England’s Gemma Bonner on the run for Leeds Rhinos and Bradford City stricken stars

THERE are many traits that enable a sportsperson to elevate into an elite performer.

By Dave Craven
Saturday, 16th May 2020, 6:00 am
On top of her game: Leeds-born Gemma Bonner, of Manchester City. Picture: Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images
On top of her game: Leeds-born Gemma Bonner, of Manchester City. Picture: Charlotte Tattersall/Getty Images

Whether it be an innate will to win, an outstanding natural talent, a pure dedication to their profession or a combination of all the aforementioned, something drives the individual.

There is a determination that cannot be diminished and sometimes the person themself may not even know what sparks it.

In Gemma Bonner’s case, she always knew achieving her goal of one day representing her country at football would not be easy.

England Women's Gemma Bonner during the training session at St George's Park, Burton. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday April 2, 2019. See PA story SOCCER England Women. Photo credit should read: Aaron Chown/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to FA restrictions. Editorial use only. Commercial use only with prior written consent of the FA. No editing except cropping.

Competition was tough, obstacles would occur, setbacks would happen yet she never had to look far for inspiration if it were ever needed.

The Manchester City and England centre-back, who started out in her home city with Leeds United, only needed to glance at her mum to be reminded that anything is possible as well as of the virtues of courage and perseverance.

She has been confined to a wheelchair for more than 40 years and Bonner explained: “Since I was born, that’s all I’ve ever known. I do look up to my mum – and my dad – and their outlook on life especially my mum in terms of what she deals with on a daily basis.

“She just keeps on inspiring me to push even further.

Wigan Warriors' Willie Isa is tackled by Toronto Wolfpack's Hakim Miloudi (left) and Toronto Wolfpack's Bodene Thompson (right), during the Betfred Super League match at DW Stadium, Wigan. PA Photo. Picture date: Thursday February 13, 2020. See PA story RUGBYL Wigan. Photo credit should read: Martin Rickett/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. No commercial use. No false commercial association. No video emulation. No manipulation of images.

“She’s always there for me when I need any guidance – whether football or in general – and is always constantly pushing me.

“Seeing how mum deals with the things she has to, I always think I can’t be any worse off than what she is.

“I’m the youngest of six kids, too, so to have six... looking back they both made it look like a doddle!

“Anything any one of us wanted to do, they did it and made sure it happened. No matter what it would take, they would always make it possible for us. They managed to give us the best education, life skills, opportunities and I could not have wished for a better upbringing.

“I’d like to think that has helped me get to where I am today. They are both still inspiring me on a day-to-day basis to try and do everything I can to give back.

“Any chance I get I will always go home (to Leeds) to see them. I guess with everything I do I’m just trying to make them as proud as I can.”

Even aside from anything achieved on the pitch – and there is plenty – it goes without saying they are understandably proud.

But when it does come to honours, the 28-year-old has flourished since those early days with Leeds.

Bonner won the 2010 League Cup with United but, after Leeds controversially failed to earn a place in the inaugural Women’s Super League, moved on for a successful spell with Chelsea.

Next came a switch to Liverpool where she captained them to back-to-back league titles in 2013 – the year the stylish defender made her international debut – and 2014 before joining City two years ago where she claimed the FA Cup and League Cup double last term.

It is a surprise to many that one of the most talented and respected centre-backs in WSL history has not won more than 11 caps although – coming into her peak years – there is still time for that to be corrected

Of course, Bonner is currently on lockdown due to Covid-19 and out of action but is remaining active and not just with her club training regime.

She has undertaken the ‘100K in May’ challenge, running the distance over this month in aid of the Darby Rimmer MND Foundation.

Former Bradford City and Liverpool defender Stephen Darby was diagnosed with the incurable and fatal Motor Neurone Disease almost two years ago when aged just 29.

He is the husband of England captain Steph Houghton, Bonner’s partner in the heart of the City defence.

Bonner has also helped fund-raising for Rob Burrow, the Leeds Rhinos legend who was diagnosed with the same debilitating condition just before Christmas.

“The 100k Challenge for me was something I really felt an attachment to,” she said.

“I am extremely proud to be a part of it having a connection personally with both Rob and Darbs. The Foundation has been doing some unbelievable work and made great strides already in what currently is such a deprived area of research and treatments, particularly in the UK.

“The amount of people who have joined the team and the money raised so far, especially at this time, is incredible and my hope is that sooner rather than later this will help to find a cure for the horrible disease.”

Bonner – whose boyfriend is Wigan Warriors second-row Willie Isa – is a big rugby league fan and grew up watching Rhinos.

She remembers witnessing Burrow come through the ranks at Headingley to be a star of their ‘Golden Generation’ making it all the more difficult when hearing his news.

“Having the experience for a year knowing about Darbs and learning a bit more and having the awareness about it, I suppose that when it happened to Rob, it did hit me even harder,” explained Bonner.

“When I was asked to attend Rob’s charity dinner and get up and answer a few questions I did everything I could to get there that night.

“It was a big honour for me. I grew up as a Rhinos fan and I think I first met Rob when I was about eight or nine and they (Rhinos) came into our school.

“I remember the impact he had on me and how he made me feel. He always made time for me, no matter where I saw him, whether at Rhinos games or if I came across him in town a couple of times in sports shops, he always asked how I was going.

“For me as a young kid, having someone that I watched every week then give that time back to you and have a genuine interest, it had a really big impact on me.

“At the moment now, I’d do anything to help Rob – and Darbs – raise awareness and hopefully they can find a cure.”

Asked about what initially gave her her love for football, though, she replied: “You’d think having four older brothers and three (boy) cousins was probably the reason.

“But saying that, none of them were really that interested in football. I guess just being outside playing with them all the time and being the youngest I had to stick up for myself.

“We had a big garden and I was out there as long as I remember and always had a ball at my feet.

“I just loved playing. I think I was at Leeds United from about the age of nine and was training every night whether that be with the club or in the garden.

“That was pretty much my childhood and all I remember!

“There’s pics of me with a Liverpool shirt on and a battered old ball from really young.

“But my mum and dad were always telling us to get outside in the garden as a kid and I just enjoyed kicking a ball around.”

What did her sister Joanne – the eldest of the siblings – make of it all? Bonner said: “She always wanted a little sister.

“But I’m not quite sure I’m the little sister she was expecting or hoping for!

“She was really good, though. Obviously there’s a bit of an age difference so she always supported me, looked after me, helped mum and dad at home and with football. She’d take me places if I needed a lift and still comes and watches me now.”

City, meanwhile, were top of the WSL, just ahead of Chelsea, when the pandemic brought things to a halt but there is no decision yet as to whether the season will be completed.

Bonner does, though, have some simple advice for any current aspiring nine-year-old girls who may want to follow her path. She said: “I remember being told girls couldn’t play football and there wasn’t a career in the game for me.

“But I’m obviously sitting here now as a professional footballer.

“I’d say never let anyone tell you you can’t reach your dream; as long as you work hard and enjoy what you do and keep pushing, then you will get there.”

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