Jackie Groenen: ‘I still can’t get used to the fact that I can’t just go grocery shopping anymore’

Interview: Manchester United’s star recruit talks derby day excitement, fame and how being a teenage judo champion taught her to use her body in the right way

Glenn Moore
Friday 06 September 2019 17:02 BST
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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When the Dutch hosted and won Women’s Euro 2017 the players became household names, a fame further cemented by reaching this summer’s Women’s World Cup final. Yet while female footballers have long craved recognition, it does have its drawbacks.

One of the OranjeLeeuwinnen’s key figures, Jackie Groenen, is the star recruit for Manchester United Women, newly-promoted to the Barclays Women’s Super League. Settling into Mancunian life via a Salford hotel she has been enjoying a quiet anonymity no longer possible in her homeland.

“It has been incredible over the last couple of years, a lot of things have changed, especially in Holland,” says the effervescent midfielder. “I still can’t get used to the fact that I can’t just go grocery shopping anymore.

“Things at home have been quite crazy. When I am back at home and have a couple of days off I want to do everything with them so my mum is going grocery shopping and I am like, ‘oh cool I’ll go with you’, and she is like: ‘No, stay home!’ Ever since the Euros it has been exploding.”

Successive semi-finals in the Euros and World Cup for England’s Lionesses has primed the game in this country for a similar boom, but it is yet to fully ignite. The fuse will burn a little more fiercely this weekend as the WSL makes a high-profile return with the first Manchester derby of the professional era. It will be staged at the Etihad tomorrow, with more than 20,000 tickets already sold. United are hoping to spoil City’s party.

“All we have been talking about for three weeks is, ‘let’s smash City, get that out of the way’,” said Groenen. “It is not going to be the easiest game to start with, it is a big team and they have been doing well for years, but you can win any game, it doesn’t matter who it is. It is a big new adventure for me and the club so it is nice to start it off with a massive game.

“It is good to see women’s football is getting that big it is played at men’s stadiums and I hope that will continue. We have experienced playing in big stadiums with Holland [national team] for a while now and every time I am in the stadium…it is the nice thing about being a women’s footballer at this time because you kind of know where you came from. I remember playing in front of 10 people and now when I go to Holland we play in front of 40,000 and it is nice to still realise that that is not a normal thing.”

This is Groenen’s second crack at English football. Now 24 she had a spell at Chelsea when 19 but left after 16 moderate months. She feels she, and the WSL, are now better suited to each other.

“I think the league has changed massively,” she said. “Back in the days when I was at Chelsea in midfield I felt like the ball was just going over me, flying up and down and I was just standing there. I feel like that has changed a lot, the level has gone up quite a bit.

“I am a bit more experienced now [too]. It was the first time for me to leave home – I had been playing in Germany before but still living at my parent’s house. I feel like I have grown as a person and as a player, maybe I am a bit calmer than I was before. I love the English pace, it is very attacking-minded, so most of the time I am just trying to calm things down, telling everyone to calm down while they are flooding past me.”

When it comes to trying to get a grip on things in midfield Groenen does have one unusual advantage. As a teenager she was a Dutch judo champion and won European bronze at U17 level when 15. She continued as a judoka until she broke her hip competing at 17.

MSV Duisburg, for whom she was playing, put a stop to her judo but Groenen, a slender 5ft 5in, feels the martial art significantly helped her football.

“Looking back [doing judo] is one of the best decisions I have ever made,” she said. “For my style of play it has been massive. When I talk to young girls, or when people ask me for advice, the first thing I always say is to take judo lessons with playing football. Ajax in Holland do it with the youth players. It is not only about strength, it is about using your body in the right way. I feel like I can tell when I have to step in or when I can put people off balance without really using force. I still miss it sometimes.”

That background meant Groenen felt confident when, as one of head coach Casey Stoney’s bonding events, the Manchester United players went sumo wrestling.

“Before we started I was bragging. I was like ‘guys, I’ve got this, I am going to win this’, and it was the first round and I was out! They make you put on this suit and it was massive and it is very heavy. I am a very lightweight person and I was on the ground and I couldn’t get up.”

Groenen, a tidy passer who knits play together, can expect to be far more successful helping United find their feet in the WSL. Attracted both by the Manchester United name, and by the challenge of helping a young club establish itself, she may even find herself being recognised in English supermarket aisles by the season’s end.

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