She may only be 17 years of age and still very much making her way in the game, but Marli Rhodes-Andrews is another shining example to youngsters in the local area when it comes to the pathway into the Derby County Women’s first team.

Rhodes-Andrews turns 18 in November and, despite her young age, she’s quickly made a name for herself with the Ewes and has established herself as a regular member of Sam Griffiths’ first-team set-up over the last two seasons.

After beginning her football journey with Alfreton Town between the age of four and eight, she’s been associated with Derby County Women for the best part of ten years.

Rhodes-Andrews joined the Ewes’ Regional Talent Centres set-up when she was eight, remaining there until she was 11, before she stepped up to the Women’s Academy and made her senior debut at the age of just 16.

She entered the 2023/24 campaign with 27 senior appearances and two goals to her name, and she’s already equalled her goals return this term following a two-goal haul in the 5-0 National Plate success at Doncaster Rovers in early October.

Sitting down with Rhodes-Andrews at Moor Farm Training Ground in the days after the win at Doncaster, it is apparent she has a wise head on young shoulders. She knows she’s got more levels to reach, more appearances to make and more goals to score.

She’s just finished a ‘Retro Shirt Photoshoot’ with team-mate Emelia Wilson alongside Men’s players Max Bird, Sonny Bradley and Tyrese Fornah, as well as being offered a few congratulatory words by Head Coach Paul Warne for her goals a few days beforehand, but she doesn’t seem fazed by anything that comes her way.

That’s hardly a surprise, though. She’s had to step out of her comfort zone on several occasions to get to where she is today, including training with Derby County Women’s first team when she had just turned 16 in the 2021/22 season.

Her impressive form at youth level saw her make the step up during that campaign and it is one that she describes looking back as a ‘big season’ for her.

On reflection, regular game time for the Under-20s and Under-18s provided her with great confidence and a platform to catch the eyes of the senior staff. She was the leading goalscorer for both age groups during the season, which is an impressive statistic.

Capable of playing on the right or the left as a wide forward, she can also play as a striker too, and her versatility as well as ability to make an impact in the final third propelled her into the first team thinking quicker than even she expected.

“Looking back to that first training session, it was nerve-wracking going into it but the whole group was really welcoming and that put me at ease straight away,” she recalled.

“I could tell as soon as training started that the players were showing their age compared to mine. I didn’t expect to be there but I had to learn quickly.

“All the players were so supportive of me if I made a mistake or gave the ball away. It was an encouraging and positive environment.”

It was that positive environment, created by Sam Griffiths, her staff and the senior players, that allowed Rhodes-Andrews to flourish, develop and settle at her own pace.

“I was desperate to impress everyone straight away,” she admitted. “I felt I did alright to be fair looking back at it, but it wasn’t easy.

“As well as wanting to show what I could do as a player, I was eager to learn off the players and staff and improve that way.

“I listened and watched as much as I could to everyone around me. I was quite shy too. I didn’t want to come too far out of my shell or look like a young kid who knew it all and had plenty to say; I stood back and watched more than anything!

“Another player, Olivia Edwards, was stepping up from the Academy too at the time and I leaned on her quite a bit. Millie Jenkins was another friend to help me settle in after stepping up as well.”

Looking back, Rhodes-Andrews admits to being blown away by the standard of players she was training alongside.

It was an eye-opening experience that made her realise what standard she needed to hit.

“I came away from training feeling I needed to step up quite a bit,” she said. “I was playing with the Under-18s and Under-20s at the time and the intensity and what is asked of you with the senior team is far greater.

“I was playing above my age group anyway, but this was just another level entirely. I was up against people not only older than me but with so much more experience as well.”

After almost two years of training with the group a few times a week, Rhodes-Andrews feels a sense of belonging now when it comes to being part of the senior squad.

While she knows she’s got work to do in terms of breaking into the starting line-up more often, she feels she’s in the perfect place to give it her best shot.

“I am still learning now, I am not anywhere near the finished article, but I do feel more comfortable,” she explained.

“I feel I’ve come out of my bubble a little bit. My first season, when I made my debut, I was very nervous. I would say last season was where I felt more accustomed to everything. I played some games and scored some goals, so that helped.”

Rhodes-Andrews’ debut came in February 2022 when she came off the bench at a rain-soaked Don Amott Arena as the Ewes played out a 1-1 draw against Loughborough Lightning.

“When I think back to my debut, the one thing I remember was it was nailing it down with rain!” she joked.

“It wasn’t the best debut in that sense, but it was amazing to be out there on the pitch. I think I touched the ball once in total in 10-15 minutes. It was nice to get the chance and it was a special moment, especially with all my family there in the crowd.”

Her first goal at senior level came 12 months later, although fortunately the weather was somewhat kinder with the sun shining down in another 1-1 draw on home territory, although this time the opponents were Brighouse Town.

Amy Sims sent Jess Camwell away down the right-hand side and, as everyone rushed into the six-yard box, Rhodes-Andrews held back and expertly guided Camwell’s low cross into the back of the net with a first-time finish to open the scoring.

Reflecting on that moment, she said: “It was nice to score at home and it was a special moment for me. I loved it.”

She went on to score her second goal in the season finale against West Bromwich Albion a few months later, bursting clear on goal to keep her cool to find the back of the net in the side’s 5-0 rout after once again being set up by Camwell.

Remembering that moment, she said: “I enjoyed that one. It was a great performance and a big win.”

With the ambition realised of playing for Derby County Women’s first team and scoring first-ever senior goal in black and white, all before the age of 18, Rhodes-Andrews isn’t resting on her laurels.

