Gemma Bonner: ‘US move unexpected but I wanted to challenge myself’

Gemma Bonner
Gemma Bonner has played for Manchester City and Liverpool in the Women’s Super League

Gemma Bonner had done everything in England – played for her hometown club, captained Liverpool to back-to-back Women’s Super League titles, won the FA Cup with Manchester City and represented her country.

So she was ready for a new challenge – and when American club Racing Louisville came calling in the summer, Bonner could not turn them down.

“It was totally unexpected. I had just signed a new contract with Manchester City and brought a new house in Leeds,” she told BBC Sport.

“It was something I was never really considering at the time. But once I had a conversation with them, I was surprised at how much it excited me. I saw it as a challenge.”

In a wide-ranging interview with BBC Sport, Bonner, 30, discusses professionalism in the United States, reigniting her international career and the challenges of long-distance travelling.

A 24-hour trip for her debut

Gemma Bonner, Caroline Weir and Laura Coombs
Gemma Bonner (left, with Caroline Weir and Laura Coombs) won the FA Cup with Manchester City before joining Racing Louisville

Three days after landing in Louisville after signing for the club, centre-back Bonner was flying to Portland for her debut.

“It’s crazy. It actually took us 24 hours to get there because of the flight delays,” she said. “I’d come from English weather, which wasn’t very hot, and my first game over there was in 34-degree heat. The humidity levels were through the roof.

“It was a real change. You are travelling every week. It almost becomes a way of life and routine that you’re packing, going again and moving. It’s how you manage and prepare that.”

Extensive travel and extreme weather were immediate changes for Bonner as she adjusted to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) but she has also noticed a different atmosphere around women’s football in the US.

“It’s a very different culture but I’ve loved every minute of it so far,” she said. “I didn’t really know too much of what I was throwing myself into. It was a bit daunting. I was quite nervous.

“But I was welcomed in from the very first conversation I had. I felt a part of it. I couldn’t be more grateful to the team, the staff and the environment.”

‘The most professional I have felt’

Gemma Bonner with Carli Lloyd and celebrating with Racing Louisville
Gemma Bonner faced USA legend Carli Lloyd (left) before she retired earlier this year and (right) has settled in quickly with her new team-mates

Bonner enjoyed some of the best facilities in the UK while at City but said Louisville “is the most professional I have felt in an environment”.

The expansion club, formed this year, have ambitious plans for the future and the set-up is designed to get the best out of their players, Bonner said.

“It’s quite unique in my experience in women’s football. It’s the norm for the women’s team to be involved,” she added. “You can go wherever you want, speak to whoever you want and you don’t feel like you’re encroaching into an area. That was a new experience for me.

“Naturally, there’s a stigma with female players in England, that you always feel kind of restricted or it’s a battle to get somewhere.

“It was strange at first. Louisville know you are there for footballing reasons but if you’re a happy person, they will get the best out of you.

“To leave Manchester City it had to be something big. I had everything there.

“I’ve also seen a kind of disparity [in the NWSL]. Some weeks, you are playing on a baseball pitch and they are training in a school field. That’s a big thing players are trying to push over there. You have the best players in the world and they deserve the best standards. My club has the best in everything.”

‘I was questioning whether I was good enough’

Gemma Bonner playing for England against Spain in 2019
Gemma Bonner has made 11 appearances for England since her debut in September 2013

Despite her illustrious career in England, Bonner has just 11 caps for her country.

Her last appearance came in the 2019 SheBelieves Cup when she replaced the injured Millie Bright, while the remaining 10 caps came before the end of 2017.

The ever-presence of Bright and captain Steph Houghton, alongside the emergence of Arsenal’s Leah Williamson, has meant Bonner has faced tough competition for an England centre-back spot.

But she hopes consistent performances against the world’s best will earn her a recall.

“I’ve always said it’s something I’ll never give up on,” she said. “I’ve never been happy with it in terms of the amount of selections I’ve had.

“I probably got caught up too much thinking about it and questioning my own ability. I was questioning whether I was good enough. It’s easy for people to say ‘you should be there’ but then you start to question why you’re not.

“I had to take myself out. I think that was probably part of the reason why I put myself into a challenging environment. I want to grow as a player and I’m confident that when I am fit and healthy, there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be selected.”

The defender said she had become “quite comfortable” in the WSL but the American league is more “physically demanding and transitional” – a style Bonner hopes will compliment the technical ability she developed in England.

“The league is so different. There’s no holding back over there. As soon as you switch off, especially in my position, it usually results in a goal,” Bonner added.

“I’m constantly challenged as a defender from the first to the last minute. Over in England, you could probably afford to relax for periods. You would have certain moments in the match you needed to be ready for. In America, those moments are every few minutes.

“I came up against Carli Lloyd before she retired recently. Over there you have Rose Lavelle, Dzsenifer Marozsan, Eugenie le Sommer, Jess Fishlock…

“Every week you are against world-class players.”

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