Skip to content

On the cover: Great Scott

It’s been an incredible year for Jill Scott. From winning the Euros with the Lionesses to being crowned Queen of the Jungle in ITV’s ‘I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!’, the last 12 months have been nothing if not eventful. That Wembley win was her 161st and final England appearance, and buried the pain of her own international near misses in a 17-year career that began at 18 for hometown club Sunderland in 2005. Off the field, Jill has been just as busy, with her ‘retirement’ opening up a new world of opportunities. Here, speaking to North East Times Magazine’s Colin Young during a return to Sunderland and her old school Monkwearmouth Academy, she looks back on an extraordinary time while looking forward to picking up the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation/North East Football Writers’ Association’s Personality of the Year Award at Ramside Hall Hotel in early March.

Forget winning the Euros, the 161 England caps, the league titles and FA Cup medals, the MBE for services to football, the BBC team of the year award, the Jungle crown, the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation Personality of the Year Award. 

Jill Scott knew she’d made it when she invited Roy Keane to the coffee shop she runs in Wythenshawe, Manchester – and he turned up.

Her diary may be full, but she still puts in the occasional shift at Boxx2Boxx, the venture she co-owns with partner Shelley Unitt. 

And she was there when Roy joined its rapidly-increasing throng of customers earlier this year. 

Jill says: “I met him when we were in Qatar; he doesn’t live far away, so I said, ‘if you ever want to pop in for a coffee…’ and he came in.

“I thought the shop would be too busy, but he just sat in the corner with his family.

“We’ve had Roy, Kevin de Bruyne, Phil Foden, Jamie Redknapp, Micah Richards and a lot of Corrie stars come in too.

“I’ve worked the last two Sundays, and it’s the hardest work I’ve done since retirement!

“The queues never stop out the door, it’s ten til four, just constant drink after drink after drink. 

“I make the coffees – I’m not trusted to make the food.”

It’s not just drinkers’ tastes for lattes and cappuccinos that have kept Jill busy, though. 

She says: “It’s been mad. 

“I should write down what I’ve done because there has been some incredible stuff; a talk with Sir Geoff Hurst, a talk with Harry Redknapp, TV punditry with Jamie Redknapp, in Qatar with Roy Keane, Ian Wright and Gary Neville, roller-skating with Tom Daley, paddle boarding with Robson Green.

“It’s been manic.”

Keane was one of her footballing heroes growing up and trying to play football in Sunderland – a city which hindered, rather than helped, her early passion – which she adores and eventually played a major role in her journey to becoming England’s second-highest capped player.

She loved Keane, David Beckham and Steven Gerrard. All hard, but brilliant, midfielders. 

And all men. 

Thanks to the Lionesses’ Euros triumph last summer, where Jill played a role in securing England’s first major trophy since 1966, however, today’s young players now have poster girls too.

“They were my role models, male footballers, because that’s what I could see on the TV,” she says.

“It’s great now that the women’s game is more visible and accessible. 

“We’re in a really good moment on the back of the Euros. 

“It’s important to reflect and look how far we’ve come, but there’s a whole other level that we can unlock.”

Jill was the winner of ‘I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!’ from the moment she came on screen displaying the team ethics she’d driven into herself from a young age, helping fellow contestant Charlene White walk along a plank 10,000ft in the air.

And her success has propelled Jill into a world she didn’t know existed. 

Yet a year ago, she was fighting for the right to be in Sarina Wiegman’s Euros squad. And struggling.

As her great friend, team-mate, fellow Mackem and former England captain Steph Houghton was to discover, the England boss is a ruthless, winning coach.

Not featuring at her club Manchester City, Jill joined Aston Villa on loan, but suffered a knee injury, putting her inclusion in doubt.

She spent a month in rehab with Houghton, at the FA’s St George’s Park base, in a desperate bid to be fit.

“In all honesty, at that time last year, I was struggling with football a little bit,” she says.

“I had my eyes on going to the Euros, but I was not playing at Manchester City; I knew I had to get a move. 

“I was so fortunate with my career, I didn’t have any injuries, I only missed ten days on a couple of occasions with my ankle and then, leading up to the Euros, right at the end of my Aston Villa stint, my knee just started blowing up. 

“I got myself ready, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to do another season.

“Steph and I went through that period together, and it was really difficult to see her not get selected.

“Although people are happy you’re going, when your friend doesn’t make it, it’s very difficult and sport can be ruthless like that.

“It was a difficult time for her.

“We had a meeting, where we were told if we were going or not. 

“I was so nervous. I felt I had a 50-50 chance because of the way my knee had been. 

“I knew I’d got myself back to full fitness, but Sarina’s very much all about winning, and she wouldn’t have taken me if I hadn’t been 100 per cent.

“It was like going on trial again, like all those years ago, and fortunately I got through.”

Those trials take Jill back to her battles to play the game at all. 

From the age of nine, her group of friends were forbidden from playing in boys’ games in the Russell Foster League.

They found sanctuary and sanity at Boldon Community Association Football Club, where Paul Smith had a girls team. 

She won the Junior Great North Run and North of England Under-13 cross-country title, and had to decide between football or running.

She says: “Some of the boys’ parents hadn’t seen girls play football, and if you have a son and he is precious and a girl is beating them, it is a kind of kick in the balls, so to speak. 

“I probably got bullied a bit because people just didn’t understand why a girl wanted to play football.

“But those things make you tougher, make you more robust and as my career went on, I knew how to better deal with difficulties.”

