From plus one to runaway favourite. If there was any risk of England’s Beth Mead getting carried away with her golden boot-winning and player of the tournament heroics as the Lionesses won a first major trophy at the Euros in the summer, then it was quickly stomped on in October.
The forward was photographed at the Ballon d’Or awards ceremony alongside her partner, her Arsenal teammate Vivianne Miedema, and the caption on the image read: “Vivianne Miedema and a guest.” That “guest”, who laughed off the mistake, would go on to finish as runner-up to Barcelona’s Alexia Putellas for the international award after a stellar year, but the miscaptioning spoke to just how rapid a rise Mead’s has been on the global stage. .
On home soil, Mead’s profile has exploded since the final at Wembley. The 27-year-old has become the first female football player, and just the sixth footballer (after Bobby Moore, Paul Gascoigne, Michael Owen, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs), to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
It is deserved, but it is also bittersweet, because, when Mead went up on stage to collect the trophy, she did so with a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament injury that has probably ended her season and destroyed any hope of carrying her form for England into the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in July. Her “guest” on the night, Miedema, shared that journey after rupturing the ACL in her left knee in Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat to Lyon, less than a month after Mead suffered hers in a 3-2 loss to Manchester United.
Mead, though, is used to fight back stronger. The Whitby-born player’s phenomenal 2022 – in which she scored the most goals and created the most assists and chances at the Euros, after creating 64 chances for Arsenal in the calendar year and finishing the season as the fans’ player of the season and the WSL all-time leader in assists – came after the bitter disappointment at being omitted from the Team GB squad for the Olympics.
Mead scored twice in Arsenal’s 3-2 defeat of Chelsea on the opening day of the new season after being left out of the squad for Tokyo and she didn’t look back. After her third hat-trick for England in six months, following the arrival of the new England manager, Sarina Wiegman, Mead said her confidence had been restored and that she had “channelled my disappointment in the correct way”.
Mead’s talent has been long known by those who have watched the women’s game. She was recruited by Arsenal in 2017 after she scored 77 goals in 78 games for Sunderland. In her first season with the Black Cats, she finished as the National League top scorer with 23 goals in 23 games as Sunderland won the league and the FA Women’s Premier League Cup.
In her second season, she bagged 30 goals in 28 games. The following year, 2014, she led the line as Sunderland earned promotion to the Women’s Super League and then scored in the team’s stunning 2-1 defeat of the then champions, Liverpool, in their first match in the top flight before going on to finish. the season as the league’s top scorer.
It was her angry and aggressive side being brought out that the then England manager, Phil Neville, said would take her to the next level. After England’s 2-0 win over Denmark before the 2019 World Cup, he said: “The penny has dropped. It’s like: ‘Do you want to go to Blackpool on your holidays or do you want to go to the moon?’ She now wants to go to the moon. Before she was happy to go to Whitley Bay and have fish and chips.”
She had forced her way into contention for the World Cup after her place had been uncertain. “She’s ready to play,” Neville said at the time. “She wasn’t six months ago. We had very harsh words with her, and she knew it. We had to really tell a few home truths to someone who was probably at a level she was happy with. But we knew she could go to a different level.”
The Olympic disappointment helped her power closer to reach her full potential on the pitch, but a much deeper heartbreak fueled the new urgency to hit the top heights. Mead’s mum, June, was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2021.
“I know I’m not going to share all those moments with my mum for the rest of my life any more, so to share that moment with her last summer was just incredible,” Mead told the BBC after her Spoty nomination was announced. “For me, football’s always been my first true love.
My mum sacrificed so much, she worked two jobs, and I wouldn’t be where I am without them. Nearly a year down the line we found out it was incurable. She’s still fighting.”
Her dad, Richard, said: “The diagnosis with her mum, that was a trigger for her to show the world what Beth Mead is really about. I think in the Euros she managed to do that.”