She had already earned 140 caps for England, but Scott became one of the breakout stars of the men’s tournament this year as the first woman pundit taken to a World Cup by the BBC. She reveals why it wasn’t all plain sailing
lex Scott is not alone in looking back at the long hot summer of 2018 with a pronounced sense of nostalgia. But for the former Arsenal right back, who herself won 140 caps for England, it holds particularly cherished memories: she became the first female football pundit ever taken to a World Cup by the BBC.
The Champions League winner and six-time Premier League champion saw a fearless England side ride a wave of uncharacteristic national optimism to the semi-final of the World Cup in Russia.
“It was special in many ways,” she says. “Going into that tournament, nobody expected anything, everyone had written the team off. So for Gareth Southgate to turn that around so quickly and for everyone to be caught up in that passion … That was special.”
The desire to get behind Southgate’s young, diverse, dedicated squad seemed to be powered by something greater than football. With the news at home dominated by Brexit, political division and anger, a strong World Cup run powered by players ready to give everything for their country briefly managed the impossible: it brought a divided nation together. “We wanted a change,” says Scott. “Even people who didn’t care about football were cheering the team on. Southgate managed to reconnect a team with a nation.”
Scott is convinced that an unprecedented openness and honesty in the men’s England team transformed their relationship with fans back home – and their performance on the pitch. “They started telling stories about how much it meant to them to play for England. When you are open and honest, fans see you are a real person, not just a privileged footballer,” she says.
“As the tournament went on, you could feel that excitement about this young group of players playing brave football, and it looked like they were having fun. We wore our heart on our sleeve and were willing to give it a go instead of being a bit cautious.”
Scott is too much of a pro to criticise previous England managers, but is full-throated in her support of Southgate, who she credits with instilling his players with a sense of self-belief and desire to play for each other. “Gareth had the confidence to say: ‘No matter what, you have my backing. I want you to take risks, I want you be brave and if it doesn’t go right, I’m going to be the one who is here to protect you’,” she says.
It was also the moment Scott’s second career as a football journalist took off: it has taken a dizzying trajectory since she retired from professional football in 2017, joining the BBC’s FA Cup final reporting team in May last year. Celebrating after the game, she seized her chance and told the BBC’s head of football, Steve Rudge, that she was ready to go to the World Cup in 2018. “He was laughing and saying: ‘We need to build you first, you’re not ready.’ And I was like: ‘No, I’m ready. I know what I can offer,’” she says. And her response when she finally got offered the job? “I was like: ‘Oh, you finally saw it, did you?’”
And so it was that she joined an elite team of footballing women to feature at the World Cup this year, Scott sat alongside the likes of Gary Lineker, Alan Shearer and Rio Ferdinand and impressed with her forensic attention to detail. She seems bemused by the observation that she is one of the breakout stars of the tournament.
“I do really want to get to the point where people stop talking about me being a female pundit, and I am just a pundit,” she says. “The real surprise to me was that people were saying: ‘Oh my God, she’s actually good.’ Well, yeah, I’ve been in football since I was eight. Of course I know what I’m talking about.”
The World Cup was widely seen as a leap forward for women in football, even if the majority of pundits and presenters were still men. But women becoming more visible in the game did not come without a price.
During the tournament, John Terry was quick to insist that when he said he was having to watch a game commentated on by Vicky Sparks, who this year became the first female commentator for a live TV World Cup match, “with no volume”, he simply meant that the audio on his television was faulty. But the patronising applause with which footballer Patrice Evra greeted analysis from former Chelsea and England international Eni Aluko when she made a serious piece of analysis on ITV was harder to explain away.
Scott says she hasn’t spoken to Aluko about the incident, so she can’t judge if Evra was being sexist and will only say it was “ill-timed”.
“I know I’m in a male-dominated field, but my colleagues know I get football, so when I get [sexist] comments like that from people who are not even in the game I find it quite easy to ignore,” she says.
Then she drops a bombshell, almost as an afterthought. Just weeks before England player Karen Carney revealed she had been threatened on Instagram, Scott herself had received violent threats on social media.“The comments were like: ‘I know where you live. I’m going to come and throw acid in your face. I’m going to rape you’”, she says. “I just ignore that; it’s just crazy. But seeing how it upsets my mum is hard.”
She refuses to dwell on it. “I try to concentrate on the comments that say I am making a difference,” she says. “I loved getting messages from people saying they were watching during the World Cup with their son or daughter, and they could see they could be involved too. That was so powerful.”
A few months after the World Cup, when the new Premier League season got underway, Scott became the first female pundit on Sky Sports’ flagship Super Sunday programme. She also now regularly appears on Match of the Day 2, and it is likely that Match of the Day will follow. Next summer, she will front the BBC coverage of the Women’s World Cup, in which England are among the favourites, and she remains vocals about combatting racism in the sport, urging for stronger punishments for offenders after the alleged abuse suffered by Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling.
Football, Scott says, has always been her safe place. Growing up on a council estate in the East End of London, where her mum still lives, she would spend every waking moment kicking a ball around with other kids in an enclosed “cage”.
“That cage was my everything at that age,” she says. “It was my escape, the place where I played with the boys and dreamed of being a footballer and playing at Wembley.” She went for a trial at Arsenal aged eight and was signed immediately.
“My dad left home when I was super young, so it was my mum bringing me and my brother up,” she says. “When I was going off to training and matches at Arsenal, my mum wouldn’t be on the side cheering me on, she’d be working so I’d have football boots. I saw that you had to work hard if you wanted to do anything in life.”
She speaks with unruffled magnanimity about her time playing in the women’s game before the sport was professionalised – recalling that her reaction at being given a pair of men’s boots, cast off by first-team winger Marc Overmars, was one of delight, not dismay.
It was only after the 2007 Women’s World Cup – when England reached the quarter-finals despite a chronic lack of investment in the women’s game – that Scott, under the leadership of pioneering manager Hope Powell and in solidarity with her teammates, started to agitate for change. At the 2015 World Cup in Canada the team surpassed expectations to finish third, and the domestic top tier has now turned fully professional, with Phil Neville appointed coach. Its time has come, says Scott. “Going into the World Cup next year, it feels as if we are on the cusp of something special. It’s been building, but it’s at a point now where it could just explode.”
Looking back at a wildly successful year, Scott says she has to tell herself to stop for a second and enjoy the moment. “I still have this fear that it could all be taken away tomorrow, when actually I need to sit back and be like: ‘Alex, you know what? Just be proud of yourself.’” So when she sees in the new year, will she celebrate the achievements of this one with a few glasses of champagne?
“Maybe just a sip,” she says. “I’ve got work the next day.”