(Photo by The FA)
by Matt Badcock
NIA JONES is well used to mixing it with the best on the highest stage. The 23-year-old Reading defender has international honours for Wales in not one but two sports.
She’s been to the 2014 Commonwealth Games with netball and recently returned from playing football for her country in the Cyprus Cup.
Getting out on the grass, rather than in the sports hall, is her sole focus for now, but she’s still happy to be labelled a dual sport international.
“I prefer it,” Jones laughs. “I do struggle to remember to introduce myself as a footballer. It’s just something I’ve always identified with, I’ve never done just one thing.”
So what came first?
“As a kid, it was football,” she says. “I don’t think any kid picks up a netball and stops moving with it out on the street! So, it was football with the boys to begin with, but I did all sorts – tennis, cross country, athletics, hockey.
“The elite side of things came with netball first. I got my first senior cap for Wales football when I was 18, but by then I was jet-setting off around Europe with netball a lot more.
“I had a few months out from football because I wanted to go to the Commonwealth Games with Team Wales, so that was an amazing experience. I have amazing memories from that.
“But I’m excited just to be focusing on one at the minute, rather than trying to be a jack of all trades and a master of none. I want to really excel at one and see how it goes.
“I would always try to say ‘yes’ to every training session, but I’m trying to be a lot more professional now in managing my body and things like that.
“Psychologically, you can just focus on the one thing, so it is a lot easier. I do miss it a lot and I haven’t hung up my netball trainers for good yet. But it’s still very early on in my club career and I’m just trying to see how far I can get.” So far that has taken her to the WSL1 after the Royals won WSL2 last season.
Now full-time, under the guidance of Kelly Chambers, the team are looking to establish themselves this year.
Their opening game on Wednesday night ended in a 3-1 defeat by Arsenal, but Jones is confident the benefits of full-time training will show.
“I can’t imagine how we used to do it before,” Jones said. “Myself, Laura-May Walkley and Rachel Rowe would drive two-and-a-half hours from Cardiff three times a week, leave with jelly legs and drive home for midnight and be up in the morning for work or the gym. For the love of the game, you just do it and don’t question it.
“I was in the gym the other day and there was a big rugby player in there.
“He said to me, ‘As a professional, the only difference is you’re paid to rest’. That’s so vital because you can focus on your football and you don’t even have to worry about meals because you can go home, prepare properly and recover properly.
“We’re not on mega wages at all. It’s enough to live on, but it means we totally focus on our football, which is great.”
Having been on Wales duty with five of her clubmates, Jones jokes the Royals are known as Wales FC.
“It’s nice that you build relationships with those around you, know what makes them tick on the pitch and off it,” said Jones. “And you know when to leave certain individuals alone before a game.
“Of course, we have a good rivalry with the English players in our dressing room. It doesn’t help when Wales lose at rugby, but I back the Welsh any day.
“When we have small-sided games the Welsh always come out on top.
“We sometimes try to pick up the bibs sub-consciously – I don’t think Kelly has noticed yet. Whatever team has the most Welsh players in tends to come out on top!”
Come game day, they are united as one and are looking to start putting some points on the board quickly.
And Jones is planning to enjoy playing at the top level of the women’s game this year.
“You see, at this level you can get punished if you don’t do the basics, but always a moment of brilliance in a 90- minute game can win the match,” she said.
“It is a step up in terms of coverage and attention. But we do the hard yards in pre-season and all through our careers to play at the top level.
“We all want to be involved and rubbing shoulders with those elite internationals, as everyone sees them.
“We love having them in the league. They’re what gets the fans and kids out to watch. But we’d love nothing more on a Saturday than taking the points off them.”