EARLY June, and Finch Farm is deserted, glistening in the early-evening sunshine.
So often a hive of activity, Everton’s multi-million pound training complex now stands vacant, the first-team having finished their season a fortnight ago.
Vacant, that is, until about 7 o’clock in the evening.
Because while the men – Jack Rodwell, who will spend his holidays at the European U21 Championships, excepted – are off to put their feet up at the end of a gruelling campaign, for the Everton Ladies team, the summer’s work is just getting started.
It may not have been the most auspicious of seasons so far for Mo Marley’s side; a difficult start to the newly-inaugurated FA Women’s Super League has seen the Blues win just one of six league fixtures, and saw them relinquish their grip on the FA Cup trophy they so memorably won last May.
This week, however, positivity is the order of the day at Everton.
Thursday sees the announcement of Hope Powell’s final, 23-strong England squad for this summer’s showpiece women’s football event – the World Cup in Germany.
And for Everton, that could mean as many as seven representatives.
Three of them – the self-confessed ‘veteran’ goalkeeper Rachel Brown, all-action midfielder Jill Scott and talismanic forward Natasha Dowie – are in for a routine training session (“Five-a-side tonight I hope!” laughs Dowie as she arrives), whilst highly-rated young defender Fern Whelan is performing a series of gruelling fitness tests, under the watchful eye of assistant coach Andy Spence.
Others – midfielder Fara Williams, and the defenders Rachel Unitt and Lindsay Johnson – are absent through illness or injury, but all are confident of being fit in time for Germany.
It is a big week, a big summer, for the hopefuls. And the excitement is barely disguised.
“It is what every footballer wants to do,” says Brown.
“To represent your country at the World Cup is the pinnacle. I’ve been fortunate enough to have already done that for England, but as I come towards the end of my career, on a personal level, this would be a massive achievement for me, as it will probably be my last World Cup.”
And it is not just any World Cup; England will head to Germany full of confidence, and among the tournament’s favourites.
Recent friendly wins over the USA and Sweden show the potential that lurks within Powell’s side. They were embarrassed by Germany in the final of the 2009 European Championships, beaten 6-2 in Helsinki, and well beaten by the Americans in the last eight of the last World Cup.
Brown – along with Scott and Williams – featured in both of those games, and says that the scars left by such chastening defeats can be fully healed this summer.
“Experiences like those can be dealt with in two ways,” she says: “You can either lose it from there, or you can use the experience in a positive way, and use that experience when you meet situations like that again. You are always going to have to beat teams like Germany, USA or Sweden to win any competition.
“Yes our last game in a major tournament was a disappointing one, but we have proven since that we can beat the top teams, and now we have to prove that we can do so in the context of a big competition.”
Scott, a Sunderland-born midfield player who scored the opening goal in the 2-0 win over Sweden last month, agrees.
“Every game is going to be difficult, our group is especially so,” adds the 24-year-old.
“So we will need to make sure we progress out of that first.”
For Dowie, the niece of former Northern Ireland striker Iain, the aim is slightly different. The 22-year-old is one of the most highly-rated forwards in the women’s game, but with England especially well-stocked in the striking department, knows it will be an achievement just to get into Powell’s final squad.
“For me, if I was to go it would be a surprise – albeit a great one,” she admits. “But I don’t see it as a daunting thing. I like a challenge, to be honest.”
Certainly Dowie has done her chances little harm with her recent performances at club level. Everton may have struggled, but their number 9 has been a shining light during a difficult start. Two goals against Liverpool in the opening game of the season were followed by a crucial equaliser at Bristol.
They will resume the WSL at the end of July in fourth position, albeit with a game in hand on the sides above them.
“We have been slightly unlucky,” says Dowie. “I don’t like to use that word so much, but we really have. Our performances have been quite good, but we haven’t really had the rub of the green.”
“The standards that we have set are huge,” adds Scott. “Everyone is disappointed with the start, but I am confident we can turn it round. We must go back to the drawing board, and go back to doing what we do best. Instead of getting into battles with teams, we need to focus on passing the ball.”
Before then, however, thoughts will be trained exclusively on Germany, and the prospect of World Cup glory.
“You can never predict what can happen,” says Scott. “Four years ago I was not expecting to even get into the squad, but I did and I managed to play in every game. Things happen, you get injuries and suspensions, and that highlights the importance of the squad.”
And what about the impact of coach Powell?
“She is Miss Football in England, isn’t she?” grins Brown. “She has basically revolutionised the women’s game in this country. I was involved when she was still a player, and to know where football was at in this country, and the standard we were at during that time, it is just incredible to see where we are now.
“She is getting her rewards for that now, and hopefully we as a team can pay her the ultimate reward at the World Cup.”
One thing is for sure; if England are to have a successful summer in Germany, then their Blue lionesses will be key. A nation expects...