Beaming 18-year-old Sian Bah is already mentally packing her suitcase. In three months, she'll be heading off to William Penn University in Iowa, USA, to take up a scholarship to play football while double majoring in political and computer science. "I don't know if you can tell", she jokes, "but I'm pretty excited".
It's Sian's latest step in a remarkable footballing journey that she hopes will culminate in the realisation of her long-held dream: to play the game professionally. However, the pacey forward's path to Iowa has not always run smooth. "I remember being one of only two girls allowed to play with the boys in the playground at primary school. I just loved that feeling you get when you're on the pitch, and all of you are together in that moment. I guess euphoria is the right word for it. Especially when you do something good in a match. I've always really valued being part of a team and working together to achieve something." That desire to help her team would sometimes get Sian in trouble when the school bell rang to mark the end of a hard-fought match. "As soon as we heard the bell, we were all supposed to freeze on the spot. But if it was a draw, there was no way I was stopping until we'd won", says Sian.
With opportunities scarce a decade ago for aspiring female footballers, it wasn't until Sian reached secondary school that she really began to flourish with the ball at her feet. There were still plenty of humps to overcome along the way. "Playing football was a bit iffy with my mum. I don't think she wanted it to take over my whole life, and she also needed me to pick up my brother after school. But doing that would stop me from attending the after-school football club. So I came up with a plan. I told her I'd gotten detention which meant I had to stay at school." This was all well and good until Sian's fine form saw her become an integral part of the team, who were now ready to take on the best school sides in Brent. "The problem was I needed my mum to sign the permission slips for me to play ... the first time, I signed it myself. But from then on, the school were really strict about it. My plan completely backfired at this point, as mum said she'd only let me play football if I stopped getting so many detentions. I was like, oh snap!" Luckily for Sian, her P.E. teacher, Ms Johnson, intervened. At parents' evening, the truth came out. Far from getting repeated detentions, Sian was doing really well in class. She was also showing great footballing promise that Ms Johnson urged her not to waste. "From then on, mum and I had a deal: As long as my grades didn't slide, she'd sign the permission slips."
Sian and her teammates went on to win the Brent Championships three years in a row. I remember we played Chelsea Academy in a final at QPR. "I'll never forget that experience of playing in a stadium for the first time. There was lots of pressure as all the other schools and parents were in the stands watching. My mum went and sat with the wrong school. They were all staring at her as she kept cheering me on when I got on the ball. We won the game 2-1. And to top it off, we went to Nandos straight after!"
"I think that match cemented how serious I was about football for my mum. She took me to buy my first pair of boots after that. Nike Hypervenoms in neon pinky-red-orange, really cool. Before that, the ones I had were from my dad's boss at work. I think he'd bought them for his son but in the wrong size."
There was, however, some unwelcome fallout from the Loftus Road success, as Sian explains. "After the game, one of their players said she was going to brick my house. She only lived a few streets away from me and knew where I lived. It was mad." Such a threat wasn't going to deter Sian from pursuing her passion, and she soon caught the eye of some professional clubs. "I contacted Tottenham to see if I could get an opportunity there. I received an email from the Under 18s manager inviting me down for a trial - I was like, 'are you sure you meant to send this to me?!'"
"It was a big learning curve at Spurs. All the other girls had been in football academy settings since they were six, and really I'd only just started to get my head around the offside rule. The coaches would use all this football slang that I didn't understand, which was a struggle. But I think it helped me learn to switch on really quickly ... Wearing the Tottenham kit was a great feeling — even though I'm an Arsenal fan. Those people who'd encouraged me when I was young and doing kick-ups on the sidelines of the local pitch could see the progress I'd made. I'd get young girls from my area and their parents asking me where I played and how they could get into football. It was really satisfying to be able to help them with advice."
Around that time, a coach from Cricklewood Wanderers invited Sian to come and train with their team too. "I was a bit reluctant as all the players there were from a rival school who hated us. But Carmen [the coach] told me not to worry about that. So from then on, I had matches for Cricklewood on a Saturday and Spurs on Sundays. And with all the training in between, it was intense."
It was at Cricklewood that Sian first experienced Behind Every Kick. "It was really good timing for me that BEK came along when it did. I'd run to make sure I was there on time for those sessions. Things were getting a bit much, and it even crossed my mind at one point to stop playing football. But the BEK stuff on confidence and dealing with pressure was a big help. I remember learning the 'back to Bruce' model, which helped me when I made a mistake on the pitch or was getting wound up by people time-wasting or pulling my shirt. Or when the linos would flag me offside when I'd made the run from my own half, which really triggers me. Tell me how that's offside?! Anyway, I'd say to myself, 'Right, let's try and sort this out'. It might sound weird, but I've learned to talk to myself in games when I'm feeling anxious or stressed. I ask myself do you want to win or do you want to lose? I want to win, so cool — get on with it. Understanding I have an end goal and focussing on it is really important. I apply that to everything I do now. Whether it's going for a run or exams, I think this is what I need to do if I want to play with those girls in America."
Unfortunately, Sian's time at Spurs was cut short by the pandemic. But another opportunity soon came her way via an unlikely source. "One day, I was walking home, and the girl who threatened me with the bricks came up to me. She's bigger than me, and I was scared. But then she said, 'you're a really good player. You should come and play with me at Brentford'. We became friends, and her dad ended up driving me to the training and the games. I've reminded her about the brick thing a few times, and she laughs and says she was only joking!" Initially, at Brentford, the coach told Sian he wasn't looking for new players, but that soon changed after her first session with the team.
It was at the West London club that a teammate mentioned she was going to play in America on a scholarship. "I asked her how she'd gone about it and then started looking into it myself. The U.S. womens team really inspired me when I was younger. They had players I connected with. They were from the inner city and had a minority background like me. Whereas the Lionesses team back then had nothing connecting me other than football. I wanted to be like the England players, but their route was very different to mine. It was hard to relate to them. With the U.S. team, their players like Christen Press — who I'd watch loads on YouTube — had gone through the university system. That's what I want to do. And now lots of the England players I admire, like Lucy Bronze — who went to the University of North Carolina — have gone down that route too and look where they've got to. If they can do it, why can't I?"
Sian set about her task with typical determination. "I knew I needed to get video footage of me playing to send to recruiters in America. I downloaded an app on my phone — a free one — and the quality of the first video I put up was pretty horrific. But I got better at using it and then started emailing coaches to introduce myself and sharing links to my clips. I emailed Iowa but didn't hear back for about a week. I was getting a bit nervous as places were filling up. But I could see the video had been viewed. The coach came back to me and was really positive about my game. He showed he really wanted me on the team, and they offered me the best scholarship they could. Things moved really quickly from there, and I received the letter of intent around Christmas time."
"It's going to be a bit of a culture shock when I get there. They have a very different footballing culture. One of the players I spoke to said, why do you English players wear your shorts like basketball shorts? I was like, what? Why do you Americans wear your shorts so short! And then there's the rain. If it pours down, they call the game off. They're worried about damaging the pitch. Never mind the pitch, that's the best time to play! I love a sliding tackle! I just can't wait to get started."
"I think the two best bits of advice I'd give to young people are: One, don't listen to the doubters. Use what they say and prove them wrong — in a good way. Two — grab every opportunity that comes your way, no matter how insignificant it might seem. You'll find a connection in it who'll help you or know someone else who can help you get to where you want to go in life."
Sian is the living proof of that.