Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Kim Little: Portrait of an Artist- Arseblog Exclusive Interview

There are few players in women’s football, let alone the WSL, who have the sort of peer, media and supporter respect that Arsenal captain Kim Little has earned during a glittering career. The 32-year-old sat down exclusively with Arseblog News to talk about her formative years in football, her career in Scotland, England and the US, where she gets that dribbling ability from and whether it’s true that she keeps spreadsheets of her physical outputs in training…

Kim Little describes her childhood in rural Scotland as a very sporty one but it was clear to her from an early age that football was her biggest passion. “I had the opportunity to play a lot of sports when I was younger but I enjoyed football a lot more,” Kim explains to Arseblog News. “I grew up in the northeast of Scotland, Aberdeen was the nearest city and it was about forty minutes away. It was quite a rural setting and there were lots of little villages. We formed a team called Buchan girls with the girls from all the local villages.”

Kim’s family and friends also featured in her embryonic years playing football, she describes a real community feel with young boys and girls in Mintlaw, Aberdeenshire. “I played a lot with my youngest brother, who is two years younger than me, and with my dad in the garden. I had a friend called Leanne and I played a lot of football with her and she had three older brothers who played, so I just played football all the time. We would go and watch the boys team and it had a real community feel, the clubs were all run by parents or brothers and the girls would join in.”

Kim says she rarely encountered any opposition to playing with boys, the type of which many of her peers have faced during their development. “My experiences were generally really good. I think there was only one time that a boy said to me ‘this is a boy’s club, why are you here?’ But I think it only happened once and so it’s sat in my mind. My experience of playing with boys and girls was that it was really inclusive. I was around it from such a young age and I could play, so I just naturally fitted in.

“I played with the local boys club and the girls team at the same time for a little while. I was playing every day with both. I played at school, I played for the boys’ club and then I played with Buchan girls all at the same time. Eventually when I got older I was just involved with the girls team and there weren’t joint leagues and it became more competitive.”

Kim eventually came to the attention of Scotland’s age group coaches before being picked up by Hibernian at the age of 15. In keeping with her character, Little doesn’t remember any great revelation about becoming a professional, she simply took each step in her stride. “I was playing for the national team from the age of 13 so I was seen by Hibs playing for Scotland. I was travelling with the national team and being seen by different coaches.

“I signed for Hibs when I was 15 and I knew a lot of girls from the national teams. I travelled to Edinburgh from the northeast every week so I guess it was getting serious then but as a kid, you just do the next thing and don’t really think about it. But just by virtue of the travelling it was taking a lot more of my time.”

Little is revered as a fantastic all round player but most would point to her dribbling skills and her ability in tight spaces as one of her most notable attributes. Again, Kim doesn’t recall a big lightbulb moment where she realised that she was a great dribbler, she simply remembers honing her craft through volume.

“I just practiced so much as a kid. But I think my height means I have a low centre of gravity, I’m quite near the ground! It helps me to get out of tight spaces. I played so much football as a kid so I was playing five-a-side, seven-a-side, indoor football and those small sided games really helped me to develop. When I played 11-a-side I was able to adapt to the space. It’s as much about awareness of space, your body and your opponent as it is technical ability.”

Another of Little’s most renowned attributes is her professionalism, which her teammates describe with awe. Not just her teammates either, her coaches are effusive about her work ethic in training. Just last month, Jonas Eidevall gushed about her dedication. “She usually runs the most and that goes from warm-up to the last minute of the game.

“She puts that in on a consistent basis, on an excellent basis every day. You could never point the finger at her and say ‘you didn’t do your job today.’ She prides herself on it and that culture rubs off on other players. She is the perfect example of someone leading by example and showing others how it can be done and how it should be done.” I ask Kim where this insatiable work ethic comes from.

“I think there are a couple of reasons,” she considers. “I came into the game when it was part-time but now it’s professional. When it was amateur I trained on my own a lot, it gave me discipline. I wasn’t training daily with a team until later in my career. I had to train myself to compete. My dad has always been very active, he always had an exercise routine when we were younger. I think I picked that up subconsciously too, I think he gave me an intrinsic motivation to work hard and push myself.”

