“The best thing is you get the best of both worlds. You can use your feet and you’re basically an outfielder, but you also get to dive around, make really cool saves and be crucial in the outcome.”
That’s Derby County Women goalkeeper Anna Draper’s answer to the best thing about being between the posts and we’ll come to that later in this interview, but that’s just an example of how much she enjoys the unique and intriguing life of a goalkeeper.
The 19-year-old shot-stopper is with the Ewes for the 2023/24 season on a dual registration basis from Women’s Super League side Aston Villa.
A dual registration allows Draper to play competitive games for Derby whilst still being tied to Villa and, if required, can feature for their Under-21s or first team.
Being the last line of defence is a role and a responsibility she whole-heartedly embraces, and she’s quickly established herself as the Ewes’ first choice shot stopper this season.
She joined Sam Griffiths’ side with the key aim of getting senior first team experience and it would be fair to say she’s quickly settled into life across the Midlands.
Prior to moving to Derby a few months ago, all she had known in her career was Aston Villa. Draper joined them at Under-9s level and progressed right though their Academy set-up to the Under-21s. She also featured in their senior squad on several occasions as back-up.
So, going into this season, the plan was clear. She needed to gain senior experience somewhere and, from a cluster of options put to her, she felt Derby was the right place for her in Tier 3.
Her parent club monitor her progress closely and she’s enjoyed being part of the cut and thrust of first team football.
So far, so good. That’s the assessment, but she’s eager to achieve more and push herself alongside the coaching staff and learning from the experienced Sarah Morgan who continues to have a key role to play after over ten years and almost 200 appearances for the Ewes.
“I’ve been fortunate to have gained a lot of experience in and around the first team at Aston Villa over the last few years, but not that much in terms of game time,” Draper explained.
“It is alright being in and around it and on the bench, and playing games behind-closed-doors, but you want to play as much as you can in a first team environment.
“I am grateful to get this opportunity at Derby County. I came in and really wanted to prove myself from the word go and see where I was at in comparison to the other goalkeepers. I have been fortunate to gain the trust of the coaches and the coaching staff and get regular minutes so far, but nothing is assured, and I need to keep training well and performing.”
She added: “This is what I’ve always wanted. Under-21s football is development based and that is what it is there for. It is there to prepare you for first team football and give you match experience for when you’re ready.
“I wanted to take it further, though. I wanted to be preparing for and playing in matches where the three points really are crucial. I love the pressure and I feel it is something that I thrive off. You’re playing for everybody and representing the whole club. When you get the wins, in the league and the cup, it feels amazing.”
Draper went into the summer knowing she was at something of a crossroads, but not in a bad way. Despite being 19, there was almost a feeling she had outgrown the purpose of Under-21s football.
There had been talk of her heading out on a dual registration basis last term, but it never materialised, the timing wasn’t right for all parties, and she ended up remaining with Villa. That wasn’t the worst-case scenario, all things considered.
Draper instead utilised the opportunity to train full-time with their Academy and dip in and out with the senior group, as well as playing all but one game in the Under-21s’ title-winning campaign. It put her in a great place when it came to deciding the next step of her career.
“Villa were on the same page as me that I needed to go and play somewhere,” she said. “I’d been a regular for the Under-21s since I was 16, so for me it was about the next stepping stone because I was probably at the stage where I was growing out of it and from a development point of view not getting as much out of it.
“This was the next step for me and starting to understand what it is like to be in a first team Women’s environment on a regular basis and, if selected, get minutes. We are playing competitive games and fighting for points and silverware here. Every match has a big consequence on the season, not just for yourselves but the opponents too.
“My development was a priority ahead of this season and I want to be enjoying myself and playing football. I don’t want to be sat on the bench although I am aware as a goalkeeper that is natural and it will happen at some point for me. It is part of the game. I didn’t come here promised games, I had to earn it.”
When making the decision to join Derby, it felt like something of a no-brainer with the culture and way of playing under Sam Griffiths and her coaching staff after an impressive fourth-placed finish last term.
As a Motorsport Engineering student at Coventry University, location also played a big part in linking up with the Ewes. Draper values her education greatly, as well as her passion for engineering, and knows football won’t be forever.
With that in mind, Derby ticked all the boxes.
