AS A Leeds girl brought up by her mother in a one-parent family, Jess Clarke’s route to the top was never going to be easy.
At the age of 26, a World Cup beckons with the England women’s team in Canada this summer for Clarke, fresh from earning the respect of her peers in the voting for the accolade that footballers prize above all others – the PFA player of the year award.
With her peak years still to come, Clarke is rapidly emerging as one of the poster girls of women’s football in England. Life is undeniably good.
But do not expect her to get carried away for this is one humble woman who will never forget her roots.
Shaped by some hard times, Clarke remembers being a teenager attempting to make a name in the game she has loved since being a child.
After school she would catch a bus to and from training on her own while her mother, Carol Stapleton, worked night shifts to pay the bills – there was not enough money to run a car.
Her mother may not have accompanied her to training in her home city in those days, but her unstinting moral support was total.
As was that of one of the teachers at high school in Leeds, who Clarke knows as Ms Munro – another to whmo she owes a debt of gratitude for having the faith in her to achieve her dreams.
The girl has become a woman and the woman has done pretty well since and she would dearly like to tell her teacher in person to pass on her thanks.
On thanking those two special people who believed in her, Clarke – who will be one of the leading lights for England at this summer’s tournament – told The Yorkshire Post: “Me and my mum have a special relationship and we are more like sisters. She has been brilliant and made so many sacrifices and I am kind of living her dream and she is part of it.
“You can say I have been in debt to her as well.
“She’s a real grafter and she has always worked for me. She’s a good ’un.
“To be fair, when I was growing up, it was more rugby in the parts of Leeds where I lived and my mum was more into dance and stuff.
“She always knew I was obsessed with football and just let me pursue it, really.
“I literally played street football and kicked the ball around in the playground. When I was a kid, I always thought I would have to play for the lads’ teams.
“I then went to John Smeaton High School and there was a schoolteacher there called Ms Munro and I would desperately like to get in touch with her.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be where I am now either.
“She had a massive role to play and she obviously noticed I had talent to play football.
“She kind of took me under her wing and organised the trials for me at Leeds and she drove me there and, after that, I had to try and make my own way.
“She helped me the most at school and before I left, she said to me, ‘I want to see you playing for England one day’.
“I just want to thank her for guiding me in the right direction. I haven’t had the chance before. I need to get in touch with her.”
It was with her hometown club of Leeds Carnegie Ladies that Clarke enjoyed her formative years as a young player of considerable promise – a pacy and dangerous winger with the tools to harass a defence.
Three cup final appearances, – all of which ended in defeat – arrived in her time with Leeds, with her sole silverware success coming in a Premier League Cup final win over Everton in February 2010.
But not too long after, the roof caved in with the club folding. Clarke joined Lincoln City Ladies who were later rebranded to become Notts County Ladies for the start of the 2014 Women’s Super League season.
For the Yorkshire lass, there remains a sense of regret at the demise of Leeds Ladies.
Clarke, who still lives in the city, said: “I had some great experiences at Leeds and the fact I was from Leeds and representing my home city was another fantastic thing for me and meant a lot.
“We always managed to get to a final, but always just seemed to need a little bit more.
“I remember the League Cup win. But when the WSL went professional, we didn’t have the money to get into the league, which was disheartening.
“We just needed a couple more years together and I think we’d have been a great side.”
It is down the M1 at Nottingham where Clarke is flourishing with a nomination for the FA WS1 Players’ Player vote followed by her recent PFA short-listing – she finished third.
It is a source of considerable pride for Clarke, who feels this current season, which has seen her switch to a central striking position, has been her best yet.
She said: “It’s really special to be noticed by your fellow players and it is special just to even be nominated. It is really nice to get that recognition.
“I feel like I have had a good season and for other players in the league to put my name down is great, although the others are fantastic players as well.
“I have got to say this is my best season yet. Last season had been the best that I had and I just hoped to continue it and have.
“I play a different role; I played as a nine last year and we have strengthened our squad now and it’s exciting.”
It does not get much more exciting than a World Cup where England are seeking to beat their previous best finish of a quarter-final place, achieved in 1995, 2007 and 2011.
It will be tough against the heavyweight nations such as Germany and the USA, but Clarke’s glass remains steadfastly half-full.
England are pitted with another strong side in their group in France, who they play in their Group F opener on June 9 in the city of Moncton in New Brunswick.
Four days later, the Lionesses face Mexico at the same venue and on June 17, they finish off their group games against Colombia in the Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
Clarke, who has more than 40 caps, said: “It was a great experience in Germany in 2007 and we are getting more media coverage now and it is great to see.
“People are really recognising women’s football and the quality of it now, which is fantastic.
“Hopefully, we can push things on in the World Cup and do really well and get the backing of the nation.
“Any team that goes to the World Cup, they are there to win it.
“And we are there to win it as well and will do everything in our power to get to that final.
“We have shown the impetus to get there and I really do believe we are one of the most prepared teams at that World Cup.
“I strongly believe the most prepared side will go on to win it and it is just about applying it when it matters.
“Personally, the support I get from friends and family really does help and will continue to do so going into such a big competition.
“You are aware of it all and it is nice and encouraging to hear familiar voices on the end of the phone.”
The Jess Clarke story...
Born: Leeds; May 5, 1989.
Club career: 2004–2010: Leeds Carnegie Ladies; 2010 - present: Lincoln City Ladies, Notts County Ladies.
Honours: 2006 FA Women’s Cup final (runner-up), 2007 FA Women’s Premier League Cup (runner-up), 2008 FA Women’s Cup final (runner-up), 2010: Premier League Cup final (winners).
Awards: Short-listed for WS1 Players’ Player of the Year, third in the PFA nominations.
International: Senior caps 49. Goals: 11. Debut: 2009.Clarke has also represented England at Under-15s, Under-17s and Under-19s level.