Displaying a determination to succeed and make the most of her natural talents and athleticism, Jill travelled from the grassroots of Sunderland to the dizzy heights of title-winning teams and international honours. 

She won the WSL player of the month shortly after her 2005 Sunderland debut, but as the women’s team disintegrated, she joined Everton a year later and quickly won her first England cap followed by a WSL title and Women’s Cup. 

Seven years later, she joined Manchester City, where she won a second WSL title, three WSL Cups and scored in one of three Women’s Cup final victories. 

In 2009, she was among the first 17 players to be offered a central contract by the FA, and only Fara Williams has played more games for the women’s team. 

In her 15-year international career, which included two Olympics with Team GB, she suffered a Euros final defeat in 2009 and World Cup semi-final loss six years later, before the life-changing Wembley win last June.

Jill says: “I don’t actually think I’d have gone on to play for England without Paul Smith and Boldon CA. 

“He picked us up, took us to training and ran the whole team. 

“They’re my happiest memories; getting up dead early on a Saturday, playing football, travelling around with the girls and having such a laugh. 

“I always doubted myself a little bit deep down. 

“I always believed I was going to work hard, I was going to run the most, fight the most – those were my things. 

“But as I got older, and I was playing with these incredible players, I always questioned whether I was good enough to play with them. 

“That’s why, when I look at that gold medal, I know how much hard work went into it.”

Her return to Monkwearmouth Academy is to unveil a plaque in her honour outside the sports centre where she spent most of her school and student life; she went on to study at Gateshead College and Sunderland and Loughborough universities.

Jill made her connections to sport in these halls and walls, and one thing hasn’t changed. 

Her former PE teacher Judith O’Leary is still rushing around, although she stops briefly for a hug beside the plaque.

It’s one of four, the others dedicated to Coronation Street actor Melanie Hill, former Sunderland city councillor Bob Francis and BBC Look North presenter Jeff Brown, who is on hand to interview his fellow alumni for that evening’s programme.

She is respectfully mobbed as she prowls round the sports hall before taking in a dodgeball game and the opportunity for some impromptu keepy-ups when a ball falls at her feet. 

The smile never leaves her face for the entire visit, but she looks happiest controlling that ball to a smattering of applause. 

After a Q&A with the football academy lead Jamie Chandler and a roomful of pupils, Jill displays her new-found skill in the endless selfie world, holding court in reception, taking phones and using her extendable arms to get the highest and best shots. 

It is a skill she has perfected. 

She says: “It’s 20 years since I left school, and the change is massive. 

“When I first walked into reception, I was like, ‘wow’.

“It just brought back so many memories, but the fact they now have a football academy is brilliant.

“The head teacher Mike Grummett was lovely; you can see he has a real genuine passion for the area, the school and the kids. 

“It’s great to see it doing so well, and the students were so polite.

“This is where I was shaped as a character and a person first and foremost, and I think that’s the most important thing for life. 

“It’s great to go on and have sporting or academic success, but becoming a good person is most important.

“People can always want their kids to be academic and succeed in that way, but if children are polite and will have conversations with you, that is even more important. 

“It doesn’t take much to be nice sometimes.”

Because she took a packed lunch most days, burning those calories immediately in the aforementioned sports hall, Jill was rarely a partaker of the Queens Cafe 50p special – chips, gravy and bread – and the current generation are forbidden from the abundance of seafront cafes.

Now, though, she tucks into the chips for the purposes of a photo shoot, and when word spreads of her presence, a couple of family friends appear, or a friend of a friend of her mam…

It’s the same when we head to Roker beach. 

Hardly anyone doesn’t recognise her; every request is greeted with a smile and some Jill time. She likes it best when football gets a mention first.

Jill says: “I think knowing you have the ability to make someone happy, even if it’s just taking a picture or signing something, is lovely. 

“I do enjoy it. I like people and I like chatting to people, and I’ve always been like that.

“Before this year, people would sometimes recognise me, but be a bit tentative when it came to saying hello.

“But with the jungle, they get to know your personality a bit, so it’s quite nice, and I hope people think I’m a warm personality to talk to.”

So what’s next? 

There are so many doors open to Jill that, when she eventually gets the chance to pause for breath, she will be spoilt for choice.

It will involve football; she’s determined that will be her legacy.

Coaching clearly appeals, and she’s proving a natural at motivational speaking. 

She says: “I’m getting back on the grass doing some coaching and keynote talks, speaking to business – I’ve spoken to Google and Meta.

“It’s good because there are so many crossovers with business and sport, and journeys and reaching for targets. I’m enjoying that.

“Long-term, it’s difficult to say. 

I’d like to be back in football eventually, but I was so busy playing, and being a coach or manager is doubly as busy. 

“I’m not ready for that right now.

“There are three female coaches in boys academies in the country, and I’d like to do a bit with boys teams. 

“To have a female manager in the men’s game is the top of the pyramid, but we need to get more women coaching the boys’ academies so that becomes the norm.

“I’ve just stopped after 30 years. 

“Football was my life for 20 years, and I’m still watching games and getting that injection of adrenaline – I’m just not ready for that every single day yet.

“I could see myself coaching, I don’t know about managing. 

“I think I’d like to be on the grass doing the sessions and having camaraderie with players and a bit of a laugh. 

“You can get away with that as an assistant; as a manager you have to try and be more sensible. 

“I see myself as the Good Cop. 

“If I was manager, I’d be wanting to play everyone, and saying, ‘we’ll go with 22 players today…’”

March 5, 2023

  • Business & Economy

Created by North East Times