Issue 02: Nikita Parris
Photography: Lauren Maccabee / Styling: Sophie Casha / Words: Kyle Hartman-Turner / Beauty: Philomene Lucas
This article is an excerpt from the Nikita Parris feature from Issue 02 of GAFFER: Heart & Soul. Available now from our online store now.
At only twenty-five years old, Nikita Parris has followed in the footsteps of Lineker, Beckham and Toni Duggan as one of England’s finest ever players to play abroad. That move in itself is a demonstration of her courage, self-belief and determination to the best she can be.
When it comes to Nikita’s leadership qualities, we’re frankly spoilt for choice. She’s grounded, thoughtful and hungry for success. But if we had to define her single greatest attribute, it would have to be her foresight.
It’s easy for some leaders to fall into the trap of thinking in the short term, but Nikita has always had one eye on the bigger picture. From rallying her local community to form a women’s football team at the tender age of eleven years old, to the assurance she would give her mum during her development years that the women’s game would grow sufficiently by the time she would turn professional; “I always said to my mum, ‘I’m going to play football for a living’ and she was like ‘but girls don’t play football. There’s no team like the men. There’s no pathway.’ And I used to say, ‘But there will be.’”
It’s one thing to have a dream and a vision but it’s quite another to actually get up and start dragging that dream, kicking and screaming, into a fully formed reality. But that’s exactly what Nikita did as a child growing up in Liverpool; “I started a football team myself at the age of eleven because I wanted to have a women’s team in the local community. So, I gathered all my friends and family and everyone I knew. I was like come ‘come on, we could play together’, and we were successful. We won the league.”
As Nikita began to play at a more progressive level in the Everton youth ranks, she carried the foresight and drive of that eleven-year-old girl inside her. Having the vision to see a pass on the pitch is one thing but having vision off it was what truly set her apart; “You have to make sacrifices. Whether that be time with your friends or family, to ensure that you’re constantly growing as a player. I remember I’d be going to training and looking out of the car window and seeing all my friends playing. But I knew the bigger picture.”
Blend that acute sense of awareness together with other key qualities, like her humble nature to listen and learn, and it’s easy to see why Nikita ticks every box for one of the greatest club teams in women’s football, Olympique Lyonnais.
“Fara Williams once told me; ‘the most dangerous space on a football pitch is between your ears, because ultimately if you can listen and take on advice and learn, you will always grow.’ For me growing up it was fantastic to have these role models. Now I’ve become a role model, which is a surreal feeling.”
Understanding her new position as a role model in society is almost the next chapter in Nikita’s “foresight journey”. She is well aware that a footballer’s voice is often even more powerful than their feet. Being a role model transcends the pitch, giving her an overview of the biggest future picture yet.
“Footballers are engineers of change. We have so much impact all over the world. It’s the national game in England, but it has massive impact in communities some of us have never even heard of. That’s why it’s important that every time you do an interview or step on the field, you conduct yourself in a positive manner and you ensure whatever words you use are to empower. Now we have a voice we can touch many different people across the world. It’s important that we use that platform to create change.”
Off the back on the World Cup and the dramatic rise of the women’s game, it would be understandable if all this success was to go to Nikita’s head. Plenty of players before her would have been sucked into the glamour of cars, clothes and the all-round perks that come with being a top-level footballer. But speaking to Nikita, there is no chance of that ever happening. She knows where she comes from. Having grown up in a less affluent area of Liverpool, Nikita is well aware of the challenges and issues faced by real, every day people. This isn’t a player who has been pampered through academy life with a silver spoon. And she’s all the better for it. Nikita was always very conscious of her mother’s sacrifices, raising four young children alone, and is still mindful of the issues faced by the communities where she grew up.
“Recently there has been an epidemic of knife and gun crime, and it’s important as sports men and women, that we step up and help provide change. As a person who’s coming from a community that’s considered less economically developed, it’s important to show the youngsters there’s a way out – there is a path to a world that you could have a place in. Many people get stuck in a rut thinking ‘where’s my place in the world?’ But the opportunities are there. You just need to take them. That’s why I like to step up and have a voice and show people that there’s a way out. There are ups and downs but if you endure, your dreams will come to fruition.”
Of all the amazing skills Nikita possesses, perhaps the one that we admire most is that she can see beyond her own personal success and is ok with her role as a team player in life’s greater journey.
“I understand that I must leave the game in a better place than I found it. This is why I work so hard. I always tell the young kids, ‘be better than me’. Because ultimately, if you’re better than me, the game will grow and continue to grow for many years to come. It’s great to see so many young girls wanting to take up football. Since the World Cup, I think the game will propel to a new level. More young girls are wanting to take part and be involved in sport. Not just as a player but as physios, coaches…there are so many different opportunities in football.”
But for any female defenders reading over this piece, be warned. Yes, Nikita is a humble, eloquent and considered young women. But she is also fiercely determined in equal measure. People with such vision often find it hard to settle and are always perpetually searching for the next challenge – and Nikita is no different.
“I want to win trophies. Ultimately, being at Lyon is to see how those players do it at the top level. Within Champions League Finals and how they cope with the pressure of people expecting them to win. This is part of my journey as a player because I feel like that is the next part of my growth. To become that big player in the big moments. I know I’ve had experiences of doing it for Everton or Man City, but I mean doing it in the big games. The Champions League Final or the World Cup Final. Being that player that everyone looks to make the difference.”
Being that player on the pitch who everyone looks to is the ultimate example of leadership within football. It’s often what makes a captain. But being the person that people look to off the pitch is something much bigger. Megan Rapinoe has recently shown that one player can influence an entire nation. In fact, in a recent poll, it was shown that she would actually beat Trump if the elections were held now. If Nikita’s trajectory continues, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that she could also one day rally an entire country, both on and off the pitch.
Like this article? Enjoy all cover features and interviews in Issue 02: Heart and Soul – available now from the GAFFER Online Shop.