Man, last seen living up to their names in their native Belgium? But until we get a Gary Goal-line Clearance or Sarah Sliding Tackle, a prominent place in this list will always belong to Lucia Roberta Tough Bronze, better known as Lucy Bronze.
Tough. The Lyon and England star epitomises the word. Less perhaps through her swashbuckling style of play than her resilience, her lifelong determination to overcome obstacles and succeed at the highest level. Tough. Tough as bronze. A rugged Anglo-Saxon word befitting the right-back’s Northumberland roots. It sits there as a nod to her English mother’s maiden name in the Portuguese naming tradition, her father Jorge hailing from the country Bronze once considered representing. But it may as well have been stamped on her birth certificate as a promise.
And yet, let’s be honest here: the “Bronze” part is starting to feel wildly inaccurate, isn’t it?
Not merely because she picked up the Silver Ball at the 2019 Women’s World Cup for helping drive England to the semi-finals. Forget silver. Think gold. The gold of two Women’s Champions League medals with Lyon, on top of various domestic titles at OL, Liverpool and Manchester City. Her double coronation as the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year. Her selection as the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year in 2018. And then, this August, her shiniest, most golden personal accolade yet: UEFA Women’s Player of the Year.
“I don’t like winning individual awards,” grimaces Bronze, uncomfortable to have been singled out for such a subjective honour. And suddenly we’re back to the toughness. The focus. A distaste for any prize not secured in the heat of a match. “Winning that award was strange for me. I didn’t think I was going to win it and, for a defender, it’s quite unusual because you’re not scoring goals. You’re not making goals. The most special thing about winning that trophy was the fact that my team-mates supported me. So many of the girls were so excited.”
It’s tempting to point to her spectacular long-range strike against Norway at the World Cup, or her assist for Ada Hegerberg in the 2019 Champions League final, and say, “You earned it. Get used to it.” Perhaps even, “Tough luck.” For England manager Phil Neville, she is “the best player in the world”, but Bronze is more at ease in the quest for laurels on the field of play, away from the hyperbole and even the best intentions of her advocates.
Take her fish-out-of-water reaction to posing for our photo shoot. “It’s not normally something that I’m natural at,” she admits afterwards. “I prefer to be on the football pitch, dirty in my football kit, but it’s nice to have a change of scenery sometimes. To put on some nice, normal clothes, which is normal for everyday people, but for a footballer it’s not so normal. Yeah, next career change: I’m gonna be a model! I doubt it.”
How about role model? The 28-year-old is whip-smart and recognises the burden facing every female footballer today: the need to not just be a superlative talent but to act as an ambassador for a growing sport. It is a phase that, hopefully, will eventually pass, but Bronze gets the dilemma after growing up eager for idols – and being thankful for the rare skills of her former England team-mate Kelly Smith.
“When I was younger, there wasn’t women’s football on TV. There wasn’t visibility and she was the only player we heard about. But, luckily enough, she happened to be one of the best in the world, and for me it was inspiring that we had this English player who was amazing, who was unbelievable. My dream was always to play alongside her and I just managed to do it.”
"I'VE KIND OF GROWN AT THE SAME RATE AS THE MEDIA'S GROWN. BUT I THINK THIS IS GOING TO BE PART OF FOOTBALL NOW AND IT'S SOMETHING THAT WE'VE WANTED. WE'VE WANTED THE MEDIA TO GET THE FANS TO GROW THE GAME, SO WE'RE GOING TO HAVE TO ADAPT TO IT"
Today it is Bronze who belongs in that elite bracket, the first English women’s player to win Europe’s top individual prize. She is setting an example of her own, with her energy, technique and thrilling attacking contributions inspiring the next generation. And while she is more comfortable practising her crossing than cultivating a public profile, she is growing used to the idea.
“I’ve been quite lucky in the fact that when I started in my early twenties, there wasn’t really any media, so I’ve kind of grown at the same rate as the media’s grown. But I think this is going to be part of football now and it’s something that we’ve wanted. We’ve wanted the media to get the fans to grow the game, so we’re going to have to adapt to it.”
