The London Bees goalkeeper Nicola Hobbs was between the sticks at the Hive on Saturday as the Bees recorded their first win of the WSL2 season, a 2-1 victory over Oxford United. Yet just 24 hours earlier she was sitting in a gilded hall in the capital at the excellence in fire and emergency awards 2017. Because Hobbs is also a firefighter, and one who was nominated for this year’s most influential woman in fire award.
A woman navigating one male-dominated line of work is impressive, but two is rarer.
Hobbs has been playing football since she could join the under-10s team coached by her dad and she was picked up by Norwich City’s center of excellence aged 12. Now 30, the keeper has experience across the women’s football pyramid and joined the Bees in August after eight years at Doncaster Rovers Belles, during which she helped them win promotion in 2015.
Having undertaken an apprenticeship at 18, she joined South Yorkshire Fire Service a few years later. Football helped her integrate into the job. “It’s a good topic of conversation and if firefighters know that you play at a certain level then they trust you’re fit enough to do the job. It’s mad because every woman that gets in has passed the same fitness tests but it still helps you earn respect,” says Hobbs. “It was really hard at the beginning to have both; football and the fire service.”
After playing for England up to under-23 level it was joining the fire service, and the shift patterns, that halted her international progress: “I had to stop with the England set-up, there wasn’t much support at that point, especially when you worked at a young age. And, with austerity at its peak, there wasn’t much support from the fire service either.
“The firefighters would swap shifts with me. I would beg, steal and borrow shifts so I managed to get the time off but it was the longer time away with England that I couldn’t get.”
Firefighting and football foster similar pressurized team environments: “When you’re on a watch or in a team you know each other’s strengths and each other’s abilities.
“It’s the same principle at London Bees [which she travels three hours to get to]: I go on the pitch knowing I can trust every single one of them and that’s massive. They are both pressurized situations in different ways.”
Battling to be able to play, juggling it with work and passion for the game overriding, are traits familiar to most of Hobbs’s generation. It is these longstanding dedicated players who stand to lose when the restructuring of the WSL comes into play next year and Hobbs could be one casualty. “It’s hard. The game is growing, which it should do, but it’s wiping out a generation of players my age who are working. As the leagues change players like me become less of a priority because teams will need to find players that can fit the hours required. I’m finding I might have to be forced into retirement rather than choosing when to bow out.”
She considered retirement when leaving Doncaster but when the Bees manager, Luke Swindlehurst, heard of her availability he moved quickly. She says: “I felt like I needed a new challenge. I thought about retirement and concentrating on my career and then London Bees got in contact. I’ve known Luke for a long time and he said: ‘You’re not done.’ I had a very good last couple of seasons with Donny Belles and he gave me the confidence to carry on and a routine that wouldn’t be too much for me.”
Luckily for Hobbs, if she is forced into retirement what awaits her off the pitch helps to put football in perspective: “You see tragic things every day.
“Football has to be seen as a hobby, it can’t be my job. You only live once and you see firefighters getting injured quite regularly now, it is scary. Football is such a small drop in the ocean. You have footballers winning awards for scoring goals in a tournament and you’ve got people who go out every night to help the homeless that don’t get any recognition.”
The good thing is, Hobbs is getting recognition: the Fire Brigades Union rep may not have won the most influential woman in fire award but clearly her actions off the pitch are being noticed as much as her actions on it. “I was honored to be nominated. I had a horrendous job a few years back that made me feel really precious about life. It makes you want to enjoy it and influence things because you don’t know what’s around the corner.”
On the pitch things are brighter, too. With their first two successes – the first in the FA WSL Cup against Watford – under their belt, London Bees go into the new year knowing games against Aston Villa and Watford, who sit beneath them, leave them with a chance to launch a serious climb up the WSL2 table.
“We’re on a massive high. We had a few players come in and it’s hard for the club to find its feet. We lost 4-0 to Reading but it was 0-0 at half-time. That helped us begin to get our confidence back, being able to hold a team like Reading for 45 minutes. Then we got the Watford and Oxford wins. We finally feel like we’re a team.”