Why Khiara Keating & Grace Clinton’s Lionesses Coming Of Age Is No Surprise

Photo: @ManCityWomen

There has been much rejoicing at the inclusion of Man City’s Khiara Keating and Spurs (via Man United) Grace Clinton in the latest Lionesses squad. But this should be no surprise to anyone who has had the good fortune to see either play to have worked with either.

If your only experience of English women’s football is the glitz and glamour of the WSL, Man City goalie Khiara Keating’s outstanding heroics for nine-player Man City against Chelsea a few weeks ago probably came as the reveal of an amazing new young talent. Likewise Grace Clinton’s stunning strike for Spurs against Brighton at the weekend will have seemed to you like a new name bursting onto the stage.

But to those women’s football fans who follow the Women’s Championship and the Women’s National League, neither “meteoric rise” is a surprise because they’ve been following Khiara, Grace and myriad other young talents that are flourishing outside the WSL and to them, the “from nowhere” arrival of both of them in the England squad is nothing more than the culmination of hard work and was something that could be seen coming for a while.

I had the pleasure of watching both players play in the Championship last season in person, thanks to Keating playing for my hometown club Coventry (now Rugby) on loan from Man City. I saw Grace Clinton through her loan spell at Bristol City, commentating on her play on several occasions both when she faced Coventry (memorably scoring a late goal after, ironically, Keating was forced off through colliding with her fellow new Lioness call-up going for a loose ball) and it was very, very clear that both were already of a level that would eventually attract notice from Sarina Wiegman.

It is an opinion widely held among those who watched Coventry United regularly last season that had Keating not suffered several unlucky injuries (first from that collision with Clinton that turned a potentially massive 2-1 win into a 3-2 loss, and then a broken finger against Charlton) that she could have been a huge part in helping Coventry turn around their struggles and stay in the Championship. The season before, aged 18 and playing for AFC Fylde, she’d made Since 71’s National League Northern Division Team of the Year (keeping out the actual Golden Glove winner).

Those of us watching her saw her continue to display the qualities that had won that award – namely the assuredness in distribution, bravery and agility in absolute abundance and most importantly the fact that despite being a teenager she plays in goal with a confidence and command that is only possessed by the truly great goalies. Mary Earps has it, Christiane Endler has it, Hedvig Lindahl has it and so does Khiara Keating. She already looks like Earps’ heir apparent in a group of very, very good young goalies, and exposure to the national team senior set up will do that development no harm at all.

It was clearly only a matter of time before she was called up and now Sarina Wiegman, perhaps jolted by that incredible performance against Chelsea into doing so, has brought her into the senior fold after being a key cog for the young Lionesses.

Grace Clinton, meanwhile, added an extra spark to a Bristol City team fighting for promotion to the WSL. Playing with an edge that is sometimes lacking in “creative” midfield players she received several red cards for Bristol City and this may need to be tempered as she gets older. There is a legitimate question given the previous bias in Lionesses selection policies towards big club players if she’d have been selected if not a Man United player on loan at Spurs but a Spurs player herself, and the body of work she has in the WSL is small. 

However, like Keating, she has an aura about her that was immediately obvious when watching to Championship crowds – one that saw the ball seemingly drawn to her often. The same aura that Manchester United fans who had watched their development team had been shouting about to anyone who would listen before her loan to Bristol City. Confident on the ball, one step from trying the audacious at every opportunity and becoming a key cog in a title-chasing side at 19, she was earmarked instantly for greatness by those who saw her.

The lesson to take from Keating and Clinton’s elevation to the England senior squad is twofold. The first is that the development of young talent by giving them actual competitive games rather than burying them in academies works. But we knew this.

The most important lesson is in the reception of their call-ups though – the surprise from the WSL-centric media at large. To the media, Keating and Clinton are overnight sensations. But to those who trouble themselves to look beyond the WSL or even certain clubs within the WSL on a regular basis, Keating and Clinton’s call up isn’t a surprise.

They are merely the first ripples of a wave of young British talent that’s already out there but simply doesn’t get the notice of WSL clubs.

Names like Izzy Goodwin (Sheffield United, formerly Coventry) Mia Enderby (Liverpool now, but previously Sheffield United), Annabel Blanchard (Crystal Palace), Mary McAteer and Ellen Jones (Sunderland, formerly Coventry), Neve Herron (Birmingham, developed by Sunderland) and countless others are examples of players who would be considered “overnight sensations” in the WSL but have been shining in the second tier for a while now, almost unnoticed outside their own division.

Khiara Keating and Grace Clinton are examples of “overnight sensations” who have been several years and many senior games in the making, and their England callups are just reward for their development and efforts walking a path of development in the second and third tiers.

To those who only watch the WSL, Grace Clinton and Khiara Keating have come from nowhere. But to those of us who watch the lower tiers who have been waiting for the rest of the world to see what we already knew, this call-up, for both, was only a matter of time.

The next wave of British international talent is already coming, out there in plain view. But that view is not sitting on the benches in the WSL – it’s already showing its skills in the Championship and below. If fans and media want to spot the next name who’ll follow these two as “overnight sensations” It’s just a case of knowing where to look for it. 

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