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Toni Duggan: ‘I wanted the ground to suck me in, for the game just to end’

“It hurt,” Toni Duggan says, “it hurt a lot.” It remains raw, and serves as inspiration. All that time, all that effort, the expectation, and it was over before it had really begun. The England striker had reached her first Champions League final and so had Barcelona, her club, yet after five minutes in Budapest they were a goal down to Lyon, the competition’s winners three years running. After 15, it was two. After 30, it was four. “I wanted the ground to suck me in; you just want the game to end,” Duggan says. Instead, there was an hour to endure, empty but for regret. There isn’t an adequate word for it. “It was so…”, “it was just like …”

“You don’t want that for women’s football, you don’t want that for yourself, to be part of that,” Duggan says. “I’m a positive person. I was saying: ‘we’re going to win it, we’re going to win it’. I believed in the team, but when that happens against Lyon you’ve got a mountain to climb. On the pitch, I still had belief but it’s more anger and frustration and embarrassment. I watched Istanbul and that was a mountain too but Liverpool have history, they’ve been in finals, won trophies. With Barcelona, it was new and Lyon have won and won and won and won and it was so easy. It was really difficult to take.”

“The family had travelled over and you feel so much like you’ve let people down. Naturally, people aren’t going to say that, but … it was an amazing achievement to get there and one day I’ll look back, but that day I was devastated.”

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Not everyone shared her tears. “A lot of the Barcelona girls are young, 22, 23, and they’re getting selfies with their medal and stuff. I’m not criticising: it’s amazing to reach a Champions League final at 22, make history for your hometown club, but I was in a different mind-set,” she explains. “I’d been to semi-finals with City. I was always that close. I’d been defeated by Lyon so much. And I felt this was the day. I just felt it. And it wasn’t. I don’t know, maybe my expectations were higher. I was so upset. They were trying to console me: ‘don’t worry, we’ve done well’, but I was in a different place.”

Soon, she really was: a different city, a different club, but the same aim. On Wednesday night, Atlético Madrid, the club Duggan joined this summer, domestic double winners last season, face City in the round of 16 second leg having drawn 1-1 in England. “The girls want to create history, reach the next round for the first time. I can’t wait,” she says. “A big part of signing for Atlético was the Champions League. There were other clubs interested, good offers, but they weren’t in it.”

One was Manchester United, they said. “That literally just stemmed from Twitter,” Duggan laughs. “Abbie McManus and Mary Earps, good friends, signed and it just grows and grows and grows and grows, but I was never close to signing. It was [weird]. People assumed because they’d seen it on Twitter. I’ve never really been in that position before: I don’t think women’s football itself has. When I was at City, there was this thing about me going out with Sergio Agüero and I was like: ‘this is news to me’. Honestly, it’s like: God bless the men’s players because they get it every week. Oh my God. I just laughed it off.”

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“It’s the easy option to go home: my family’s there, boyfriend, friends. That’s the thing people don’t realise. The men can bring the family over. It’s easier financially. I’d love that opportunity; I’d probably be in Spain my whole career. But [the salary] doesn’t allow it. There’ll be a time I go home: my mum wants me to already. But it’s a nice lifestyle, too. I was speaking to [Kieran] Trippier and he said the same. I played in England, at the top level, for years and won everything. I’m glad I took this opportunity. Spain’s an amazing place to play.”

Toni Duggan (left) tussles with Manchester City’s Lauren Hemp during the first leg of the Champions League tie between the two sides two weeks ago.

Toni Duggan (left) tussles with Manchester City’s Lauren Hemp during the first leg of the Champions League tie between the two sides two weeks ago. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA Wire/PA Images

But why not stay at Barcelona? “It’s about being happy. I was happy but the football was a little bit frustrating. They have an identity, a philosophy, which I enjoy but I felt it didn’t get the best out of me as a No 9. I looked at Atlético, where I would fit, spoke to the manager and president. I played them last year and knew their style, the supporters. And I turn up and it feels like a family already. I haven’t yet scored as many as I did there to start with, but I’m more involved in the game, more comfortable, more happy with my performances.”

Atlético also hosted last year’s men’s Champions League final, and Duggan’s family are huge Liverpool fans. “Talks hadn’t started yet,” she laughs. “It would’ve been a big pulling factor, that: two tickets to the final. I always try to get my brothers tickets, Liverpool got there and they were like: ‘Toni’ll sort it’. I literally tried everything without being too cheeky, but this time I couldn’t.”

Now the focus is another final of her own. Another shot at Lyon, the club that sometimes feels invincible? “Yeah, they do,” Duggan says. “The financial support has helped them bring in top, top players, unbelievable. Other clubs don’t have that luxury. Consistently winning breeds success, too. Teams fear them. I used to feel that a bit at City: I wouldn’t say it was easy but come 70 minutes their mind-set would be ‘we’re against City, we’ll never win’. As soon as someone breaks Lyon down – we came close in preseason – and people see they’re not invincible, it might change.”

“I speak to the four English girls there and they tell me: all they care about is the Champions League. At Barcelona, our aim wasn’t to win the Champions League. There was a sense everyone was happy to be there, a fantastic achievement, but I don’t care who you’re playing, it’s a one-off: you can win that football match. I was like ‘this is the day’. It didn’t happen, but it’s inspired me to try again.”

It hasn’t been the easiest start. Atlético’s coach José Luis Sánchez Vera left for personal reasons 10 days before the first City game, they were hammered by her former club, and they’ve suffered injuries. But Duggan insists: “the spirit to deal with all this, I can’t tell you say how strong it is – that’s got to be a reason they won the league the last two seasons. We’re playing well now, winning, I’m really enjoying it.”

Toni Duggan

Toni Duggan: ‘It’s City but it’s tough whoever you face. We lost in Kazakhstan last year. That’s the Champions League, it’s amazing.’ Photograph: Pablo Garcia

Facing her former club was a nice draw. “I honestly don’t care; I just want to get through,” Duggan laughs. “I care that my family could come [to the first leg] easily. I was like: ‘Yes! City!’ They’re the most supportive family and friends I could wish for. In Barcelona, every game, someone came.

“Here too. I feel like a travel agent, always sorting flights, but I couldn’t do this without them. The fans gave me a good reception there too, as always: they’re amazing. It’s nice they appreciate you, there’s respect, but if a couple stick the finger up or said I was crap I wouldn’t blink. It’s football. It’s City but it’s tough whoever you face. We lost in Kazakhstan last year. That’s the Champions League, it’s amazing. That’s why I came. I absolutely love the competition. I want to be a part of it and I want to be part of it to the end.”


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