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Liverpool Echo
Liverpool Echo
Richard Garnett

England hero and ex-Everton star Nikita Parris reflects on glorious career and importance of giving back to Liverpool

One of the enduring memories of this summer was undoubtedly the sight of England's Lionesses reaching the pinnacle of sporting success with their historic Euro 2022 triumph at Wembley.

The occasion was not only significant for the rare sight of England doing a number on their old football nemesis Germany, but also marked a watershed moment in the development and growth of the women's game in the UK.

One of those players who left the national stadium with a medal around her neck is the City of Liverpool's own Nikita Parris. The Toxteth-born forward only got onto the pitch deep into extra-time, but nevertheless, it represented the pinnacle of her lofty achievements over an 11-year career that has been rewarding and tough in equal measure.

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Having recently joined Manchester United, Keets - as she is commonly known - was back in L8 last Wednesday (September 14) visiting the place where her football journey all began. As a little girl should would spend hours at Princes Park Methodist Church playing football in the hall. It was her happy place and provided the seed from which her sporting dreams would grow.

PUMA ambassador Parris told the ECHO: "When I was growing up I lived in this place Monday to Thursday. This is where I came to watch Champions League games and meet my friends. It's a very special place in terms of my career and growth,"

Parris benefitted from already having some serious sporting pedigree in the family. Older sister Natasha Jonas is a professional boxer and currently holds the WBO junior-middleweight and WBC super-welterweight titles. There is no denying that Parris' senior sibling has been a positive influence on her career.

"Tasha actually started off playing football," she said. "She went out to America and got inured and came back. She used to do boxing as part of her recovery and happened to be very good at it. Now she's doing amazing things in her own sport. To have a sister who is such an inspiration really makes me fight to be the best version of myself in my own sport. Throughout my football career it hasn't always been a straight road. There's been ups and downs. But that hunger to win and be the best is what drives me everyday."

Parris joined Everton's youth set up in 2008 but it wasn't until three years later when rumours of a Women's Super League started to surface that the 15-year-old started to contemplate the prospect of a professional career in the game.

"I remember saying to Mo Marley, who was my coach at the time, 'is it true? will there be a professional women's league?'. By the time of my sixteenth birthday I'd signed my contract and I was a professional women's player at Everton. That's when I truly believed that women's football was going places. Before then I played because I loved the sport."

After four seasons with the Blues, Parris moved to Manchester City on loan before making the switch a permanent one. If her desire to improve facilities for kids in Toxteth is strong now, she most certainly had hit the jackpot when discovering the huge benefits of training at the Etihad Campus every day.

She said: "They were unbelievable facilities. Truly the best in England. What they've created at the Etihad was monumental for football, but in particular for women's football, because it was the first time women and men had been integrated, using the same facilities and receiving the same treatment. I remember at the time calling it Disney Land for footballers. I was just mesmerised by the state of the pitches and the facilities - everything from ice baths, to underwater treadmills, to cryo chambers - things I'd never heard of in football. It was just an incredible time."

Parris' next step saw her take a leap of faith by joining the all-conquering Olympique Lyonnais team across the channel. By her own admission it was one of the biggest challenges in her career.

"You can imagine a Scouser in France trying to speak French. Yeah, you can just about understand my English! It was a very difficult time. I remember saying to my mum within the first couple of weeks 'I don't know if I can do this'. It was just such a culture shock and change to my life. But I was so lucky. Everyone would ask me 'how was it going into the Lyon changing room with all those superstars?' It was probably the easiest place I have ever had to settle into. The girls were unbelievable. They put their arm around me. And I had other English players in the team like Lucy Bronze, Alex Greenwood, Jodi Taylor, who really helped me settle. But the French girls were great as well. It just amazing to go into such a great team."

Parris enjoyed multiple trophy successes during the 2019-20 season, but suffered individual disappointment near the end of it. She was sent off late on in a fiery Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain and as a result was suspended for the final. Lyon would go on to win their fifth consecutive Champions League trophy but with their scouse striker watching excitably from the stands.

Fast forward to this summer and Parris and her England international teammates could hardly have been more in the public spotlight. The Lionesses' European Championship victory at Wembley marked the pinnacle of their careers and with that wave still very much being ridden by all involved, the Toxteth-born forward believes that it is vital to leverage the success for wider growth in the grassroots of the game right now, starting with facilities at the Methodist church where it all started for her.

"Without this community I wouldn't have reached the heights in my career to be on the football pitch, at Wembley, playing for England in a European Championship Final and then winning it. It was unbelievable for me as a player and a person, but my family and friends back here in Toxteth - they were so happy for me and proud of me. Their happiness made me happy."

Parris' trip back to Toxteth is not just to see family and friends. Harnessing her relationship with PUMA, she approached the sports brand about a project to restore and outdoor football pitch at Princes Park Methodist Church that, underfunded, had fallen into a dilapidated unplayable state.

With help from PUMA, the mini-football pitch has been fully restored by a company called Caloo, who specialise in creating outdoor exercise and playground facilities using recycled materials. The playing surface of the new pitch in Toxteth was created entirely from recycled trainer soles.

At a specially arranged lunch event, complete with live DJ and pizza van, local schools kids arrive on mass to not only check out the new pitch, but get a glimpse of their local Lionesses football hero in the flesh.

"It's important that these projects do come to fruition. Today we're in Toxteth L8. It's one of the more deprived areas of Liverpool, so when the council are giving out the funding, they're not giving it to Toxteth first. It's hard to have these pots of money to develop youth centres and keep them open, but it's so important for the youth. It keeps them off the street, it keeps them out of trouble and it gives them a safe space. We need centres like this and it's so good to come back and rejuvenate the whole environment around the centre. Not just the pitch but the mood within the centre. When the young kids are going out on the football pitch they're happy, it's new. They're having a good time and they've got somewhere where they can play. They're just happy that someone's given back and recognised that it's a place that needed help. It will be special to them that they have been seen and heard."

When asked by the ECHO what advice she would give to any youngsters at the centre who wanted to be the next Nikita Parris, she added: "Work hard, believe in yourself and the sky's the limit. And once you do reach that limit or that height of success, make sure you come and give back, because that's important too."

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