Jordan Nobbs knows far too much about the frustration of being all dressed up with nowhere to go. She was tipped to switch the lights on for England at the 2015 World Cup in Canada but played only one group match before sustaining a complicated hamstring injury. Her bronze medal still provokes bitter-sweet emotions. Then, four years later, she sat out the next World Cup, in France, nursing a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, before knee ligament damage ruled her out of Euro 2022.
“It means that, now, I’m still waking up with the butterfly feeling,” says the 30-year-old Aston Villa midfielder. “Everyone dreams of playing in major tournaments. Everyone knows the journey I’ve been on, so to be part of this World Cup in such a talented squad is an unbelievable feeling.”
Nobbs is almost certainly in Australia now only thanks to her calculated gamble in swapping Arsenal for upwardly-mobile Villa last January. “It was a risk to a certain extent but with the limited game time I was getting, I had nothing to lose,” she says.
Although Nobbs was born in Stockton and her accent remains pure Teesside, she spent 13 years at Arsenal, playing every midfield role, and, despite losing her first-team place, felt an adopted Londoner. “There were a lot of tears; it was difficult to leave a club I loved and owe a lot to,” she says. “But I had to do everything possible to be selected for a major tournament and I needed regular game time. I knew with regular game time I could get back to my best.”
It was a move fully endorsed by her father Keith, a former Hartlepool United defender, still famed locally for declining to be substituted in a derby against Darlington despite losing six teeth in an aerial collision. Nobbs Sr, the head of Hartlepool’s community foundation, was routinely described as “hard as nails” and it seems his daughter has inherited similar resilience.
In relocating to the West Midlands, she certainly seems to have rejuvenated the subtle, nuanced, game much missed by the Lionesses at the last two World Cups. Very much an attacking playmaker these days, Nobbs is adept at drifting between the lines and looks eminently capable of occupying the Lionesses’ No 10 role, linking midfield to attack.
It was a position filled with distinction by Fran Kirby during England’s Euro 2022 triumph but Kirby’s serious knee injury has opened the door for a Lioness who cut her footballing teeth playing alongside Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Lucy Staniforth, Jill Scott, Carly Telford, Demi Stokes and company at Sunderland.
“Having a manager like Carla [Ward] at Villa who gave me a licence to play my game and enjoy my football again, kind of took a weight off my shoulders,” says Nobbs, who has previously excelled as a box-to-box midfielder, deep-lying anchor and quasi-winger. “With Villa, I was getting those minutes and it wasn’t: ‘Am I going to play, or not?’ anymore.
“Carla gave me that confidence to go again and enabled me to be here now. She gave me a lot of love … and game time. Sometimes, it’s the small things that allow you to shine.”
After the ACL injury which destroyed her hopes of playing a key role at France 2019, every minute on the pitch matters to Nobbs now. “I’ve missed a lot of football; I really need this tournament,” she says. “When I joined Villa my mentality was: ‘I need to do everything possible to get there.’”
Memories of watching England’s Euro 2022 odyssey and, particularly, their run to the World Cup semi-finals three years earlier remain laced with pain. “After suffering that kind of injury [ACL] it’s about learning to walk again,” she says. “I was sat in front of the telly with ice on my leg. You’re not really doing much and I think you do go into a place where you self-sabotage and mope around for a bit. It’s a difficult time.
“Everyone’s different but I’d say I was in that kind of dark place for a few months. You had the hype of the tournament. It’s everywhere – you can’t get away from it. For me it definitely took a long time to get my motivation back. It’s not nice.”
In between injuries, Nobbs has acquired 71 caps and in Hope Powell, Mark Sampson, Phil Neville and Sarina Wiegman, played under four England managers.
“I try not to run about as much now I’m older,” she says. “It’s a hard one to stop but Sarina has really helped with that and, with experience, your game evolves. Sarina sees tiny things about the No 10 position; about body shape, turning on the ball, goals and assists. It makes you start to think about the game more. We all trust her processes – and, whether you’re 12 or 32, you can still learn new things.”
The conversation drifts to the events of 15 years ago when Nobbs and her Villa and Lionesses teammates Rachel Daly and Lucy Staniforth flew to New Zealand for the 2008 Under-17 World Cup. Nobbs captained that team, helping England reach the final four.
“Lucy, Rach and I always talk about New Zealand being one of the best experiences of our lives,” she says. “It was incredible; just phenomenal … so coming to Australia now for another major tournament is great. It’s a privilege.”