How Nikita Parris’ nutmeg move introduced the masses to England’s newest star

Football

NICE, France — With one move, Nikita Parris went viral.

In the 12th minute of England’s opening Women’s World Cup match against Scotland, they appeared boxed into their own corner. But after neat interplay from Steph Houghton and Lucy Bronze sent the ball down the right toward Parris, the 25-year-old forward had her back to the approaching Nicola Docherty.

And then, with the flick of her right foot, she nutmegged Docherty and spun away. Just minutes later, Parris scored a penalty to get England on board en route to a 2-1 victory.

Social media networks were flooded with clips of Parris; moments later FIFA started purging unauthorised postings of the viral video.

After the full-time whistle, she stood in the mixed zone in the heart of Stade de Nice, wearing a beaming smile and clutching her Player of the Match trophy. She admitted to butterflies that morning of June 9, and then laughed as she talked through the nutmeg.

“I’d done my research on the full-back and I knew she was going to come steaming in, so I had to do something, whether it was take a foul or try and spin her,” Parris later explained.

The specific piece of resourcefulness is nothing new to Parris — “Just have a look at the clips,” she will insist. The Liverpool-born star has always had talent — the cheekiness and confidence to attempt the unpredictable. Now, in her first World Cup appearance, she has the stage to show the world what she’s capable of. That she’s grasped the opportunity is no surprise to those who have seen her develop from promising youth player to a forward who can torment defenders in a World Cup.

“The first time she showed up at trials and training for our younger age groups at Everton her pace and physical presence stood out and that’s something you see on the world stage,” said Andy Spence, who coached and observed Parris after she joined the Everton Ladies’ Centre of Excellence at age 14. Spence spent 15 years at Everton’s academy as its director and then later manager.

“She was doing those nutmegs to some of the more experienced heads in Everton when she was breaking through and got a few kicks as reminders not to be too cheeky to the senior pros, but that’s Nikita,” he added. “She’s got a creative mind and you only have to see her interviews after the game — she hasn’t changed. She’s still that humble person who wants to better herself and she’s always had that ambition to be one of the best players in the world in her position.”

Spence remembers showing a young Parris videos of Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Robbie Fowler scoring so she could analyse how they finished chances. Now, he shows the next generation videos of Parris. She also hasn’t lost her sense of humor from those days. A player who could show a “jovial side” at Everton Ladies, Parris is one of England’s pranksters, whether it is putting salt in coach Phil Neville’s tea when he’s not looking, or perfecting her self-proclaimed “knock-a-door dash,” knocking on a teammate’s door and then scampering away and giggling.

“It’s been so nice to go full circle,” Spence told ESPN. “With Nikita, she’s at a good age, she’s built up some fantastic experiences and she’s going on to have a stronger next four-five years to push on again. That’s part of the mindset of always wanting the next challenge and wanting to be better.”

Parris was, and still is, fiercely ambitious. She made her senior debut in 2010, five months after turning 16. In 2015, with Everton relegated to the WSL2 (Women’s Super League 2), she joined Manchester City on loan for a season, when she reunited with current England teammates Toni Duggan and Jill Scott. The move soon became permanent and she went on to win two FA Cups and a league title.

Next season, Parris will start a new chapter. Last month, she signed with all-conquering European giants Olympique Lyonnais after finishing second in the WSL goal rankings for Manchester City. The worrying thing for the rest of Europe is Bronze and Parris will be working again in overlapping harmony at Lyon, causing all sorts of mischief down the right wing.

England national coach Phil Neville said the pressures around the move affected her during the first few days of their World Cup camp, but she played her way through the nerves, starting both of their warmup games and unleashing all of her pent-up stress against Scotland.

“She has all the attributes she needs to be one of the best strikers in the world; she has been showing that all season at City,” Bronze said. “She’s been prolific, she’s got an eye for goal, she’s tenacious and she has the speed and energy. We’ve got a really good partnership; we enjoy playing together.”

But Lyon is a long way from Toxteth in Liverpool, where she grew up. That part of the world means a huge amount to Parris, who has continued to work with the community to create opportunities for younger people – opportunities she had as a child.

Last July, she launched the NP17 Academy, in conjunction with City of Liverpool College and Puma, where girls between the ages of 17 and 19 can earn a full-time Sport Development foundation degree, which mixes playing football with education. The 12-student, Year 1 group is now finishing and, as they head into Year 2, the program plans to offer education to more girls from different backgrounds for their new class in September.

Brad Senar, who runs the course at City of Liverpool College, tutored Parris when she was a student there.

“This all stems from her as a person,” Senar told ESPN. “She lives her life as she does on the pitch — she’s so focused and driven. … When she’s come into the academy, she [has been] stopped and asked where her badge was, as they thought she was a student. She’s so engaging and what you see is what you get with her.

“We tried to tell Nikita to put into her Lyon contract that we could bring all the students from the academy over five times a year,” Senar joked. “But, no … we’ve got some plans lined up for progression, which Nikita will be heavily involved with from Lyon.”

Her main message to the students is to believe in themselves and not let setbacks stand in the way of achieving their dreams. Parris passes on her own experiences, like back in 2015 when she was hopeful of going to the World Cup but was told by former coach Mark Sampson over a coffee – she had hot chocolate – that there was not a spot on the squad for her.

“That would’ve been fuel for Nikita … as she does have that edge,” Spence said. “She probably would’ve been, inside: raging, upset, disappointed, as she does play off emotion at times. … She would’ve been determined that she wouldn’t have that conversation again in the future as she would’ve ensured she was going to do everything possible to [make the next Women’s World Cup team].”

Parris won’t be getting carried away, it’s not in her nature. She gave herself a “six or seven” out of 10 for her performance against Scotland. In England’s next match, against Argentina, she will remember her missed penalty more than her impressive performance on the right flank. But she will compartmentalise the penalty-miss, dwell on it for a couple of days and then use it as motivation.

Regardless of where she ends up and where her career takes her, her heart will remain in Toxteth, where they remember the young Parris – fiercely talented with that cheeky side.

“That nutmeg? She’s been doing that since she was at college — she always used to put the ball through the lads’ legs in five-a-side in the sports hall,” Senar said. “We always knew she was destined for greatness, but now the rest of the world gets to see it as well.

“We’re super proud of her.”

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