“I was fortunate to have quite few options for this season,” Draper said. “It meant a lot to me that clubs saw a lot in me and that I had put in a lot of hard work. When it came to making a decision, you have to take into account things like location and how my life would work. Derby became an option, and I was really pleased.
“Derby has always felt like a family club from when I’ve come up against them. I spoke to my parents and my agent about it, and they were all really positive about the possibility of coming here. We felt Derby was the right option and I’ve not looked back.”
“The environment created here is amazing,” she added. “The players and staff are great and the fans are so lovely. There are all the youngsters attending home matches as well which is really nice. Playing in the Academy, there’s no crowd at all and almost behind-closed doors. I like the interaction with the fans in general and the next generation of youngsters.”
Draper is learning all the time with Derby, both in training and matches.
She feels she is reaping the rewards of the hard work, time, and dedication of those around her to ensure she was in the best place possible to, literally, grasp the chance to shine with both hands.
She said: “I am at my best when I am on the pitch, and I learn a lot when I am playing. It has been great to have the opportunity here at Derby and I have learnt so much already and gained a lot of experience. It is massive and paramount to my game.
“It has also been nice to see things that I’ve been prepared for implemented too. It makes the process a lot easier. For instance, I had to come on at half-time in a game and it was important I was prepared for that.
“You can prepare for lots of different scenarios, for example if the team coach is late and the preparation time is less or if the pitch changes from grass to astroturf. From that, you can build up what works for you to handle those processes and translate them no matter where you are.”
The dual registration offers the perfect opportunity to gain experience and remain associated with Villa. It’s an agreement which, so far, has worked well for all parties. Long may it continue.
She said: “The dual registration means I am not fully loaned out. I can train at Villa during the week as well as being at Derby and then, if I need to play for the Under-21s or be in the matchday squad for the First Team, then I can be.
“It is working for everyone. I am getting as much development as I can. It is what I need at this stage really to transition my way into Women’s football.
“It’s about being in that environment more, playing and pushing myself to be in the starting line-up each week. On top of that, it is about having that development and pathway that I’ve had since I was very young.”
Draper clearly loves everything that goes with being in goal, that is clear.
However, how she became a goalkeeper is, bizarrely, linked to a horse-riding accident as a young child which resulted in a broken wrist!
“I’ve been with Aston Villa since I was seven years old,” Draper said when taking up the story.
“I was with them even before that, as I was with the ‘Mini-Kickers’. It was from around the age of four.
“I started as soon as I could and they used to monitor me within the Soccer Schools and then brought me into the Academy when I was seven. I was an outfield player at the time.
“I had an accident and I fell off my horse and broke my wrist. When I got back to playing football, I was shying away from the ball. During a half-term soccer school, there was a training session put on for goalkeepers. It was decided it might be good for me to attend it as I would have to face the ball if it was being kicked at me!”
That decision not only took away the desire to avoid contact with the broken wrist - it had the opposite effect!
“There was only me and one other little boy on the camp,” Draper continued.
“By the end of the first day the goalkeeper coach sat me down with my parents and asked how long I had been a goalkeeper for.
“I remember I said: ‘since 10:30am this morning’!
“After that, I ended up in goal more and more. I wasn’t fully happy with it at first and I used to try and hide my gloves in my bag so I didn’t have to go off with the goalkeepers. The coaches knew, though, full-well the gloves were in my bag!”
She joked: “I love it now though! It only took me a couple of weeks to really start enjoying it.
“I still played outfield with school and at Villa, but progressively I was more in goal. It is useful that I have played outfield as it means I can use my feet. I think it is a necessity these days for a goalkeeper. I feel it is a strong point of mine and it is nice because I can confidently use both feet.”
Playing senior football, as opposed to at Under-21 level, comes with its own challenges.
As well as playing alongside more experienced, well rounded, and established players, with a wider range of ages, Draper has also had to adapt to playing a different style of football compared the one that has been engrained in her at Villa and alongside different people too.
“I would probably say learning how we play at Derby has been the biggest thing I’ve had to take on board,” she said when asked what the biggest learning curve has been so far.
“It is different from how I’ve been taught to play, which is fine and adds another dimension to my game. For example, for goal kicks we can sometimes be a bit more direct rather than building from the back, which is an aspect which has been engrained into me no matter what the press is.
