‘Could we have a ball? My little girl wants to play with it’.
It was a question that the manager of a local boys’ team in Essex used to hear every weekend. He probably did not realise, though, that little girl would go on to become one of Arsenal’s most promising academy products, one fans were disappointed to see join rivals Manchester City in the summer of 2021.
Ruby Mace featured off the bench a few times for the Gunners' first team before a productive loan spell with fellow Women’s Super League side Birmingham in 2020-21, but, after 11 years at Arsenal, she would sign her first professional contract elsewhere.
- 'Football is a scam' - How the Premier League's original Spanish wonderkid lost his love for the game
- The King of Milan? Lukaku just another willing pawn in an increasingly absurd transfer market
- Watch: Rice opens mystery boxes containing his greatest fear and more
- Brugts, Kuhl and the NXGN stars to watch at the 2022 UEFA Women's Euros
“When I got the call to say Man City wanted me, it was very hard, but I feel like it wasn't as hard as I thought it was,” Mace, an England youth international, tells GOAL, having had several months to reflect on her decision.
“This is a big club and both teams wanted the best for me, but I feel like the plan Man City put out for me was going to benefit me more than what Arsenal put out for me. I feel like an opportunity like this, I couldn't turn it down.”
It was on the sidelines as a child, while watching her older brother play, that Mace started to forge the path that led to that first pro deal.
She was just four years old when her mother encouraged her to try out for a boys’ team just one pitch over. Mace was successful, and with her new team was scouted by West Ham, where she played for a year.
Then, aged six, came the chance to join Arsenal.
The impact the Gunners had on her is evident. Her technical ability stands out, particularly her ability to use both feet, something she recalls there being big emphasis on at Arsenal.
The tactical focus would come later, helping to develop Mace into not only a talented young player, but a very versatile one.
“I used to play right-back when I was five, six [years old],” the now-18-year-old says. “Then when I went to Arsenal, you played everywhere, every position, a different position every game. I was a winger one game, then I was left-back, and then I just grew into playing midfield and centre-back.”
It is the latter that has grown to be her favourite. Mace spent the second half of last season playing in midfield for Birmingham, an experience that taught her a lot about herself.
Check out football's best wonderkids with NXGN:
“I feel like every young player needs to experience that before then deciding what they want to do,” Mace says.
“I could have gone to Birmingham and I might not have been at the level to then move to Man City. I might have had to go to the Championship. I feel like once I did that, I thought to myself: 'If I keep working hard, then I can be capable of this big move'. I feel like that really like determined my next move.”
That transfer was never going to be easy for a 17-year-old very close to her family, but Mace has always known it is not easy to reach the top.
“When I was younger, I used to have this one-to-one coach. He always used to talk to me about [Cristiano] Ronaldo, because Ronaldo had a hard childhood, with his family and stuff, and he had to work for what he had,” she remembers.
“When I was younger, I used to idolise him because - I feel - he's had a much harder journey than me, but mine has still been hard with family and stuff.”
While adjusting to the move to Manchester – the “hardest” thing in Mace's career so far – her first summer with City was a strange one. Only a handful of players were in training and no pre-season fixtures were scheduled, due to the number of players involved in the Olympic Games and some injuries.
But it gave Mace opportunity to spend every day with England international Alex Greenwood, which both she and head coach Gareth Taylor have highlighted as being very valuable.
“I quite idolise Alex,” Mace says. “I feel like she's a very good role model to me and she's always helped me. She's always guided me through training, even if at times I'm not doing what I need to be doing. She'll come and make sure I'm alright. I feel like being around her brings out my game in a better way, which is really good.
“For me, I had six months to prove that I don't need to go out on loan. I've spoken to Gareth about that, how that's my main target for the season, to prove to him that I am good enough, to work hard in training and show that I don't need to be a loan player.”
She has made great strides doing that over the last couple of months. In November, she made her WSL debut for City, and has completed 90 minutes on four occasions since across the league and Continental Cup.
Mace has shown that she is ready to perform for Taylor's side both this season and in the long-term, and City believe that they have brought in a player with a truly bright future.