The next Lioness? Norfolk woman signs professional football contract

Laura Hartley from Winterton has signed a professional contract with Lewes FC

Laura Hartley has been signed for Lewes FC. She is pictured with her parents John and Marie at the last game of the season on May 1, 2022. - Credit: Marie Hartley

As England's women celebrate victory in the Euro 2022 championship another female footballer has achieved a sporting goal of her own she hopes will bring football "home" to Norfolk.

Like Lioness Lauren Hemp, Laura Hartley from Winterton had to move out of her home county to pursue her dream of playing professionally.

While Hemp headed to Bristol her contemporary Hartley went to Brighton at 16 having been supported at every stage by her primary and high schools who applauded her drive, and relentless dedication.

Goalkeeper Laura Hartley from Winterton has signed a contract with Lewes FC

Professional footballer Laura Hartley is blazing a trail for football and hopes her success will encourage young girls in Norfolk to follow their dreams. - Credit: Marie Hartley

Last month the 21-year-old signed her first professional contract with Lewes FC - two years ago the only club to decide to pay their women as much as their men.

She hailed the Lionesses' win as "an incredible achievement" and "a profile raiser for women’s football and sport," adding: "Hopefully it has inspired the next generation of female players, coaches, officials and volunteer as well as help the women’s game develop further.

"I would encourage anyone who enjoyed the Women's Euro's to get involved, whether that be joining a local team or watching WSL games and continue to enjoy women's football."

Lewes kick off the new season in the Women's Championship with Hartley on August 21 away against Birmingham, with the first home league match being staged at their ground, the Dripping Pan, a week later against Southampton.

Her mother Marie Hartley said it was "a dream come true" for all the family.

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Without the support of her primary school in Winterton led by football fan head Richard Endell it could all have ended there, she said.

"We were lucky at Winterton," she said.

"The head was a keen football supporter and very much encouraged the boys and the girls which is not always the case for girls in school. He was very forward thinking and very encouraging.

"And then at high school at Flegg she was encouraged by the PE department there with Claire Utting and Chris Linehan."

At the age of eight she trialled for the Norwich Girls Centre of Excellence as an open player.

Once in she was encouraged to take up goal keeping - and has been between the posts since then.

At times she played alongside Hemp, a school  year older, at the East Centre of Excellence, travelling to Northampton - their mothers bonding as long-distance parents.

England's Lauren Hemp (left), Jill Scott (centre) and Beth Mead celebrate with the trophy after Engl

North Walsham's Lauren Hemp (right), with Beth Mead and Jill Scott with the trophy after England win the UEFA Women's Euro 2022 final at Wembley. - Credit: PA

At 16 Hemp went to Bristol and Hartley to Brighton where she stayed with a host family to do her A-levels and then on to a sports science degree at Chichester.

A knee injury sustained in the last year of high school had made her mindful of the vulnerability of being an athlete and determined to pursue an academic career.

Mrs Hartley said her leaving rural Norfolk for the south coast at 16 had been a tug but it was the only way to even have a chance of making it, and proved she had the sheer dedication and commitment needed.

"In Brighton the women's set up was superior to anything round here, so that was where she had to go,"  her mother said.

"She had a good opportunity there and continued with her studies."

But disaster struck again, and while on loan to Lewes she sustained an elbow injury which took her out of the game for nine months, during which she was well supported.

She was back on the pitch in December 2021 and a month ago signed her first full time professional contract at Lewes, which play one level below the WSL.

Her mother said: "That has been her goal as a school girl to become a professional footballer and she has now achieved that and successfully gained a degree from Chichester in sports science. We are incredibly proud of her achievements.

"With the success of the Lionesses we hope it will provide a platform for investment in the women's game."

She hoped in sharing her daughter's story girls across the borough of Great Yarmouth would have a role model for their own talent pathway.