Lianne Sanderson seizes England spotlight on her own terms

The striking-looking forward lines up against the United States on Friday night having ended her self-imposed exile from the team. She tells Glenn Moore about coming home, staying strong and being a gay role model

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The Independent Football

It is a grey winter’s afternoon at Wembley Stadium but the Great Hall is alive with shouts. A series of women footballers are being exhorted to leap, dive and generally look athletically exuberant by a photographer taking promotional pictures for the impending launch of the new FA Women’s Super League season.

One player seems to be kept under the studio lights longer than the rest, and no wonder. With a bubbly personality, attractive style of play and, most of all, a shock of bleached, blond hair rising out of an otherwise close-cropped scalp, Lianne Sanderson is a sports photographer’s dream.

Sanderson has the image and ability to be one of the breakout stars of this summer’s Women’s World Cup in Canada, not that she is exactly unknown across the Atlantic. Friday’s international between England and the United States at Milton Keynes is being broadcast in the US and Sanderson will be one of the England players most familiar to viewers there. In a coup for the WSL, the striker has recently returned to Arsenal, but for the past five summers she has been playing Stateside, in Philadelphia, Washington and Boston.

There she became sufficiently high-profile to earn a spread in People magazine with her then team-mate and girlfriend Joanna Lohman.

The couple’s break-up, and the progress of WSL, may be factors behind her being back on these shores, but most of all Sanderson has headed home to make the most of her return to England duty. She was not the only player to find playing under previous manager Hope Powell a joyless experience, but Sanderson was the only one to leave on her own terms, quitting at the tender age of 22.

When Mark Sampson replaced Powell early last year, one of his first calls was to Sanderson. “I always felt Lianne was a talented footballer,” said the England manager. “It was about having a conversation to see if she could fit into the environment I wanted to create. When the answer was a big ‘yes’ we were certain to bring her back into the group. She has had a really good year for us. She’s performed well on the field and been a good character off it.”

Sanderson admits if Powell was still manager she would probably still be in America. “It was the best place for me when I wasn’t in the England team,” she said. “Being that step away helped my relationship with the [England] girls better. I never had any problems with them, but it was portrayed that I was a rebel and had retired from football. Those people that know me know that isn’t me.

“I still texted the girls. Jill Scott and Anita Asante are among my best friends. I wanted them to do well but it was hard for me. When Hope got the Olympic job it was hard. People would come up to my parents and ask why I wasn’t on the team.

“It wasn’t an easy decision. The way I left the team was obviously different, but lots of people were not getting picked: Natasha Dowie, Jodie Taylor, Kate Chapman. If you are good enough you should be given a chance. Before it wasn’t the case and everybody knows that.”

Sanderson hopes coming back will lift her international performances another level. As Manchester City found when losing to Middlesbrough in the FA Cup hours after flying back from Dubai, playing while jet-lagged is hard. “Last year, in a 10-day period, I was in Belarus, Ukraine, Seattle, Kansas City, New Jersey,” said Sanderson. “I felt like an astronaut in space I was so jet-lagged. I was so tired. I was not at my best.

“My season in America was six months. It is impossible to not play for [the other] six months.” The last two winters she has played in Cyprus while a previous off-season was spent in Spain.

Such globetrotting obviously has complications for players with children – like Chelsea’s Chapman. One advantage for Sanderson of her relationship with Lohman was that they could join a team together – as they did in the US, Spain and Cyprus. However, such intensity has its drawbacks.

“I live, sleep and breathe football, so when I go home it is good for me to be with someone who does not want to talk about football,” she said.

“It can work two ways. When you are on the pitch you feel so supported by that person you are with. But there comes a time when you are not on the team and she is, or I am the captain, which I was, and she wasn’t playing, those things can be difficult.”

The pair set up the JoLi Academy, a training centre for young female footballers in India, and while her return to the international fold has reduced the time available for such projects, it is an area Sanderson wants to return to in the long-term.

Their relationship also helped others indirectly. The mere existence of an openly gay couple on a professional sports team was a beacon of hope for many. Subsequently, England team-mate Casey Stoney and her partner Megan Harris, a former WSL player who has stopped to have their twins, have also come out.

Sanderson is not a gay campaigner. When she travels to places like India she takes local cultural norms into account, but she is not going to hide who she is either. “It is not about waving a gay flag,” said Sanderson. “It is about small steps, not throwing it in people’s faces. It is about being a role model. I get messages and letters from kids and parents on a daily basis saying, ‘Thank you for being who you are’. Some of the kids have been almost suicidal, I’m not saying people like myself and Casey are saving lives, but I don’t think people fully understand the impact we can have.”

Sanderson has always wanted to be a footballer, and even being told girls do not play football by her father did not put her off. Jeff Sanderson, who was on the books at Crystal Palace and Southend before forging a non-league career, changed his mind once he saw little Lianne play. He and her mum, Joan, have been dedicated supporters ever since.

On Friday they will be at Milton Keynes, taking pride in seeing their daughter back in England colours, and in her being herself.