“It is nice to have that option and I’ve enjoyed learning about it, but I also hope at the same time it is positive for our defenders that they know they can give the ball back to me as I am happy to use my feet. We may be pressed, but I am always an option instead of knocking it long up the pitch.
“I am learning about the players too as I was surrounded by a similar group of people for a long period of time. There was a pathway at Villa and everyone has an understanding of what you’re doing, how they play and stuff like that.
“It has been good to learn from scratch with all these players. Do they want it to feet? Do they want it in space? What foot do they prefer? Stuff like that. It is also about how I communicate to them too in various ways. It does take time when you’re gelling as a group, but I think we are really doing that now.”
She added: “I’ve positionally had to challenge myself too this season because against better quality players they’re not just shooting, they’re trying to find the corner and hitting the ball at pace.”
As Draper is still a teenager, she turns 20 in the early stages of 2024, she’s also had to become accustomed to barking orders and instructions to older and more experienced players.
Luckily, it’s something she’s built-up confidence to do.
“I am one of the youngest in the team here so that is another experience for me,” she said. “As I’ve got older, I’ve become probably one of the more senior figures in the Villa Under-21 squad, so this is something different for me. I was one of the support networks for the young players coming through and help them and stuff like that.
“Now I’m the young pup so I know I have to tell girls in their mid-20s and 30s what to do. I feel I am comfortable doing that, which comes from being around the Villa first team from the age of 14 or 15.”
Draper knows, alongside obviously needing to be good with your hands and your feet with the ball, communication is a big part of being a goalkeeper.
She said: “A crucial part of being a goalkeeper is your communication skills and I used to think: ‘these players are so much older than me and they know more than me. Why are they going to listen to a 14 or 15-year-old?
“In my head, it was important to know I did know what I was doing, and I had the coaches to back that up. They would always correct me if I needed to change anything, and the most important thing was to help each other.
“Having built up the confidence and experience in the last three or four years, it never felt an issue training with the first team at Villa and telling players what to do.
“We are working towards the same goal, so it is fine. I know there will be times when I might say the wrong thing or get something wrong. That happens, we’re all learning.
“What was important for me was when I came into Derby, it didn’t feel an issue for me. It would be very easy to not be able to do it if I hadn’t built up that experience and skill. I came in and felt confident straight away talking to all the girls and it is massive that all the coaches support it as well.”
She added: “That communication is vital and I love it in goal and being able to see the whole pitch and reading the game and the opposition. It is always good when you read what’s going to happen, let your defenders know and then it actually does happen. That is a nice feeling! It makes you feel more confident, and it is a big thing in terms of concentration too. You need to be in control and be dominant.”
While goalkeepers are an individual to a degree, they wear different coloured shirts and have the ability to use their hands, Draper is fully aware of the custodian’s role within the team itself.
“As a goalkeeper, you need to be in control and assertive because if the defence is breached, it is all down to you,” she said.
“You want to put the decision into the head of the attacker in terms of what they are going to do.
“My decision is to keep the ball out of my net! I want to push the decision into their hands if you like. As soon as it is the other way around, nine times out of ten it is going to be a goal because they’ve got a higher chance than you.
“I’ve learnt all this over the years so now it is about putting those into practice on the pitch in senior Women’s football. This is taking it to another level and against senior players.
“It won’t be smooth all the time, but everything can always be improved. It isn’t about me; it is a collective and we are all a team and not individuals. I know my role as a goalkeeper is a little individual, but you are part of a team.”
She added: “I have been very fortunate to have some strong performances this season and I feel that has been the case because we all back each other. You can see that in our performances that we go all out for each other.”
Draper is thrilled to see the Women’s game making significant progress on and off the pitch.
For her, stepping onto the pitch every week is an opportunity to celebrate Women’s football and the direction it is quickly moving in.
She wants to play a part, no matter how big or small, in inspiring other to follow their dreams.
“I like the feeling of sharing my passion with those watching in what is an amazing time for Women’s football,” she explained. “Off the back of the European Championships and the World Cup for the England side, it feels like there’s more girls coming to games and enjoying it.
“We played in front of a big crowd at Forest recently and to be on the pitch was an unbelievable feeling to celebrate Women’s football. It was even better that we won!