Some players reported that Kim’s professionalism extends beyond the training field and into Microsoft Excel, where she rigorously plans training routines and tracks her physical outputs. “I keep a diary, I suppose,” she laughs. “I like to know what I have done and what I am going to do next. I like things to be planned! I am quite organised as a personality trait.”

Kim arrived at Arsenal as a 17-year-old from Hibs and immediately slotted into a team that featured club legends like Jayne Ludlow, Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Ciara Grant. She says her compatriot Julie Fleeting was instrumental in bringing her to the club. “I was playing for the national team when I was 16 and Julie Fleeting was playing at the time and I think that was the connection.

“I signed in early 2008. I talk to the girls a lot about my memories of playing with players like Jayne Ludlow, Kelly Smith, Rachel Yankey and Emma Byrne. I think my first game was away at Leeds, we played a 442 and I played in midfield next to Kelly Smith. When you’re young you just crack on and football came quite naturally to me so it was easy to play with those great players.”

I ask Kim whether she took things in her stride as easily at that age as she does not. “When I look back now I am sure I must have been intimidated, they were all strong characters with such a history of success. I was in a position where I was going to naturally be pushed and I think that helped give me dedication and motivation.” I then ask Kim whether she considers that now, that’s her. She is in the position that the likes of Byrne, Yankey, Smith, Grant and Ludlow were in, that she is the reference point for players that come to Arsenal.

“Occasionally, though I think it’s probably more to do with age,” she says modestly. “I think I am the oldest player here now! It’s just part of the evolution of your career, you’re the young player, then you’re in your peak years and then, all of a sudden, you’re the experienced one. I only occasionally think that it makes me a feel a bit old. Wait until a few years’ time when you’re asking Lotte, Leah and players like that what it’s like to be the oldest players in the team!”

In 2013, Kim left Arsenal to join Seattle Reign in the NWSL. It was a time of evolution for the Gunners when their dominance was coming to an end and there was a high turnover of players. The club went into a transition period. Little says that didn’t really have a bearing on her decision to leave and take up a challenge Stateside.

“I was 22 or 23 and I wanted to go and have another experience. I knew I wanted to do that and the opportunity came up because the former Arsenal coach Laura Harvey had moved out there the year before. It was a natural move because I knew Laura really well. It made the move quite easy and she put together a great team there with players like Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Nahomi Kawasumi- it had a really global feel and it was great fun to be a part of.”

Kim played for Seattle Reign for three years, she was voted the NWSL MVP (Most Valuable Player) in 2014, as well as winning the Golden Boot. She was voted into the NWSL Best XI in 2014 and 2015. After three years in the States, Little returned to Arsenal under coach Pedro Losa. It wasn’t her only offer, of course, but it was the most attractive for her.

“I looked at different offers at the time but when it came down to it, I wanted to come back to Arsenal. Arsenal had been through a transition of being the dominant club to having more competition, I wanted to try and get us back to a place where we were competing and back in Europe more consistently.”

In 2018-19, the Scot captained the Gunners to their first league title in seven years. She had won four league titles with Arsenal before moving to Seattle but says that the 2019 title win was the best of her Arsenal career. “The other league title wins were from a different time when we were so dominant. 2018-19 was very different, it was our first season with Joe (Montemurro) and it felt a bit like a new era.

“We knew we had to get back to that level and being more consistent. We had a really good start to that season which gave us a cushion, we had a lot of injuries that season, I was out for three months as well and we lost Jordan and Dan Carter, Lia Walti. It was an emotional year but it was so rewarding. The competition was so much higher and it takes a lot more to win the league now.”

It wasn’t plain sailing for Little when she first returned to North London however. Soon after re-signing, she ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament in training and missed nine months. In typical fashion, Kim took the injury in her stride. “My teammates are always surprised at how I take to setbacks like that,” she points out. “I’m not overly emotional about it.

