ENIOLA ALUKO: BALANCING ACT
In the second part of our exclusive interview with Chelsea Ladies Eniola Aluko, the striker has been speaking to the official Chelsea website about her sporting and working background, the England national team and the progress she has witnessed woman's football make...
Eniola Aluko made her debut for Birmingham Ladies at the age of just 14, and the Chelsea and England forward's development was so rapid that in 2004 an international debut arrived. She was six months shy of her 18th birthday. Since then, she has appeared at two World Cups, three European Championships - including one in the middle of her A Level exams - and last year's London Olympics.
Ahead of Chelsea Ladies' International Women's Club Championship semi-final clash with Sydney FC today, Aluko, now 26, has been considering her personal development as the sport has grown around her.
'I have had some great experiences in football,' Aluko reflects.
'Going to America really improved me as a player and had a positive impact on my England career. When you are young you're really hungry, and it's gone full circle because now I'm even hungrier than I was when I was younger. Perhaps that's because I know I'm in the last phase of my career.
'Women's football has changed amazingly since I was first involved.
'There is more professionalism now. There are much better contracts being offered, and players have representation now so they're a lot savvier about what they're doing. Male clubs are pumping money into the women's game and recognising there's actually scope there to do well.
'Look at what teams such as Chelsea and Man City are doing. If you asked me five years ago what the landscape for women's football would be I probably wouldn't have said it would have got as far as it actually has, so that's really nice.'
When she is not finding the net for club and country, Aluko is training to become a lawyer, specialising in sports and entertainment. To that end, she explains why balancing her football career with her professional one has always been so important.
'Growing up, I knew I wanted to play football. However, at the time I did my degree (Aluko graduated from Brunel University with first class honours in law) women's football was very shaky. It wasn't salaried, it was still pay as you play. I had to be really conscious of investing in my career after football, which is still apparent now.
'I did an A-level exam the same day as playing for England at Euro 2005. It's crazy when I look back! I would never do that now. When you're young you just think "oh, whatever, I can do it."
'Balancing football with my job has worked. Now, when I see some of the doors that open for me in law, I don't think they would if I wasn't a footballer.'
Aluko has been a regular for England since her debut nine years ago, and, for the first time this year, played under a new head coach at international level. The 26-year-old says that she has enjoyed her time working with temporary manager Brent Hills, who took over after longstanding boss Hope Powell was released of her duties following a disappointing showing at Euro 2013.
Despite that setback, it's been a good year in front of goal for Aluko. She has scored six goals in eight games for the Three Lions in 2013, with four of those notched in World Cup qualifying games after Powell's departure.
'Brent puts a lot of focus on the tempo and energy of our play. He's played some of the younger players and they've done well. It's been good for the last three months to looks back on wins and put the Euros behind us.
'I think I've had a strong year personally, probably the strongest that I've had for a long time. My performances have been pretty consistent so I'm pleased with how it's been going.'
The Aluko name goes far beyond the women's game. Eniola's brother Sone plays for Hull City, and started for the Tigers on the opening day of the season.
'It was a surreal experience,' Aluko recalls.
'I was at Stamford Bridge and was watching the game thinking "that's my little brother out there!" It was always the dream, so for him to be playing in the Premier League is incredible.
'I live vicariously through him. My brother and I played since we were very young, so it's amazing that he's got to where he is and where he needs to be. Hopefully he'll keep performing well for Hull when he is fit again.'
With her brother out injured until the new year it is up to Chelsea's Aluko to make the headlines, and don't be surprised if she starts doing just that today by helping our Ladies team into the final of the International Women's Club Championship.
Chelsea Ladies take on Sydney FC for a place in the International Women's Club Championship final. The match takes places in Okayama, in Japan's south-west, and kicks off at 9.30am UK time, 6.30pm local time.