Lucy Parker’s debut season in the Women’s Super League has been a long time in the making – but she has grasped the opportunity at West Ham with both hands.
The defender, 23, came through Arsenal’s academy but was then snapped up by the United States’ college system when a flying visit to the country aged 17 turned into a four-year stay.
She is an unassuming character but her commitment to sport began at a very early age – juggling athletics with her footballing ambitions, making two-hour round trips to London four times a week to play for Arsenal’s academy and then moving thousands of miles from home as a teenager to further her career.
Now she is settled at West Ham, rides a bike to training and is “loving every minute” of her time in London as she tries to break into the senior set-up, having played for England’s youth teams.
‘Football was always number one’
“Football was always the number one,” Parker told BBC Sport, but she grew up with a family who were all runners and she competed at national level in middle-distance events.
As a teenager, Parker would play matches for Arsenal’s academy on the weekend, then drive across the country to compete in races.
“With football it was pretty hard. The big races were on weekends when I had games,” said Parker.
“Looking back now, I enjoyed it a lot more than I did in the moment. I used to get so nervous. I miss racing though and the thrill of it being all on you.”
Despite her love for athletics, Parker said running “was always something I did on the side” because she fell in love with football from an early age.
Her mum took her to a week-long training camp where she was the only girl.
“I was painfully shy at the time and didn’t speak to anybody! When we got there it was all boys who were older than me and my mum said we could go home but I wanted to do it.
“I just loved it from the first day. At the end of the week I won the ‘most improved’ trophy and I wanted to join a club.”
Parker played grassroots football with Cambridge City before her coach sent her for Arsenal trials.
She almost missed her window when her car broke down on the way to the trial but despite only making the last five minutes, Parker impressed and she spent almost a decade in Arsenal’s academy.
“Arsenal was massively important for my development. It required a lot of commitment because I travelled from Cambridge to London three or four times a week,” said Parker.
“I had a girl in the area who I played grassroots football with who was also in the team so we could split rides. I don’t know if it would have been possible financially without that.”
‘US draft system so stressful’
Parker moved to the University of California at the age of 17 and completed a major in psychology.
But initially she had no intention of moving to America. Her sister was part of the track team over there and was “hassled every day” to persuade Parker to join after the coach had witnessed her play at Arsenal.
“I never wanted to go to America at all but it got to the point where I thought I’d just visit and take a look. When I got there I thought ‘wow’. Everything blew me away and I knew I could get better there,” said Parker.
“As a human being I grew up so much. I had to be an adult and look after myself. I learnt so many different things. I had to be really disciplined because the system is hard. You had to be good with time management.”
In January 2021, Parker was drafted by Kansas City but in the week-long build-up she had no idea where she would be playing football.
“People don’t really understand the draft system. I’ve had to explain it to so many people! The experience was really cool though,” said Parker.
“The week leading into the draft was so many back and forths with different clubs, trying to see if there was any interest. The night itself was really long. I was just waiting for my name so I could relax.
“It was probably one of the most stressful weeks having no idea what was going to happen.”
Eventually, Parker decided to leave Kansas City and joined West Ham in August. Since then, the Women’s Super League side have reached an FA Cup semi-final and have consolidated their place in the league.
“I’ve loved every minute of West Ham. We have such a good group of people. Every day is really enjoyable because we want to do well, work hard and have fun. It makes everything a lot easier when there’s no drama and everyone loves each other.
“Last year they were fighting relegation and now we’re solidly mid-table, fighting for fifth and sixth spot. It’s definitely been a massive success this season.”
Parker will come up against Manchester United this weekend – a club fighting for Champions League qualification. That’s a competition she has set her sights on, but the defender, who featured regularly for England’s youth teams, also hopes to represent her country at senior level.
“The goal is obviously to play for the national team – and for as long as I can.”