When the England women’s football team squares up against current title holders, the USA, this evening, they will be challenging one of their own. Jill Ellis, the US team captain, will coach her players from the sidelines on how to knock England out of the cup – while her father, John, sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone” to himself.
At the heart of the US women’s football team there is a conflict of interest: the Ellis family – which includes Jill’s mother, Margaret, and brother, Paul – hails from the south coast of England, near Portsmouth. On Jill’s match days, John, 80, sits down at his organ in Florida and plays the Liverpool FC anthem. Outside the retirement home he shares with Margaret, American flags wave from flowerpots underneath a 2015 World Cup banner.
“On the one hand, I am delighted to see the England girls do well,” John told the Washington Post. “But I truly know where my allegiance lies, because this country gave me my opportunity. I have a lot of pride being English, but I came to America.”
The Ellises have always been a football-loving family. In the past, they have supported Manchester United and Portsmouth; now, they are on the side of the US.
When Jill, now 52, was growing up, she watched John travel the world as a football player and coach with the Royal Marines, for whom he was also a commander. Later, he coached England club teams. Jill and Paul inherited their father’s passion for the game; they would play football together in the playground during the week, then follow him to training sessions at the weekend.
“I’d stand on the sidelines,” Jill has told USA Today. “The real fun part was, after a game, we’d go in the clubhouse and eat a bag of crisps and drink lemonade with the players.”
But her early interest in football was stifled by strict gender rules in Britain. The FA had banned women’s football in 1921, preventing female players from pursuing professional careers in the sport. It wasn’t lifted until 1971, but it took another decade for attitudes to really shift.
Jill was confined to playground games, hockey and athletics. Things only changed in 1980, when Jill turned 14 and John packed up his family and took them from the coastal village of Cowplain to the US.
Although it isn’t football’s traditional home, the Ellises thrived in America. John set up a training camp, Soccer Academy, in North Virginia (now run by Paul), and Jill started playing competitively. The academy attracted coaches from across the world, including Japan and Scotland, whom John had met on his travels and invited to stay with the family.
In the years that followed, John rose to assistant coach of the US women’s national team – a path that Jill followed closely. She went to study English at William & Mary Univerisity, Virginia, where she was also on the football team. Her teammate from that time, Julie Shackford, has said Jill would randomly break into “God Save the Queen.”
As time passed, her British accent softened and long American vowels crept in. Jill set up home in Miami with her wife, Betsy Stephenson, with whom she has a 14-year-old daughter, Lily.
By the time she became the US national coach in 2014, the Ellises had become naturalised US citizens and their new allegiance was set.
Jill has coached the US team through 125 games, including an unbeaten 12-game stint in the last two World Cups. In 2015, she helped them win their first World Cup since 1999.
Tensions will no doubt be high when the Ellises’ two countries go head-to-head tonight for a place in the World Cup final. England has accused the US of spying on its players, after backroom staff were caught wandering around the team’s hotel. Meanwhile, Britain waits with bated breath to see if its women’s team can go one step further than its men did last year.
But the Ellis family will be unwavering in their support.
“It has gone through my mind as [Jill] has developed her coaching career whether she would go back to England someday,” John has said. “I don’t think so now. She has a job to do, and she will do it.”
For her part, Jill has fond memories of Britain. But when she was asked last week about facing her home nation, her response was clipped: “I’ve got US citizenship, brother.”