Shortly after the final whistle at Bramall Lane on Tuesday night, Mary Earps received a congratulatory message from David de Gea.
England had just crushed Sweden 4-0 to reach the final of Euro 2022 but that scoreline could have been very different had Sarina Wiegman’s goalkeeper not contributed some superlative-defying early saves.
Although Earps and her men’s counterpart at Manchester United do not train together they are mutually supportive and remain in regular touch. “David’s just messaged me saying congratulations,” she reported, beaming at suggestions that her first save, made with an outstretched left leg to deny Sofia Jakobsson inside the opening 30 seconds, seemed straight out of the De Gea playbook.
“I’ll take that comparison, no problem at all,” said the 29-year-old, who is unafraid to pick the Spain goalkeeper’s brains. “Me and David speak a little bit. We message back and forth about results and clean sheets and stuff. At Manchester United he’s really supportive of the women’s game; it’s always nice to have his backing.”
Earps has come an awful long way in the 10 years since she was juggling low-paid, part-time jobs in order to make the petrol money needed to drive to training at Doncaster Belles.
A decade ago, the Nottingham-born keeper never believed she would earn a full-time living from football and, envisaging a career in commerce, completed an information management and business studies degree at Loughborough University.
Although football remains very much her first love, business fascinates her and during lockdown she persuaded United to allow her to embark on a special course in entrepreneurship. She also brushed up on German, having acquired some when she was reserve goalkeeper at Wolfsburg during the 2018-2019 season.
“I eat, sleep, dream and breathe football,” she has said. “But I’m also fascinated by business.” During the first lockdown, Earps particularly – and typically – enjoyed reading Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. However, at that stage she seemed to have resigned herself to never progressing beyond understudy status in the international goalkeeping hierarchy.
After making her international debut under Mark Sampson in 2017, she travelled to the 2019 World Cup in France as Phil Neville’s third-choice goalkeeper and arguably rose up the rankings under Wiegman only because of the serious injury that forced Manchester City’s Ellie Roebuck to miss the first half of last season.
Once Roebuck recovered, Wiegman went through a spell of rotating her, Aston Villa’s Hannah Hampton and Earps in goal. When the United keeper was confirmed as the first choice for Euro 2022, some critics questioned the England’s manager’s judgment.
Earps has confounded them by keeping four clean sheets in five tournament games. Her general excellence was epitomised by the moment in the semi-final when Stina Blackstenius’s shot appeared on an unstoppable trajectory towards the far top corner only for Earps to perform acrobatic wonders and tip it over.
At that point it became abundantly clear how far Earps has come since France 2019, when her predominant contribution to England’s squad was a penchant for indulging in morale-boosting practical jokes.
At the time she didn’t feel “entitled to anything” and, when Neville subsequently dropped her entirely, had no public complaints. “I was very much of the thinking that: ‘Yeah, this is probably the end of the international road for me’,” Earps said. “I never expected anything more.”
Wiegman, however, recognised the quality and steady improvement of a goalkeeper who, despite spending that season at Wolfsburg largely on the bench, learned a lot from playing against strikers of the calibre of the Denmark forward Pernille Harder in training.
It has also helped that after years of frequent transfers – with spells at Birmingham, Bristol City and Reading following her time at Doncaster – United offered her the stability of a longer-term contract.
Even so, on Tuesday it was as if a player, who takes her job so seriously she has a special monitor to gauge her sleep quality, could not quite believe the scale of her recent metamorphosis. “I’m absolutely loving playing at this level,” she said.
“It’s such a fantastic feeling. I’m just so proud I can be a part of this England team.
“My teammates have said some really nice things – some amazing things – about me and that just means the world. I want to be the best I can be for them.”
Not that she has ever been one to skip her homework. The woman who, during that stint at Doncaster Belles, used to work part-time in a cinema now spends countless hours studying the small screen in her sitting room.
“I watch as much televised football as I can,” said Earps. “I watch a lot of Premier League games but I also study goalkeepers from all over the world. It’s really important as a keeper that you develop your own style though because not everything works. You might see something on TV but it may not work for you; everyone’s built differently, we all have different strengths.”
It is England’s good fortune that Wiegman has identified an outstanding goalkeeping talent other managers had failed to fully detect.