In The Journey to the Cup, The Athletic follows six players as they work towards a place in the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Follow along as we check in with them each month in the build-up to the tournament, tracking their progress as they prepare both mentally and physically for a chance to shine on the game’s biggest stage.
Lily Agg was sat in traffic on the A13, somewhere in east London, at 8am.
It was just another day on her commute to the UK capital’s Newham College — where she works as a teacher — but that morning in 2020 was slightly different.
“My phone just pinged off,” she says.
It was a Twitter notification from The Football Association of Ireland.
It read: Lily Agg has been called up to her first national team camp.
“I was buzzing!” smiles Agg. “The first person I called was my mum.”
Thanks to her maternal Irish grandmother, Agg, who was born in Brighton on the south coast of England, was able to switch allegiance and represent the Republic of Ireland. Her winning goal against Finland in September secured Ireland’s place in the World Cup play-offs. They went on to beat Scotland to qualify for the tournament for the first time.
From Arsenal’s academy to the Republic of Ireland national team, this is the journey of the Championship player trying to make her way to next summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.
“I grew up with my mum, so it’s always just been us,” Agg says, speaking to The Athletic in an east London cafe.
“Playing football was really random because I didn’t have an older brother or a dad who was forcing me. I just wanted to play with a ball and an Action Man.”
At the age of six, Agg’s stepdad took her along to local non-League side Eastbourne Borough’s boys’ youth set-up. Although initially put in the C team, she was with the A team by the end of the session.
Despite hearing shouts of, “Get the girl!”, Agg would embarrass the opposition, skipping past lads twice the size of her. Defenders had to resort to brute force to stop the fleet-footed midfielder.
“Against our rivals, this boy just completely launched me,” she recalls. “He was so much bigger than me, pushed me to the ground and snapped my wrist.”
Agg grew up playing with Hannah Blundell, Manchester United’s former Chelsea defender, at Eastbourne, as well as with neighbours Polegate Grasshoppers. She went on to Brighton & Hove Albion’s centre of excellence and would captain England at under-15s level.
While Blundell opted for Chelsea’s academy, Agg — despite being a Chelsea fan and having an offer from Casey Stoney, who was involved in their academy set-up at the time — chose Arsenal.
At age 16 she left home to live in St Albans, nearer Arsenal’s north London base, and pursue the dream of playing for one of the best women’s club sides in the world.
“It was a hard decision,” Agg says. “That was quite a big move. I didn’t want to leave my younger siblings and my mum. I have moved my life around football. That’s the story of my life.”
From a single-parent family and without a salary as a player, Agg couldn’t afford her Arsenal fees and accommodation. The Eastbourne community generously offered to donate around £6,000 a year ($7,400), allowing her to play. Her mother would help with the food shopping and Agg would often bring her laundry home.
“You just get through it,” Agg says.
After a couple of years in the academy, Agg made the step up to the first team, sharing a dressing room with Arsenal legends such as Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey.
She travelled to Japan on tour under manager Laura Harvey, who also coached Agg for England’s under-17s and under-19s teams, making some incredible memories and lifelong friends, especially England international Jordan Nobbs — one year her senior — with whom she trained at Arsenal’s academy.
“Jordan was my hero,” Agg says. “I always thought, ‘She’s so good, I want to be like her and follow in her footsteps’. I call her the Duracell Bunny because she’s everywhere, and that’s how I want to play.”
Agg struggled to break into a very competitive Arsenal first team and although she could have stayed longer, decided to attend Brighton University on a four-year physical education degree with qualified teacher status.
“At that time in women’s football, you needed a back-up plan,” she says. “I knew I was always going to continue playing, I just had to make that sacrifice. Part of me regrets having to go part-time — I wish I had just carried on — but teaching has stood me in good stead.”
Agg studied during the day and trained with Brighton, a Women’s Super League (WSL) side today but then in the third tier, in the evenings.
A flurry of moves to Championship sides followed, as well as a brief stint with Cardiff Met during their Champions League campaign. Agg’s two goals for the Welsh side in a 3-2 loss to Serbia’s Spartak Subotica in that competition caught the eye of Willie Kirk, then-manager of nearby Bristol City, who were playing in the WSL.
Around that time, Agg also co-founded Soccerella, a company that made women’s-specific football kits. While playing for German club FFC Frankfurt in 2017-18 after a short spell in Bristol, she was occupied with spreadsheets and production centres.
“I always like to do other stuff,” she says. “Alongside football, there are so many things out there that can help the women’s game.”
Asked about her nomadic existence, Agg says, “I’m quite spontaneous — it’s the same with my job. You have to do what is right for you or take an experience you really don’t want to miss out on. Everything else can wait.”
The World Cup is one of those experiences.
Now combining her teaching career with playing for Championship-leading London City Lionesses, Agg has her eyes firmly set on trying to earn a call-up to Ireland’s international camp next month.
(Top graphic — photo: Getty Images/design: Eamonn Dalton)
“The Journey to the Cup” series is part of a partnership with Google.
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