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Meet England's new centre-half - Laura Bassett; football.

Bulkington 16-year-old Laura Bassett has a burning ambition to be a professional footballer, she tells MICHELLE WILSON

MAKE no mistake, the FA is taking women's football seriously.

Representatives from the FA, the Premier League, the PFA and the women's football conference have announced plans to work together to establish a women's professional league within the next three years.

Fulham Ladies have become the country's first professional team and the Doncaster Belles have put forward proposals to build their own ground as finance starts to, slowly, be ploughed into the game.

England under-18s were established in 1997 after UEFA held the first European Championships at that level and last year, England started an under-16s team to give up-and-coming players the chance to gain international experience.

All this is good news for teenagers like Laura Bassett, who would relish the challenge of playing football on a professional basis.

Bulkington-based Laura, who plays centre-half for England under-16s, said: "We just want to play the game because we love the game. People are becoming more accepting of women's football which is good and it is becoming more familiar. Sky showed the women's cup final and the media are starting to get involved.

"We're not as fast as the men and we're not as strong because obviously they have bigger builds. Even in athletics the men get faster times in the 100m sprints because it is a physical thing, but we're as skilful, have a good attitude and the knowledge.

"There's still a long way to go. You can't compare men and women's football because we are being compared with professionals and we're amateurs."

Sixteen-year-old Laura was part of the England under-16s team which recently overcame Scotland 2-0, USA 1-0 and the Republic of Ireland 2-0 at a mini- tournament which was built around training sessions at Lilleshall.

It was the first time the Coventry City Ladies skipper has represented her country after being on standby for previous squads.

And those in the England set-up, which is under the leadership of national coach Hope Powell, are working hard to make sure there is a stream of talent gushing towards the senior side.

"Being involved in the squad was enjoyable and it was tiring because I am not used to that intensive level of training," Laura said.

"At home I don't train every day because of my A-levels but I would love to do that and play football for my profession.

"We worked on our game plan - set pieces, defending corners, taking free- kicks - and the day before a match we would look at the opponents and see their strengths and weaknesses. It was all about preparation and it must have worked! I didn't score a goal but we kept three clean sheets.

"It was the first time I have played for England and it is a bit different to playing for Coventry because I was playing with players of the same age and the difference is you are playing for your country so you are playing for the Three Lions and it was overwhelming.

"It has widened my knowledge, not just about my position but everybody else's, and it has taught me a more professional attitude to football. It will be hard work if I want to get anywhere.

"Some people from Bulkington came to watch me play for England and it opened their eyes about how good the standard is."

Laura, who is supported by her parents, Keith and Marie, and brother, Daniel, joined Bedworth Ladies aged nine along with Laura Heely and Nikki Webb, who now play for Leeds and Wolverhampton respectively and have represented England under-18s.

She then joined Coventry City Ladies aged 14 and now usually plays central midfield in their 3-5-2 formation in the Northern Division of the AXA FA Women's Premier League as well as playing for Birmingham County seniors, training at City's centre of excellence and studying for A-levels in PE, psychology and English literature and language at North Warwickshire and Hinckley College.

"I would like to represent England again," Laura added. "It was a fabulous experience and they're possibly organising a match for July but I don't know whether I will be involved in that because of my age. I might have to move up to the under-18s but just because I have played for the under- 16s doesn't guarantee me a place so I will have to start all over again at trials in the summer.

"I would love to be involved in a professional league and there are a lot more people interested now so I think it would be successful."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Wilson, Michelle
Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:May 18, 2000
Words:766
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