Anya Donelan, Georgia Marshall and Mollie Rouse all grew up with one thing in common – they dreamed of being professional footballers.
The growth of women’s football in the UK and beyond has created increased opportunities to make those dreams reality.
But competition is fierce and, without the depths of financial backing afforded at the lower ends of the men’s football pyramid, places are limited.
Since growing up on the playground playing football, Donelan, Marshall and Rouse all found different directions to follow their passion.
This summer, however, their journeys intertwined as they appeared on BT Sport’s Ultimate Goal reality TV show chasing the dream of a professional contract.
That Ultimate Goal, for all three, is to reach the Women’s Super League.
“Playing in the WSL would be a dream,” Donelan says. “I used to go and watch all the games as a kid, I used to be the one waiting at the end for pictures and autographs and stuff.
“Obviously the competition has got a lot better, women’s football is improving a lot but it’d be a dream to make it to that level.”
That dream of becoming a professional footballer could have been over before it began with Donelan born with a hemangioma on her left eye.
Surgery at 18 months old resulted in irreversible optic nerve damage and permanent partial sight in that eye.
She overcame that and spent four years playing in America on a football scholarship.
She spent two years at Monroe College in New York before two years at NCAA Division I Akron University, graduating this year.
After returning, she jumped at the chance to reunite with her former Stoke City coach, Bex, on Ultimate Goal having watched the show last season.
As she adapts to life back in English football, it was a perfect chance to develop and gain exposure.
“Coming back from America I’ve definitely had to get used to the English style again, because it’s so different,” she explains.
“When I went out there I had to adjust to the physicality, how fast everybody is. Now I’ve come back and need to adjust to how technical the football is over here.
“When you go out there, you kind of lose your name in English football a bit. You’re a big name over there, but not over here.
“Coming back, I’m just trying to rebuild my confidence, get used to women’s football in England again and just try and work my way up through the leagues again.
“Being on that platform on BT Sport, working with Eni Aluko, Rachel Brown, they really helped me and that’s been a big opportunity for me.”
For Mollie Rouse, Ultimate Goal also came after a spell out of sight, out of mind in America.
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Rouse, 22, earned over 60 caps for England at youth level and was part of the team that won bronze in the 2018 Under 20 World Cup.
Whilst team-mates such as Georgia Stanway, Alessia Russo, Lauren Hemp and Ellie Roebuck have progressed to the England senior side, Rouse was playing part-time for Lewes when Ultimate Goal came along.
Having also played in America, she grasped her chance and has recently signed a first professional contract with Championship side London City Lionesses and hopes the road leads to the top flight.
“Playing in the United States was a great experience and it really has developed my game a lot,” she says.
“My next step now is just to try and establish myself as a professional and be consistent, so I’m really pleased to have had the chance to sign for London City.
“When I finished my degree I came back to England and signed for Lewes for six months. They weren’t professional at the time, but it got me used to playing in England again and at a good standard.
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“I just thought, ‘what next?’ At the end of the season because I wanted to push on and I want to be professional to see where it takes me.
“Obviously Ultimate Goal came up which was a great opportunity. Just to be around the likes of Eni Aluko, Rachel Brown. I just wanted to be a sponge and learn from them, learn about their journeys.
“Once they knew my ambition they really helped me, and since signing my first professional contract, I’m loving it.
“I’ve always dreamed of playing football full-time. Every day I walk in and think, “Oh I’m playing football today, for my job!”
“Don’t get me wrong, there have been tough times but it’s all worth it and I’ve just kept reminding myself everyone’s path is different.
“That’s something I really took from Ultimate Goal – everyone’s journey is different, but you can only control yourself and try and become a better player.”
Whilst Rouse enjoyed success with England as a youngster, Georgia Marshall felt she was robbed of her opportunity.
A nasty injury as a teenager denied her the chance to head to an England camp, but has added extra motivation to prove she can make it to the top.
“When I was 15, a few of us got picked to go to an England camp,” she recalls. “I was meant to be going to my second one, but my first game of the season at Under-16s I broke my leg in a game against Man United.
“It was quite a bad break, in three places, and I was out for a good few months. I missed my opportunity to go to that England camp, and it felt like a bit of a missed opportunity.
“I came back, I think I’m a better footballer for it actually, but I just hope I’ll get more chances in the future.
“Ultimate Goal is a massive opportunity. I missed out at that point, but this has been a lovely chance to give myself a bit of exposure and prove to myself I am good enough and maybe could go further.”
Still only 18, Marshall has time on her side and continues to develop for Huddersfield Town.
Playing regular football, she is confident the improving standards can help drag her into professional football.
“I’d say my dream is just to keep progressing, keep improving and hopefully get to the higher leagues in the future,” she says.
“I seem to be a permanent starter now, so I want to keep going like that and eventually try and play in the Super League.
“Ultimate Goal was a good starting point for me to push-on, and hopefully I can get to those higher leagues eventually.”
“It’s getting better. As a club we’re getting more promotion from the men and a bit more support.
“It’s getting more competitive at the lower leagues. Ours is a tough league this year and we’re getting a lot closer to the higher levels.
“Hopefully as that standard improves I can get to where I want to be and I think Ultimate Goal will prove to be a good part of that journey.”
But whilst all three dream of making it as professionals, their quest involves a level of sacrifice.
Marshall overcame her mother battling breast cancer and her grandmother suffering a serious stroke during the final year of her A-levels to secure a place at a Russell Group University.
At the moment, she juggles her football career with studies for a degree in Fine Art from the University of Leeds.
Donelan left university in America with a degree in criminal justice and criminology but is putting her other ambition to have a career as a detective on hold as she looks to make a living from football.
“My degree was criminal justice and criminology, so I’m hoping to join the police and work my way up to eventually become a detective in the future,” she explains.
“Obviously that’s a plan for if football doesn’t work out and isn’t something that I can make pay enough.
“I work as a sports coach at the moment during the week so I have my evenings and weekends to play football.
“But if I went into a career like the police, that’d be a lot more commitment and I guess I wouldn’t be able to still play football three or four times a week.
“We’ll have to see how things turn out, see what opportunities come up in football and I know that if it doesn’t work out, I still have my degree to fall back on.”
Rouse, Marshall, Donelan and the other Ultimate Goal contestants highlight the hard work and sacrifice of those chasing an illustrious professional contract in the women’s game.
All three have taken different routes but hope their brief intersection on Ultimate Goal will eventually lead them to the same end destination to live out their childhood dreams.
Ultimate Goal series two premiered on BT Sport 3 on Tuesday 2nd November at 10.15pm, with episodes airing over the next five weeks on Tuesdays on BT Sport. All six episodes from series two are available to watch via the BT Sport App from Wednesday 3rd November.