Dream the Dream: Toni Duggan's Story

An English striker leading the line at Barcelona might seem an impossible dream.

Or at best a distant memory, conjuring up hazy images of a young Gary Lineker under the command of Bobby Robson over a generation ago.

But for Toni Duggan, that dream came true. The England forward has now been gracing Spain’s Women's Primera Division for almost two years, and her spell has brought more success than most could have imagined.

Duggan’s July 2017 switch to Barcelona from Manchester City arrived as something of a surprise to many observers of the women’s game.

Female English footballers are historically more likely to move abroad than their male counterparts, but the US was traditionally the destination of choice.

The high standard of college sports in the country provided players the opportunity to combine study with improving their game, though many also headed for Scandinavia or Italy in pursuit of the chance to do what they couldn’t do at home: make their living as professional footballers.

However, since the launch of the Women’s Super League in 2011, England has become a much more attractive place for the ambitious female footballer.

The game is now a viable career, and big names from all over the globe have been flocking to the league, from World Cup hat-trick heroine Carli Lloyd to Dutch megastar Danielle van de Donk and Korean maestro Ji So-yun.

Duggan had been part of the WSL since its inception, first with Everton and then with Man City, and had plenty of trophies to show for it, including a league and cup double in 2016. Yet she still opted for the switch to Spain.

“It was a big step for me to take, going away from my family to go and play in a different culture, and I understand why people don’t do it,” the 27-year-old told Goal.

“But I have no regrets and have loved every minute. I am really proud of what I’ve achieved so far, but I think I’ve still a lot more to do.”

And so, too, do the next generation Duggan is hoping to inspire.

“Hopefully now there are kids, both male and female, even senior players, who open themselves up now and are more open to going abroad and playing their football,” she said. “I’ve learnt so much and they can, too.”

Duggan has had the fortune to play for two clubs where the women’s team is reasonably integrated into the men’s set-ups, meaning decent access to all the facilities and benefits that a footballer requires - from gym equipment to nutritional programs and physiotherapy.

She was also a part of history last month when Barcelona faced Atletico Madrid at the Wanda Metropolitano, drawing a crowd of 60,739 – the highest for a women’s league game in Europe in modern times.

“The togetherness of the clubs is the best it’s ever been,” she insists.

“If you look at Man City and Manchester United, who have now come on-board, and Atletico Madrid - the game at the Wanda was a great example because the support they give the women’s team.

“It was unbelievable and an amazing moment for women’s football. I hope it continues, I hope more clubs step up across the world. Clubs in other countries can step up and we can kick on with women’s football even more.”

Duggan scored the second goal in that record-breaking encounter – a moment she says she will never forget.

“I’ve played in front of crowds at the World Cup and the FA Cup but this one was different - it had a different feeling,” she said.

“The supporters from Atletico really got behind the team - you could tell they were really loyal fans, and it wasn’t just school kids. The atmosphere was unbelievable and I wish it was like that more often.”

With so much on offer on the continent, it is perhaps unsurprising that other Lionesses have followed in Duggan’s trailblazing wake.

Manchester City club-mates Lucy Bronze and Izzy Christiansen have both signed for French giants Lyon, while Reading’s young goalkeeper Mary Earps has joined Wolfsburg in Germany.

Duggan thinks this can only be good news for the women's game in England.

“The national team has gone to the next level and [playing abroad has been] an important factor,” she says.

“The fact the girls like Lucy, Izzy, Mary and myself are playing in different countries, which hasn’t happened in the past at the top level, means we’re taking our game to the next level.

“But also the growth of the WSL, and it being so competitive now, is why the national team is so good at the minute.”

Women’s football has come a long way since Duggan began her journey as an eight-year-old playing in an otherwise all-boys club.

There were no girls teams for her to join at the time and she barely knew the women’s game existed at all before being invited to join the youth set-up at Everton.

The sport has come a long way since then, and many are hoping that this year’s World Cup in France will prove a pivotal moment in the rise of women’s football.

And back home, expectations are high, with the Lionesses among the favourites.

Former Manchester United defender Phil Neville was initially a controversial appointment as manager. But despite lacking a background in women’s football, he did his homework and began to shape the squad, lifting his first silverware in March 2019 at the four-team SheBelieves invitational in USA.

“The team is the best it’s ever been,” insists Duggan. “[Winning the World Cup is] going to be difficult.

“We’re working super hard, but so are Spain, so are France, Germany and USA.

“It was nice to have success in the SheBelieves Cup, but that just brings more pressure.

“I think our girls are ready - and we’re going to give it everything to win that trophy.”

Few would bet against Duggan and the Lionesses. After all, she’s already proven that dreams can come true.

By Carrie DunnIgnasi Oliva Gispert
Illustrations by Matthew Shipley