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THER’RE used to cheering a player called “Keets” at Manchester City but with Nikita Parris now in Lyon, another Femme Nikita will take centre stage at the Etihad Campus in the FA Cup fifth round on Sunday.
Goalkeeper Nikita Runnacles will be attempting to achieve what no English goalkeeper has since April 2018 – to keep a clean sheet away to the current Women’s Super League leaders when fourth tier Ipswich Town take on City’s star-studded line-up of internationals spearheaded by the joint-top goalscorer in last summer’s Fifa World Cup, Ellen White.
“I can’t wait, I’m so excited,” she tells me. “We’re all really relaxed about it. We’re going to enjoy the experience. We want to cause them problems as well. We’re certainly not fearful of them in any way.
“It’s a completely different experience in terms of the team we are playing against, but in terms of big games and dealing with pressure, we’ve done that. So it’s now our time to enjoy a game of football and play against some of the best players in the world.”
Eleven seasons ago, a teenage Runnacles was part of the Colchester United side that travelled to face then cup holders Arsenal in the fourth round, they lost 7-0.
The last fourth-tier side to reach the fifth round in 2013, Oxford United, also lost by seven goals to Everton.
Having herself conceded only seven league goals all season, the goalkeeper does not believe a heavy defeat will derail the side currently top of the FA Women’s National League South-East Division.
“We know where we’re at. We want to go on to win the league so I don’t think whatever happens on Sunday is going to deter away from that. We’re fully focused on what we want to achieve for the season.”
Currently studying for her Uefa A licence, Runnacles was taking part in a course, watching on a muted screen, when she learned her team had drawn the cup holders.
“Definitely a big smile went across my face,” she admits. “It was great.”
Her opposite number on Sunday will be 20-year-old Ellie Roebuck, someone she knows from St George’s Park.
“This is my first year working with the Lionesses U15. I’ve come across Ellie Roebuck a couple of times on goalkeeping camps. It’s been great watching her throughout her time. She’s certainly grown into the first-team game.”
The 29-year-old believes the recent upsurge in the women’s game has opened up a coaching pathway which wasn’t there earlier in her career.
“I knew I always wanted to work in football, I always knew I wanted to become a football coach. It’s only been in the last few years where I’ve really turned it into specialising in the goalkeeping coaching world.
“The women’s game has evolved so much, those opportunities probably weren’t around back then. It’s an absolute prime aim of mine to continue this now as a career both while playing, but afterwards as well.”
After representing Colchester United, Millwall, West Ham, Basildon and Billericay Town, Runnacles was persuaded to sign for Ipswich last summer by new manager Joe Sheehan, with whom she was working as a coaching assistant at Essex RTC.
“I wasn’t really too sure if I was going to continue playing football but once somebody makes an offer to you, I was looking forward to playing with some younger players who are highly talented. He was the one that proposed the idea to me and I accepted from there.”
Now she is playing alongside some of the players she coached at Essex, including Paige Peake, the scorer of the winning goal in the third round against Portsmouth, and Maddie Biggs whose first-half hat-trick away to Huddersfield has brought them to this stage.
“I’ve coached them over a number of years so I know them well as players and now I’m getting to know them in a different light as well. I think Maddie Biggs is just going to keep growing. I don’t think she focuses too much on whom she is up against, she just focuses on her own game and what she needs to do to help the team which is why she was so fantastic against Huddersfield.”
Runnacles is realistic enough to know that the exposure her young teammates will receive on Sunday may lead to them being poached by some of the top professional teams.
“This is what games like this are for, it’s about them making a name for themselves as well. As a club we would be extremely proud if a WSL club did come in for any of them.”
Without a sponsor herself, Runnacles hopes that The Tractor Girls historic cup run will lead to more investment in the team from local businesses.
“We are fortunate enough to have kit sponsors and so forth. Player sponsorship is normally a tougher one. It would be great if more places would like to be involved in the women’s game but it would also be nice to get to a point where we don’t have to advertise the fact we need to be sponsored, it just happens more naturally. We’ve been very lucky at the club to have sponsors around us.”
Over 400 fans are expected to travel over 200 miles north-west to support their local side in the biggest match in the club’s history.
Runnacles knows that those numbers are not a one-off. The formation of the “Tractor Girls on Tour” this season has boosted attendances and the atmosphere at every single Ipswich Town game.
“The growth of that support has been phenomenal. It was really noticeable in the Norwich game at home, a midweek game [watched by 761].
“The atmosphere they created in that game was electric. It really inspired us to perform on the pitch that night. Since then, they’ve travelled the country – home games, away games – so it’s no surprise that they’ll be coming up to Manchester.
“They’re certainly people we want there on the day to celebrate this event with us. It’s been unbelievable throughout. They are there with us, every time that we play.”
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