Eniola Aluko is one of England’s top ten most capped female players and goalscorers, whilst off the pitch she has been at the forefront of change within the women’s game. Josie Le Blond was tasked with helping to ghostwrite Aluko’s life story.
Congratulations on being involved in They Don’t Teach This, which has been nominated for The Telegraph Sports Book Awards Autobiography of the Year, in your role as ghostwriter, can you tell us how you came to be involved as ghostwriter on the book?
I was contacted by publisher Yellow Jersey Press in September 2018. I was asked to get involved in Eniola’s project because of my previous ghostwriting experience – helping to tell the story of Syrian Olympic swimmer and refugee Yusra Mardini in her 2018 book, Butterfly.
I first spoke to Eniola on the phone later that month while I was in Uganda for work. We chatted about facing down adversity and overcoming challenges. Eniola said she wasn’t looking for a collaborator with a sports background, but for someone to help capture her voice and tell the full story of her life to date.
How closely had you followed Eniola’s career before you began the project? Did you have any preconceptions before you started on the book and were there any particular stories or issues you really wanted to address?
I first became aware of Eniola’s story when her dispute with the Football Association hit the front pages in the summer of 2017. In my day job as a news journalist, the ensuing fallout was my introduction to her England career. Yet on joining the project, it was quickly clear Eniola wanted to create a book that went far beyond the headlines.
Eniola wanted to explore the challenges she had faced throughout her life in a way which would impart lessons to her readers. We began by fitting the chronology of her life together with these hard-learned teachings, so that the book could be structured like a course outline.
Of the topics Eniola wanted to highlight, it was clear early on that her identity struggles and sense of belonging would become one of the book’s central themes. I was anxious to get the tone of these discussions right and to reproduce Eniola’s pioneering black female voice in a way that sounded as powerful, authentic, and honest as she does in conversation.
Can you tell us a bit about the actual process of working with Eniola to get the material for the book?
I met Eniola in Turin, where she was then playing for Juventus, in October 2018 to start gathering material. We spent three days talking through her life story and exploring her personality and character. As we spoke, lots of incidents stood out that we both felt would make strong stories to include in the book.
I then went back to Berlin, where I live, and shaped our conversations into a chapter outline.
We spoke at length several times on the phone over the course of the next months. I also spoke to Eniola’s mother, Sileola, who provided invaluable insight into her early years and Nigerian roots. These conversations formed the basis for an initial draft of the book.
Eniola then really made the book her own, adding a large amount of written material which we then worked into the final prose. I’m grateful to Eniola for her engagement, interest and commitment, which ensured the writing process was always a genuine collaboration.
Was there anything unexpected that you learnt about Eniola or any particular stories that surprised you or that you really connected with?
Being involved in the project taught me a great deal about Eniola and her character and I came away from it with great respect for her courage, honesty, and conviction.
There were a few things about Eniola’s story that resonated with my life. As a Brit living in Germany, I know about feeling split between two places, as Eniola has at times felt torn between Britain and Nigeria.
Eniola was also keen to emphasize her humble beginnings on an estate in Birmingham and it helped that I had also lived in the city for several years in my early twenties. Fond memories of trudging through rainy red-brick streets there helped with drafting the early chapters.
Eniola is one of England’s top ten most capped female players and similarly in terms of goals, as well as having an incredible club career, how would you sum up her contribution on the pitch?
Eniola’s pace and ability to take on defenders are part of what made her one of the best strikers of her generation. In the book we examine the psychology of being a striker and how Eniola struggled with the crushing pressure to score from teammates, coaches, and fans, particularly in the social media age.
We tell the story of how Eniola learned to channel an inner sense of freedom on the pitch, allowing her to perform under pressure, score goals, and deliver her team their win. Coming to the story as a football outsider, it was fascinating to delve into those psychological aspects of the game.
Away from the pitch, Eniola has been at the centre of a lot of examination and developments in not only the women’s game but the culture around football and its governance, how would you sum up her contribution off the pitch?
The women’s game has come on lightyears since Eniola first started playing football as a child. Her career spanned a thrilling period of increased professionalisation. Eniola not only witnessed that rise – and all the setbacks along the way – she was also instrumental in driving wage negotiations forward for female England players.
Eniola not only managed to excel on the pitch but also achieved a first-class law degree alongside her football, how impressed are you by her ability to juggle these demands and whilst a positive reflection on Eniola herself, does it still suggest there’s a long way for the women’s game to go that players can see football as a sole career?
Eniola is a driven person who holds herself to high standards. That’s what made her able to simultaneously play for England at a World Cup and study for a law degree. Meeting Eniola, and getting a sense of her determination, her achievements begin to make more sense.
Things have by all accounts changed a lot since Eniola was a teen choosing to pursue a second career alongside football. Top-flight female players – in England at least – now have a much better chance of earning a reasonable living as full time footballers.
Since the publication of the book, Eniola has hung up her boots but she’s stayed around football, how important is it, do you think, that not only Eniola but other female players continue to have an active role in the development of the game?
Very. Eniola’s story shows change is not just handed down from above. It comes when it is pushed for by players themselves. Women’s teams all over the world are actively driving the conversation forward, and there is no reason that should stop on retirement. I was happy for Eniola when she took on the role of Sporting Director at Aston Villa WFC earlier this year.
What are you most proud of with this book?
The last part of the book, which deals with Eniola’s time playing under former England coach Mark Sampson, the accusations of racial discrimination she brought against him and the ensuing mess made of her complaint by the FA, were always going to be very important in setting the record straight. I think we achieved that.
And finally, what three words would you use to sum up Eniola Aluko?
Courageous, determined, compassionate.