In the latest in our series of interviews with Impetus sponsored players, Sophie Shults, Ashford Town (Middx) goalkeeper spoke to Ben Gilby about her footballing journey, last season’s successes for the Tangerines, and how the team are settling into FA Women’s National League football (3/11/22).
Above: Sophie Shults looks to make a save against Dulwich Hamlet last season. Photo: Liam Asman.
Supplied by: Sophie Shults.
Sophie Shults is a hugely talented goalkeeper who was a key part of Ashford Town (Middx)’s sensational season in 2021/22.
The club not only won the London & South-East Regional Premier championship, but had a famous FA Cup run – seeing off an Oxford United side from two leagues above them at the time, give then second-placed Championship side London City Lionesses a scare in the following round as well as making cup finals and winning further silverware.
It was the culmination of a footballing journey for Sophie Shults, who like so many began playing the game in her back garden as she explains: “I was first introduced into football when I was six and my brother had just signed up to a team. We played in the back garden every day together and ultimately this fed my fuel to continue with the game. I then signed for my local boys’ team and played there for a season until at the local tournament my dad was approached by the manager of Watford Ladies who asked me to come along and see if I liked it.
“From there I progressed to the Watford Ladies Centre of Excellence, playing there for a total of four years. The FA then stripped back on women’s licencing for Centre of Excellences, so this is when I made the move to play for Arsenal. I played there for four years also, going abroad to Lyon and Holland, and playing against some of best players I have faced. Due to injuries, I was forced to have six months out which unfortunately meant my departure from Arsenal where I moved to Milton Keynes Dons.
“This is when I first entered the women’s game and was introduced to their development team. After a season I was given the opportunity to play first team in which we won promotion from the National League Division One South East to the National League South. Again, plagued with injury, after another period out, I made the move to play for Ashford Town (Middx) and we won the treble last season.
Sophie’s path to being such a talented goalkeeper has been down to, she believes the unstinting support of four people in particular. “When I was younger, my Mum would be my personal cook, taxi, cleaner, main motivator, and biggest supporter. Obviously, she is still my number one fan, however, I have now learned to do the other necessities myself!
“My younger brother spent countless hours with me in the back garden or on the field made me into a much better player. Then there is Ben, my first keeper coach, who showed me how to be in goalie and drilled into me to have no fear. Finally, Carly, the first coach to believe in me at such a young age and pushed me to go further than I believed possible myself.”
Sophie describes herself as a “highly fearless player, usually putting myself in the line of danger when many other goalkeepers wouldn’t. Also, I am very loud on the pitch, commanding my defensive line around and making sure that we have a tight defence.”
Overcoming barriers and significant personal challenges are a key part of any developing footballer, and Sophie is no different. She identifies her own biggest period of difficulty.
“My biggest challenge must have come from breaking my femur on tour with Arsenal. I was out for the best part of six months where I lost a lot of motivation and desire to continue playing football. If it wasn’t for my brother and my mum, I probably would never have played football again. They constantly forced me back in the gym to get fitter, they got me kicking a ball again and refused to let me give up the game that I love.”
Sophie was part of a sensational Ashford Town (Middx) squad last season that achieved many outstanding results. The goalkeeper identified her own fondest memory of a stunning campaign.
“It was when we played London Seaward. who were a league above us at the time in the semi-finals of the Combined Counties Women’s Midweek Cup. It was 1-1 at the full-time whistle meaning that it would go to penalties. We had put in a massive defensive shift and all the girls worked so hard to ensure that we kept the game level during the final 10 minutes.
“This meant that it was now down to me to make sure that I gave our team the best opportunity in the penalty shootout. The final score was 2-1 to us after five penalties. I saved three out of the five with one going past the post and the other beating me on my left. The euphoria of winning the game in such a dramatic style and ultimately winning this cup at the end of the season makes this my fondest memory.”
Asked about the key reasons for last season’s successes, Shults highlights the club ethos. “We play as a team and work as a team constantly. Whether this be in the changing rooms after a loss, on the pitch during the game, or even on the occasions when we go for a team bonding session. Every player holds the values of the club and acts within them accordingly. We work hard for each other, we are always polite, and show everyone involved at the club (players, coaches, staff, supporters) respect. Ashford Town is an open welcoming family that you feel proud to be part of.
“The key messages we get are to work hard for each other and try your best. When we come off that pitch, make sure that we have left everything that we possibly could, on there. We are a team which means that we win together and we lose together. The players next to us are who we are playing for and as long as we play as a team we know that our football speaks for itself.”
Those achievements from the last campaign led the club to a first-ever place in the FA Women’s National League. Sophie outlines the major differences she has noticed in the step up the pyramid.
“So far this season has been full of challenges. We are playing well as a team, but the step up from tier five to four has shown an increase in oppositional challenges. The pace of the game is the main difference. The game flows so much quicker meaning that there is less room for error. Further to this, your concentration can never slip in this league, a lesson we learned the hard way. In tier five if you were 3-0 up against a team this usually means that the game was over and would be quite a comfortable win, however in tier four the game is never over until the final whistle.”
With the club now settling into tier four football, Sophie outlined both the team’s and her own personal goals for the campaign.
“My main personal goal is to concede less than 30 goals this season in all competitions, alongside developing confidence in claiming crosses under pressure (as I feel this is the main area to improve in my game). This will help the team as our main goal for the season is to be top three at the end of the season. We are a team that strives to keep progressing through the leagues knowing that we can reach higher.”