Hence the photo shoots and requests to pontificate on the Meaning of It All. The state of women’s sport today. Discrimination in contemporary society. It sometimes feels as though female players need to be as steeped in social studies as the laws of the game. But Bronze is legitimately energised by the evolution of women’s football, having been told at the age of 11 that she could no longer play for her local boys team – a decision that meant her father had to take her on a 45-minute drive to train with Sunderland three times a week.
Since then she has fought tooth and nail to reach the top, even studying sports science at Leeds Metropolitan University to address her injury problems – with seemingly no outside assistance available. “When I was 19, 20 years old, I ended up having three or four knee surgeries, and back then there wasn’t a lot of support, medically and money-wise, for women’s football. I kind of had to treat myself; I had to coach myself, and learn about my own body and my own knees, so that I could make a career out of it.
“That’s why I went into sports science. I learned everything I could about football, about women’s football, about knee injuries, about strength and conditioning, about getting fitter as a player. I just taught myself everything at university so that, whether I had a physio or not, I knew what I was doing. Getting that degree was probably one of the best things I ever did in my football career.”
Nowadays Bronze has access to the superb facilities at the most successful club in women’s football. She joined Lyon from Manchester City in 2017, all her commitment and efforts rewarded – even a stint working at Domino’s Pizza paying off – as she reached the pinnacle of the game. She is rightly proud of OL’s pioneering role and six European titles but again – almost paradoxically – puts on her ambassador’s hat to encourage other sides to fight them for the throne.
“People talk now and they go, ‘This club is now training with the men’s team,’ and I’m like, ‘Lyon have been doing that for ten years.’ They say, ‘Oh, they’re playing at the men’s stadium this week. Oh, it’s amazing.’ And I’m like, ‘Lyon have been playing at the men’s stadium for years now as well.’ Obviously it’s good because that’s what we wanted to happen. We wanted more people to be leading the way. But Lyon are definitely the originals.”
Playing for Lyon brings other perks as well. True to form, Bronze cites “my apartment and the training pitch” as her favourite parts of France’s third-largest city, but even she is not immune to its charms. “It’s a great place to live. The culture and the food and the weather. I lived in Manchester before, where it rained every day, so now it’s nice to have the sun. We’re going into November and I still get to wear shorts and T-shirts outside.
“I like going to the city. I don’t go too often because I recover at home and prepare for my games, but when my mum and dad and family come across, it’s nice to take them. They love it; they take the bus tours to go and see everything. They like to go to the French restaurants.”
And what does a stoic professional from England’s northeast enjoy most about France’s culinary capital, a city of family-owned bouchons serving rustic delights such as pork sausages, coq au vin and creamy quenelles? What else? “I eat a lot more bread now. The wine I have to stay away from, because I can’t be drinking wine before games. The cheese I try to stay away from because I’m just gonna get fat. But I eat bread every day now, whereas in England I don’t think I ever had it.”
If that sounds like self-sacrifice taken to a comical extreme, remember that Bronze is not in Lyon to bask in her ability. Like her team-mates, her real hunger is for trophies and that, more than anything, is why she is right at home. “It’s exciting that we have to keep improving on something that’s already nearly perfect. We win everything, we beat everyone, and to carry on doing that every single year… People say, ‘How do you stay motivated?’ Winning is the motivation and improving is the motivation.”
Likewise there is the goal of breakthrough triumphs with England, semi-finalists in their past three major tournaments. Triumphs both on and off the pitch. A crowd of 77,768 attended England’s recent friendly with Germany at Wembley (a record for a Lionesses home fixture), and Bronze is yearning for the day when impressive turnouts are not even a story – perhaps the one marker of success she will accept that can’t be hoisted aloft after a final.
“That’s the next thing, for that just to be normal: that we play at the big stadiums and have a lot of fans coming. For it not to always be breaking news: the women have sold out a big stadium. OK, the women have sold out a stadium, now let’s watch the football. The football’s great to watch; that’s why the stadium’s full.” And with that she is ready to get back into her football kit, cast aside the “normal” clothes, throw off her ambassador’s hat and slide right into a tackle.