“I tend to be logical and pragmatic about things. I maybe had one or two moments where I felt a bit sad but I moved on quickly. That’s my personality, I just went through the process step by step. From training alone a lot when I was younger I didn’t find the process of isolation big injuries bring as difficult as other players do. When I got other injuries later that weren’t as big, it helped me to keep them in perspective.”

Little is one of the most unflappable characters you could wish to meet, which certainly comes across in her football. She has a very low profile off the pitch and is not particularly active on social networks, preferring to keep herself to herself. I ask the Gunners captain how she responds to compliments from her peers, particularly when players like Hope Solo, who do not dish out compliments easily, describe her as ‘the best player I have ever played with.’

“I suppose I get a little shy and embarrassed by those comments but it is also really nice to hear.” In keeping with her remarks, Kim shuffles in her seat a little nervously and it takes slightly longer for the words to come compared to my other questions. “When you have players like Hope who has achieved so much in the game at the very highest level for such a long time, if I didn’t take that compliment there would be something wrong! Comments like that make me feel like I am doing the right things.”

Occasionally I have seen a glimpse of another Kim Little. When I spoke to her a couple of weeks ago after the Champions League defeat to Wolfsburg, I could tell that she was struggling to contain her disappointment. I remind her of the time I asked her for a post-match interview after a defeat by Chelsea in October 2019 and she told me that she needed to take a shower and collect her thoughts for a few minutes.

After Arsenal won the title in May 2019, Kim accidentally dropped a swear live on BT Sport when describing the contribution of her friend and teammate Emma Mitchell, who had just scored a late winner against Manchester City. “That was Mitch bringing that out in me!” Kim interjects with a laugh.

I ask her whether there is a dark side to Kim Little that the public doesn’t see and how she generally carries her fierce competitiveness alongside a shy, almost diffident character on the surface. “I am generally calm, it builds up inside me but I can control it,” she ponders. “I think before I speak mostly and I process things a lot internally.

“Football is intense and you can be a bit more spontaneous, it doesn’t happen often but sometimes it comes out in me, if I don’t think things are good enough in training or those moments of high pressure and it’s natural to be more expressive. It happens to me every now and then, I can be fiery when I need to be.”

While Kim tends to keep a lid on her emotions, there’s no concealing her talent and whether or not she is fiery through her actions, there is little doubt that on the pitch, the Gunners captain brings the heat.

With thanks to @Miedemastuff for the graphic 

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Torterrier

I love Kim. A great person and an amazing player. So professional in everything she does. My favourite player.

Torterrier

Also, a really nice interview with her.

Dan

Great article, thanks Tim. Being a relatively new Arsenal fan, it’s great to read and learned about all the extra awesomeness on top of the awesomenes I was already aware of!

That embedded tweet of Leah RT footage of Kim against Coventry is such a great one, I’m sure it was that move that I saw Katie react to at the time from the other side of the pitch – her reaction was like that ‘mind blown’ emoji. It was a great moment.

Daniel Wynne

it really sneaks up on you but its a funny moment when you realise even big players who seem to have been around for ever and done everything are younger than you

Zoe Waterfield

Kim is quite simply one of the best female players l have ever seen and lm so, so glad she plays for Arsenal 👌

Jocelyn Houghton

She is just the best. I live in Seattle, and I started supporting the Reign in 2015 when Kim was playing for us, and she was a massive draw. What a privilege to watch her play! And with Jess Fishlock – they had a great relationship on the pitch. A real shame Jess didn’t get on Team GB for the Olympics – would love to see them play together again. My two favorite footballers!

Thanks for the great interview, Tim!

Gunner H

Absolutely love this interview/article, Tim! I first developed an interest in women’s football viewing the London Olympics, when I noticed one player who seemed to be a cut above the rest, Kim of course. She is so professional, so dedicated and determined, and such a good role model to her team-mates as a player and captain. Arsenal are fortunate to have Kim Little. She has every ability there is – midfield playmaker, goal scorer and provider, strong tackler, visionary, leadership and she always seems to pop up as the last line of defence at critical moments. Oh, and she scores… Read more »

Nacho de Montreal is tasty

The double “ruleta” dribbles was devastating, ouch!!! We don’t even have anybody who does that in the men’s team.

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