Alessia Russo is a shining light for aspiring girl footballers as she prepares to represent England at the Women’s Euros.
What a journey it’s been for the 23-year-old, from Maidstone, who’s shown what’s possible when you combine talent and hard work with a burning desire to reach the top.
It hasn’t been easy but you don’t score the fastest hat-trick in England Lionesses history and finish top scorer for Manchester United in the Women’s Super League without making a few sacrifices.
“Keep working hard and never take a day on the pitch for granted,” says Russo, in offering advice to young players.
“Always try and improve and ask your coaches what you can work on, but also enjoy the game, that’s what it’s there for.
“Have fun when you’re playing football, enjoy being with your team-mates and, when an opportunity comes, don’t be afraid to take it.
“Always be brave and put yourself out there and go and make it happen.”
They’re inspirational words from Russo, who scored and was named player-of-the-match as England beat Switzerland 4-0 in their final warm-up match in Zurich last Thursday.
The Lionesses would dearly love to make home advantage count and lift the trophy at Wembley on July 31.
But it’s clear the tournament goes beyond that for Russo, who feels a sense of responsibility to the next generation.
“The women’s game has made massive strides and it’s been really exciting to see,” says the forward, who met Prince William at training a fortnight ago, describing it as a “pinch-me” moment.
“I think it’s been a long time coming and there’s still a lot more work to do.
“We’re grateful for all the opportunities we’re given now but at the same time we’re always pushing for more, and obviously with the home Euros this summer we’re so excited to set the stage alight.
“I think there’s so much talent in Europe and hopefully this summer is a chance to showcase that. That’s our goal.
“We have a duty to inspire the next generation and I know that sounds clichéd but it’s true.
“All the little girls growing up, you want them to have an opportunity to play and get involved.
“For me, I’d love to give back to them, and show them that it’s possible.
“That’s probably one of the most inspiring things for us as footballers, to try and help the next young girls coming through know that they can have a career from football if they work hard and they’re willing to take the opportunity.
“It’s just for us to keep paving the way for them.”
Russo, who went to East Farleigh Primary School, got into football thanks to older brothers Giorgio and Luca.
She played for the West Farleigh junior side, run at the time by her dad, Mario, before joining Bearsted.
As a girl playing in a boys’ team there was the odd comment from opponents but nothing that bothered the youngster.
“I really enjoyed playing with the boys, because it was a challenge, but at the same time there wasn’t much opportunity to play with girls, so I kind of had to deal with it,” she said.
“It shaped a lot of things because obviously with boys they’re quicker and faster and they don’t expect a girl to be very good sometimes, so it was nice to prove people wrong.
“The boys on my team were really supportive, and I played for my boys’ school team as well, and they were all great and loved me playing for them.
“Sometimes you’d come up against someone and they’d try and throw you off or say girls can’t play football, blah, blah, blah. It’s nice to have proved them wrong.
“I took it in my stride and thought I’d just play and try and prove them wrong. It didn’t bother me growing up.”
Russo was picked up by Charlton while still playing for Bearsted but it was her move to Chelsea as a teenager that accelerated her ambition to make something of herself in the women’s game.
There was also a spell at Brighton before a big move to study and play in America took her game to another level and taught her how to be independent, living away from family.
“I was 13 or 14 when I moved to Chelsea’s academy and they had a first team who were doing well,” said Russo, who went to St Simon Stock Secondary School in Maidstone.
“It was still kind of the early days of women’s football, I guess, but I could see the game was growing and I could see there was an opportunity there.
“Around that age I started to realise, ‘Wow, I’d love to do that full-time one day’ but I probably didn’t realise it was possible until I was about 16.
“There were more opportunities for young players by then, so that was a big part of it, and also just believing that you could make it full-time and knowing what you had to do.
“Obviously, I was in the England pathway at this point as well, so we were getting lots of information about nutrition and starting to understand how to perform at an elite level.”
Russo was capped by England through the age groups, playing at the Under-17 World Cup in Jordan and winning bronze at the Under-20 World Cup in France.
She earned her first senior cap against Spain at the She Believes Tournament in America, in March 2020, having been in class in North Carolina when the call came from then-manager Phil Neville.
A dream move to Manchester United followed - Russo and her entire family are Red Devils fans - and she made headlines last November after coming off the bench to score an 11-minute hat-trick as England beat Latvia 20-0 in a World Cup qualifier.
She finished the domestic campaign with 11 goals in 30 games, making her United’s leading scorer, was named WSL player-of-the-month for March and won the players’ player-of-the-year award from her team-mates.
Moments like those make all the hard work and sacrifices worthwhile for a player who deserves all the accolades that come her way.
“I see myself as a normal girl but obviously trying to do big things,” said Russo, who hopes to feature when England start their Euro campaign against Austria at Old Trafford on Wednesday in front of a capacity crowd of 75,000.
“I’m so excited for the Euros, but there’s also things you want to be working on and keep improving.
“You can never really take your foot off the gas because there’s always other girls coming through and the competition is so high.
“I know it sounds clichéd but you’re not going to get anywhere if you’re not prepared to put your head down and do the dirty work behind the scenes.
“It might be pre-season running, no one wants to do that, but at the same time it makes you so much more prepared for the season.
“It’s all well and good working hard but you’ve got to have everything else to match and find a balance that works for you.
“Making it to the top does require a lot of sacrifices and I’m nowhere near the top yet.
“I’ve still got a long way to go but you can see a lot of the girls’ habits who are at the top and have been in the England set-up for years and there’s no hiding away from the fact it’s tough.
“You’ve got to grind it out and always have that vision of being at the top and that is your priority.
“We’ve been counting down the days to the Euros.
“The first game at Old Trafford is what dreams are made of, a sell-out crowd, and hopefully we put on a show that we’re all proud of.
“This is my first major tournament, so I’m just looking to go in there with no regrets, enjoy every second of it and come away from it happy and a better player.
“I’d love to win trophies with England, that’s the biggest goal in my career, and obviously at club level I’d love to compete for the league title, compete for the FA Cup and compete in the Champions League.
“They’re huge asks but that’s where I’d like to see my career go.”
Russo hasn’t forgotten the coaches who have helped along the way, including Luke Anderson, her teacher at St Simon Stock, Colin Whitfield at Bearsted and Lee Spiller and Tony Browne at Soccer Elite.
But, ultimately, everything goes back to her family - dad Mario, mum Carol and her brothers.
“Mum and Dad gave up a lot when I was younger to drive me up and down the country and everything I do is for my family - we’re a tight-knit group,” says Russo.
“They’ve supported everything I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a young girl.
“When I travel away with England, they always come.
“Mum and Dad and my brothers always try to come to as many club games as they can as well, so everything’s for them.”