One of the Greats: Looking Back at Ellen White’s Career
“This is my time to say goodbye to football and watch the next generation shine.”Ellen White (22 August 2022)
It is rare to see a player who has just started every single match for her nation in a tournament-winning campaign retire, but on Monday afternoon Ellen White announced that she would be stepping away from football.
England Women’s all-time greatest scorer and the Women’s Super League’s second highest goal scorer, White closes her career as one of the all-time greats of women’s football, having spent 17 years terrorising defences worldwide.
The list of clubs that White played for is indicative of how much the women’s game has changed.
Having come through the Arsenal academy, White played her pre-WSL football at Chelsea and then Leeds. But she began the WSL-era at Arsenal after the Leeds squad was disbanded. Moves to Notts County and Birmingham City came later, although White’s minutes were often limited due to injury, whilst she finished her career with three seasons at Manchester City.
Her most successful scoring season came in 2017-18 where she scored 15 goals in the WSL for Marc Skinner’s Birmingham City, helping them finish fifth. Impressively those 15 goals came in only 13 starts, with a hat-trick against her former club Arsenal a particular highlight of the season.
Probably her most famous goal was against Arsenal when she was playing at Notts County. With a free kick on the edge of the area, White, Laura Bassett and Alex Greenwood crowded round the ball. The three looked prepared to do a complicated routine until Bassett and Greenwood seemed to have an argument about the set up. Greenwood nudged the ball to White who smashed it in amid the general confusion of the Arsenal players as to whether the whole thing was on purpose.
Clearly, White showed little mercy to any of her former teams. She scored seven times against Arsenal after leaving them, and five times against Birmingham City. It was Everton who she enjoyed playing the most in the WSL though, with eight goals in fifteen appearances against them. Leicester City were the only WSL team she played against without scoring.
White scored her 50th WSL goal on 7 November 2020 as part of an 8-1 thrashing of Bristol City, becoming the second-ever player – after Vivianne Miedema – to reach the total, and was briefly the all-time leading scorer. Overall White scored 59 WSL goals, 35 with her favoured right foot, 16 with her left foot and eight with her head. None of her goals scored were penalties, and the only penalty she took in the competition – against Arsenal for Notts County in April 2015 – she missed.
Playing on the Last Shoulder
Much of White’s goalscoring came from her ability to slip away from defenders as she played on the last shoulder. Time and again White would make runs to find herself somehow in acres of space as the ball was played into the box. Occasionally it made her seem like she was just a player who was in the right place at the right time, scoring simple goals but White’s intelligence was to use her movement to get into those positions. There was often a sense when White played that just because you knew what she was going to do, that did not help you stop her from doing it.
No goal sums up her ability to do this better than her equaliser against the United States in the World Cup semi-final. With Beth Mead out on the left wing, White ghosted between Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn, with her outstretched right foot redirecting Mead’s cross into the top corner.
In fact, White scored again that game, but the goal was ruled out for a minuscule offside. The offside flag was a familiar one for White – no player has been ruled offside more in the history of the WSL (125 times) – particularly later in her career as her pace declined, but she still found ways to score goals.
Success as a Lioness
White will probably be best remembered as England Women’s all-time top scorer, and second on the overall list with 52 goals, just one fewer than Wayne Rooney.
Her first ever England goal came at Loftus Road back in March 2010, where she scored against Austria in World Cup Qualifying. She scored regularly throughout the years when she was fit but it was the 2019 Women’s World Cup where she really had her breakout moment for England.
White had played in international tournaments before but often alongside another striker, whether that was Kelly Smith, Eni Aluko or Jodie Taylor. Under Phil Neville, however, White became the de facto number nine for England and she repaid the favour by scoring in every single game as England reached the semi-final.
Her six goals were not enough to win the Golden Boot as Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan had also scored as many and had more assists, but her contribution to the side was undeniable. Her iconic ‘glasses’ celebration, inspired by Anthony Modeste (White is a big fan of German football), made her instantly recognisable to the wider public who might have been watching women’s football for the first time.
She was Team GB’s stand-out player at the Tokyo Olympics where she was a rare bright spark in a disappointing tournament. A hat-trick against Australia was not enough to get her side into the semi-finals but she showed why managers were so willing to continue to rely on her, even as other challengers for that starting striker spot abounded.
That trust continued under Sarina Wiegman for whom she scored the record-breaking goal that saw her become the Lionesses’ all-time top scorer – fitting that it was as part of a hat-trick as England thrashed Latvia 20-0.
White started every game at the successful 2022 Euros, scoring her final two goals for England in the 8-0 group stage win over Norway.
No player under Wiegman’s tenure has a higher expected goals total than White with 14.6 xG from 18 games played, while only Beth Mead (20) has scored more goals in the period than her (13).
Having lifted the European Championship trophy, White is undeniably going out on a high, her name firmly stamped in the record books.
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