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England and Arsenal footballer Alessia Russo sparks debate over being granted Freedom of the Borough of Maidstone

England star Alessia Russo has been awarded Freedom of the Borough in her hometown of Maidstone – but only after four female councillors tried to block the honour.

The professional player – who made it to the World Cup finals earlier this year with the national squad – is widely admired.

England's Alessia Russo. Picture: PA Images
England's Alessia Russo. Picture: PA Images

But when councillors were asked whether she should be granted Maidstone’s highest civic award, the Freedom of the Borough, it was met with opposition.

After Ms Russo played a significant role in securing the Lionesses a victory at the European Championships in 2022 and a place in the Women’s World Cup Final in August, Maidstone councillor Stanley Forecast (Con), who is of a similar age to the footballer, nominated her for the Freedom award at a meeting of the full council.

Cllr Forecast, who spoke of the immense pride the town shared in her achievements, admitted he had “once had the misfortune” of facing her in a secondary school football match, when he was playing for Maplesden Noakes.

And while some applauded the motion, including Cllr John Perry (Con) who said she is “a really great role model for women and girls” and Cllr Claudine Russel who claimed: “If she were a man, I can’t help thinking we might have honoured her already,” others were less supportive.

Cllr Valerie Springett (Con) said: “As a woman who has achieved in a man’s world, I’m certainly not against supporting women and women’s achievements.

“However, the wording of the Local Government Act is that freedom can be granted to someone who has rendered ‘eminent services to the borough’.”

“My concern is that this is a knee-jerk reaction for some fabulous achievements within a very short period of time, achievements that have not particularly supported the residents of this borough, any more than the rest of the country.

“We have numerous volunteers in Maidstone who have for years given their time to support our residents – working with the homeless, people that run our food banks, our Street Pastors. They do this work year after year – with no recognition.

“Alessia has had some fabulous achievements, but they don't fit with the criteria of rendering eminent service to the borough.”

She was supported by Cllr Annabelle Blackmore (Con) who said: “Earlier this evening we awarded the Freedom of the Borough to Maidstone’s Royal British Legion branches.

Alessia Russo, aged 11, captain of East Farleigh Primary School Football team, winning the Kent Messenger Mini World Cup at Mote Park in 2010
Alessia Russo, aged 11, captain of East Farleigh Primary School Football team, winning the Kent Messenger Mini World Cup at Mote Park in 2010

“These were organisations involving hundreds of people who have helped thousands of veterans over many decades.”

Ms Russo’s achievements, she suggested, were not the same. She said there might come a time when she would be happy to bestow the honour on the footballer, but not yet.

When the vote was taken, five councillors voted against granting Ms Russo the honour – four of them were women.

They were Cllrs Val Springett, Annabelle Blackmore, Susan Grigg (Ind) and Denise Joy (Ind).

The sole male voice against was Cllr Paul Wilby (Lib Dem).

A further six councillors abstained.

However, Ms Russo will still get her honour as 31 councillors voted in favour and the motion was carried.

Ms Russo grew up in Maidstone and was educated at East Farleigh Primary School and then at St Simon Stock Secondary. She played football for Bearsted FC in the early stages of her career, before moving on to Charlton Athletic, Chelsea, Brighton and Hove Albion, Manchester United and finally to Arsenal.

Ms Russo made her Women’s Super League debut with Arsenal on Sunday in front of a record-breaking 54,000-strong crowd at the Emirates Stadium in London.

She was on the cover of the matchday programme which included a seven-page interview with the 24-year-old, in which she made reference to Bearsted.

She said: "That team spirit has always been a part of my footballing philosophy - from Bearsted Girls to Arsenal Football Club. I definitely started because I loved the game, but also because I loved being with my friends. Having a laugh together and enjoying my teammates' company is just as important now as it was when I was a kid playing Sunday league."

Unfortunately, Liverpool beat Ms Russo’s Arsenal team 1-0.

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