“It’s an amazing opportunity and I’m a little bit jealous, but also very excited for them!"
Those are the words of England Lionesses legend Karen Carney, who met players from Surbiton High School as they prepare to represent AFC Wimbledon at this weekend’s Utilita Girls Cup Grand Final at Wembley Stadium.
The competition, which involves over 22,000 children, gives schoolgirls the once in a lifetime opportunity to play at Wembley, with the showpiece event taking place prior to Sunday’s Papa Johns Trophy Final.
Carney, who amassed 149 international caps for England and Great Britain during her illustrious playing career, highlighted the impact of the Girls Cup initiative in enhancing opportunities for young girls compared to what she received as a child.
“I had to wait until I was 26 to play at Wembley and they’re going to do it 13 years earlier," she said.
“I’m pleased that there are initiatives like the Girls Cup, because I didn’t have anything like this. My tournament experience certainly wasn’t at Wembley Stadium! It was at local parks and there were very few teams.
“When I first started playing, it was every boy’s dream to play at Wembley Stadium. Now, it’s for everyone. The Girls Cup is fantastic and hopefully it’ll inspire these girls to kick on."
Former midfielder Carney boasts a glittering trophy cabinet from her time at Arsenal, as well as Birmingham City and Chelsea, and featured at four Women’s World Cups, four UEFA Women’s Championships and the 2012 Summer Olympics.
With the young girls from Surbiton High School being put through their paces for a pre-match session at AFC Wimbledon’s training ground, Carney was impressed by the standard on show.
🏆 Sunday sees the @UtilitaFootball Girls Cup Grand Final take place at @wembleystadium, as South Hunsley (@HullCity) take on Surbiton High School (@AFCWimbledon)! 🤝— EFL (@EFL) March 30, 2022
🦁 @Lionesses legend Karen Carney met the players from Surbiton as they prepare for the big day.#EFL pic.twitter.com/EWwDzyYlb4
“Today’s been good because it’s taken me back 20 odd years,” she admits. “It just shows what football is all about. It’s so authentic and fun, there’s no fear or care about anything else going on in the world other than playing and expressing themselves with their friends. There’s no better feeling than that.
“I thought I’d come here and have to tell them not to be nervous and to just go and express themselves, but they’re not nervous at all!
“I’ve watched their training session and tactically they’re good, technically they’re outstanding and they’re all so confident. That’s the level these players are at now. They’ve got top quality coaches and they’re only going to improve – they’re only 13!
“Hopefully, we’ve seen a few future England players today, but if not, they’ve learned some fantastic life skills and had an amazing experience that they can go on and tell their kids and grandkids about in the future.”
Surbiton’s Head of Football, Zak Elbekry, added: “It’s an incredible experience for the girls. To meet Karen and the first team at Wimbledon has been an amazing day.
“The girls have been brilliant throughout the rounds and the football they have played has been so impressive. Some of them will have ambitions to play at the level that Karen has, so to meet someone like her is hugely inspiring for them.
“The opportunity to play at Wembley doesn’t come around very often, if at all. It’s been very inspiring, exciting and a great overall experience for them.”
Surbiton High School, representing AFC Wimbledon, will take on South Hunsley School, representing Hull City, before the Papa Johns Trophy Final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.