“The game is moving in the right direction and that interaction is massive. I love speaking to the youngsters and when one of them says ‘I am a goalkeeper too!’ it sparks a discussion and that’s so nice.
“It is humbling to almost be that role model for them and show them what they can do with the sport they love.”
Draper is enjoying the ride in the maiden years of what she hopes will be a successful career.
She is savouring every moment because she is fully aware of where Women’s football has come from to where it is today, albeit still with plenty of room for improvement.
She can recall the days of being stuck in traffic heading to Walsall because Villa didn’t train at the club’s training ground, having to wait to go on pitches until the boys had finished their sessions, waiting months for kit to arrive - which would invariably be different to everyone else’s – and generally feeling like an outcast and not fully integrated.
It’s all that which makes Draper ensure she doesn’t become complacent and she said: “I feel like I’ve seen Women’s football in its bad days and when it has also started to flourish.
“It was just how it was. We weren’t seen as a priority and, for example, if we had something to train in, we just had to feel grateful for it. I was always grateful anyway, but it is crazy looking back.
“Speaking from my own experience at Villa, the club backing was immense and anything we needed, we were helped with. It has improved drastically. I was head over heels with how amazing it was!
“It makes me appreciate things a lot more and this wouldn’t have happened without the constant drive from people and clubs to get to where we are now, but there’s still a long way to go.
“There’s a lot of disparity between clubs still and I’ve seen it across the various tiers. The amount of change and infrastructure is so much better, and it will only keep improving.
“I would do anything to be six or eight right now because the foundations are so strong. It is amazing and the standard is there so when they’re my age now, imagine what they will be like. It attracts more fans, better players and drives better standards.”
She added: “You can see Derby County trying to do so much now, which is positive. It is good anyway at this moment in time and it will always get better and better and improve the Academy and Female Talent Pathway.
“It will promote the fanbase and we already have some great fans here. It is brilliant to see because they care and want to support us. I like the fact that the action is being taken rather than the words.”
The progress and standing of the Women’s game in late 2023 and as we prepare to head into 2024 is something Draper is, clearly, not taking for granted.
She’s like a sponge, wanting to soak everything in. Or, in her own words, she treats her experiences like a mosaic and pieces everything together as she goes along.
“It is so important to remember not to get complacent with it all,” she said. “You don’t want to realise what you had when it’s gone and you didn’t make the most of the opportunity.
“I will try to make the most out of every single moment with the nutritionists, analysts, coaches and doctors.
“I want to soak it all in. What are the younger and older players doing? How are they behaving? What are they doing that I can implement into my game? How is it in a team meeting during the week, after games and before games? How are the training sessions set up, performance preparation and stuff like that?”
Going back to the very start of this interview, I posed Draper with the question of the best thing about being a goalkeeper.
Puffing out her cheeks and leaning back in her chair, she took a couple of seconds to consider her response and, as she did throughout the half an hour we spent chatting, she delivered an articulate and impressive response.
“The best thing is you get the best of both worlds,” she said. “You can use your feet and you’re basically an outfielder, but you also get to dive around, make really cool saves and be crucial in the outcome.
“You get to see a different perspective. You are the different one in the team and you are turning the whole idea of football on its head! The whole idea of football is scoring goals, but there’s one person between the sticks saying: NO.
“You get to do something a little bit different. As a GK, we’re probably built a little bit different. Not many people want to go in goal and have the shots fired at them, especially when the pace is high. That is something I’ve had to adapt to!
“The best thing is just doing awesome things that only two people on the pitch get to do. We get to pick the ball up with our hands and make really cool saves. We can come flying at you, but we know we can get hit the face too! It might sting a bit for a few seconds afterwards, but it sure feels good when you know it has been a good save.”
She added: “The best thing about being a goalkeeper is being a goalkeeper. You can do a little bit of everything!”
But, finally, what about the worst thing?
She laughed: “This is easy! Not being allowed into the house until all the rubber bits from the astroturf are out of your possession or somewhere that is not the carpet.
“Otherwise, you’ll have the hoover and you’ll be on duty!”
If that’s as bad as it gets, maybe life as a goalkeeper isn’t so bad after all!
Interview & Words: Tom Loakes