Her next step, over the course of this season, is to push for more game time and starts but she’s not impatient. She knows whatever opportunities come her way must be earned and not handed on a plate.

“People ask me what my dream was in terms of football and given I’ve been here for so long, it was and always is a big ambition to play for the Derby County first team,” she said.

“Whenever anyone has asked me about the next step, it has always been Derby and progressing here in some way.

“I know I’ve got a long way to go; I need to establish myself in the side, try and make an impact and do my bit for the team. I know I haven’t achieved anything yet.

“I’ve been associated with the club for almost ten years now, so Derby County has been a big part of my life.”

One thing that clearly motivates Rhodes-Andrews is being a role model for players looking to follow the same path she has walked and come through the ranks to play for Derby at senior level.

That isn’t to say she feels she’s ‘cracked it’ as a player. Far from it. She’s playing alongside players that she has looked up to for years and aspires to achieve what they have in a Derby shirt in the years to come.

“I like the thought of being someone people can look up to, not in an arrogant way,” she said.

“I hope that Millie Jenkins and I are proof that you can come from the bottom right the way through to the top.

“I hope that is something young players can look up to. Even now though, I am playing alongside my own role models. There are players in this squad that are at a level I want to get to when I am their age.”

What is different for the youth of today, though, from a female perspective is the standing the Women’s game has for both club and country - and it is only getting bigger and better.

England Women are the reigning UEFA European Champions and were also runners-up at the recent FIFA World Cup in Australia, while the standard and coverage of the Women’s Super League and subsequent divisions underneath is increasing year on year.

That is having an impact at grassroots level as well and Rhodes-Andrews believes that can only be a positive thing for the future.

“It has been amazing to see Women’s football grow like it has,” she said with a smile on her face.

“It has been really nice. To see the England team win the European Championships and get to the World Cup Final really has helped the Women’s game come to life if you like.

“I’ve seen it progressing and progressing. Not so long ago, my only role models were Men’s players. Now there’s so many Women’s players to look up to although it’s only really from the past two years that I can reference from my point of view.”

Rhodes-Andrews’ role model from the Men’s game is Marcus Rashford but now she can look to the likes of Chelsea and England’s Lauren James for sources of inspiration.

“It is nice to have Women as a role model because the Men and Women’s games are different,” she said.

“Now, in some way, young girls have the chance to model themselves on someone.

“For example, I used to look at Marcus Rashford, but the game he plays is completely different to the Women’s game. Now I can look at someone like Lauren James, she has really good feet.

“One thing that isn’t different is how you respond to tough moments. Rashford has been an inspiration, especially as he’s bounced back from a tough period to perform brilliantly for club and country.”

She added: “When I look at the grassroots level for girls, because of what they’ve got now, it is amazing how far the game has come. It’s nice to see what young girls have got in terms of the Women’s game, national team and what is being done at younger age groups as well.”

Rhodes-Andrews is of the belief, however, there is value in girls experiencing playing football alongside boys.

It is something she feels played a key role in her development at such a young age.

“I was with the boys at Alfreton when I was really young,” she said. “It was good in the sense that I built quite a bit of strength up, but it would have been nice to have integrated with the girls a little bit earlier as well.

“I was a lot more aggressive when I played with the boys, so I did enjoy it! You needed to look after yourself to a degree.

“It definitely helped me on my journey. I enjoyed those moments where someone would say: ‘that’s a girl and you shouldn’t be getting beaten by her’. It had nothing to do with being male or female; it is about your ability and games are competitive.

“I think girls should have the choice now and I think that’s becoming the case. There shouldn’t be a ruling, especially when you’re developing at such a young age.”

Rhodes-Andrews’ 2023/24 campaign has mirrored that of the Women’s first team so far by being somewhat stop-start after a promising pre-season.

She rolled her ankle shortly before the season started and also spent some time out with a toe problem, but she’s been back in the fold in recent weeks and been called upon from the bench in the league on a number of occasions.

Reflecting on the team’s form so far, she said: “I don’t think our results have matched up with the performances we’ve put in if I am being honest.

“We’ve played well and been a bit unlucky in some matches but in recent weeks things have started to come together a little bit more.

“We are doing really in training and I believe there’s something great building in this team here at Derby. We did well last year and it was amazing to keep the majority of the squad together, as well as adding some real talent as well. I think we’re strong this year and we just need to show what we are capable of.”

Rhodes-Andrews says the Ewes have shown what they are capable of, particularly in the recent 2-1 success at promotion favourites Nottingham Forest, but admits they need to be more consistent if they’re to move up the league table.

“We’ve shown against the top sides what we can do; we just need to keep our standards high and push ourselves,” she said. “The chemistry is there and things are starting to come together.”

Away from her life with Derby County, Rhodes-Andrews is studying at Loughborough College with a view to having a career as a sports coach in the future.

It is something she is passionate about and, alongside her commitments with the Ewes, she’s enjoying being around sport on a day-to-day basis.

“I go to College in the week and I play for their team on a Wednesday,” she said. “I am doing a sports coaching course and learning to be a coach in that sense.

“Football is always my first priority, but coaching and teaching younger players is something I am really passionate about. I’ve had to balance things with my college commitments and football this year so far, but I have really enjoyed it.”

It’s clear to see that Rhodes-Andrews is embracing every challenge that comes her way head on and with a positive mentality.

Her desire to be a role model is there to see, even though she’s still got so much more to achieve.

Being a good role model is about being someone who is always positive, calm, and confident in themselves. You don't want someone who is down or tries to bring you down. Everyone likes a person who is happy with how far they have come but continues to strive for bigger and better objectives.

With that in mind, she’s already someone that any young girl should take inspiration from.

Interview and words: Tom Loakes