When Lauren James pulls on her boots on Monday to take on Nigeria, the England star will have one less thing on her plate than she did during her first experience with the national team.
“She did her GCSEs in an IT room – she was working for England away when she had her exams, so they had to have a special exam and moderator,” said Chris Tabron, who was her head of year at secondary school. He was responsible for her pastoral care, and ensuring football did not squeeze out her education.
“I had to set her all the revision guides and all the work, and she did two or three hours a day,” he said. “It was the first time she got invited away with England women – she was in the background, not playing.”
The 21-year-old remains a huge inspiration to students at Twickenham school, five years after she left. On non-uniform days, every other student seems to be wearing an England shirt with “James” on the back.
“What’s really nice about Lauren is that she was such a nice girl,” said Sarah Bromly, Twickenham’s deputy headteacher. “If she had that arrogance that other good sportspeople had then it wouldn’t be as nice talking about her. But she was one of those completely down to earth, unassuming people. You’d never know to meet her that she was so good.”
Despite the school being empty during the summer holidays, teachers and pupils have been gripped by James’s excellent performances in the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. “I’ve had so many messages,” Tabron said. “People are really proud of her.”
There is a lot of pride and excitement going round. After three games, James is already England’s standout performer – player of the match twice, and the mastermind of the 6-1 victory over China with two goals and three assists, as well as a sublime left-footed effort curled into the corner and then ruled out after a replay.
It seems to justify the hype. So far her teammates have called her a “cheat code”, her former coach says she could be “the best player in the world” and her dad has compared her to Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi.
That may be fatherly hyperbole, but maybe not: Nigel James is a coach of some renown. At least two dozen players have turned professional after going through the Nigel James Elite Coaching academy in Wimbledon, including Lauren’s older brother Reece, now a Chelsea and England player.
In the James family home in Mortlake in south-west London, football was everything for “LJ”, playing in the back garden with her brothers – her eldest brother Josh was also a talented player but decided not to pursue football as a career – or at a recreation ground at the back of their house, or wherever the ball happened to be.
Sometimes that was at grassroots clubs, including Epsom Eagles, a club that was once a south London powerhouse but which disintegrated a few years ago. But mostly it was with other talented children at her father’s academy. After Reece was scouted by Chelsea at the age of six to join their development centre in Cobham, Lauren started kicking balls around with the coaches.
“She would play before we started training: energy, had the ball at her feet, running around, dribbling past everyone, nonstop,” former Chelsea coach Mark Parsons told the Athletic. “After training finished, she would come on the pitch again. She’d be doing the same thing. I’d look at them: wow. These two are going to be real fun players to see when they’re older.”
By the time she reached secondary school, James was already too good for the other children.
“In school, we were very conscious of overusing Lauren,” Tabron said. “It was tricky because in PE lessons you’d want to push her.”
Playing too much sport can affect how children’s bodies develop, so there are time limits, and that time was taken up by Chelsea and then, at the age of 13, Arsenal.
“She’d leave school every day at 3pm and go straight to training,” Bromly said. “She was so dedicated. Her attendance at school was great. There’s lots of kids that go and play semi-professional and their attendance isn’t great but she prioritised her education as well. She was a great role model. And when you talked to her about football, she would light up.”
Her teachers talk about her calmness, her lack of arrogance and her kindness – helping other students during practicals for GCSE PE, talking to younger children, and walking around school with the same slightly shy smile that is seen in her media appearances.
“She’s obviously had some media training since she left school,” Tabron said. “But there’s nothing very different.”
Whatever the result in the knockout game against Nigeria on Monday, the students at Twickenham will be delighted if her dad can make good on a promise to bring her back.
“A lot of our kids come from disadvantaged backgrounds and to see someone who’s been to our school achieve that – they need someone to be that role model and she ticks all those boxes,” Bromly said.
“Our kids send her videos saying well done,” Tabron said. “She’s not one to make out how excited [she is] that people are proud of her, but I think it means a lot to her. And it means a lot to us.”