Megan Heath had always taken pleasure in work, but at 18 she quit her retail job in Manchester's city centre because her childhood sweetheart was making things too mortifying for her to continue.
Her partner, Will Keane, wasn't coming in and, like, punching shoe displays off the high shelves at H&M. He'd been signed as a striker at Man United, Megan had been thrust into the spotlight as a result, and now she stood out among her colleagues. "I worked at All Saints in the Trafford Centre for a little bit," she tells me. "Eventually, I left; it got embarrassing. People at work were like, 'Why are you here earning minimum wage when your partner works for Man United?'"
The way the public views the WAG – wife and girlfriend of an athlete, usually a footballer – has barely evolved since the term's inception. One of WAG's earliest uses came in 2002, via staff at a Dubai beach club referring to footballers' wives and their wild behaviour (the English team were staying there before the World Cup in South Korea and Japan). By 2006, it was popularised.
Portrayed as vapid and materialistic, WAGs are used primarily by newspapers to tell morality tales about how money can't buy happiness or appropriate behaviour. Only two years ago, Jan Moir wrote that Roy Hodgson "has never seen a WAG in a new frock, brimming with Bacardi, her chicken fillets creaking as she marches in her killer heels towards a karaoke machine at midnight" in the Daily Mail. Alison Kervin of The Mail on Sunday took it one step further, comparing WAGs to animals. "These long-legged fillies excitedly clatter down the stairs from pavement level, their hooves shod mostly in cheap stilettos so high they make them look ridiculously tall, slightly deformed, like creatures from Avatar." Fabio Capello even branded them a "virus".
But we've hardly heard from these women, beyond the "My nights with wannabe WAGs made me ashamed of my sex" or "WAG gets her £200,000 kitchen – complete with 6 ovens" headlines. And footballers' partners have to handle a fair bit that you – and the fans of their athlete husbands or boyfriends – wouldn’t necessarily think about. They’re there for own goals, for medics dragging players off the pitch on stretchers, clutching their shattered calves. How do these seen-and-not-heard women cope when trolls are telling their husband to jump off cliffs?
"Growing up, I was always like, 'Ew, I don’'t want to be with a footballer,'" says Megan, whose husband has left United for Hull City since she worked that All Saints job. "The majority of lads and wives I know in football are nice, humble people who come from normal backgrounds. There are the odd few, the only ones you see in the media, who cause trouble." Tabloids pay around £5,000 for kiss-and-tell stories, after all.
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"People think, 'It's amazing to go out with a footballer,'" Megan continues, "but football isn't glamorous if you live in it every day. Yes, you can have nice holidays, you might have a nice house and a nice car and a nice handbag, but when your partner has had a long-term injury or they’re not getting picked to play, sitting on the bench every week, they come home upset, depressed and angry – it's not glamorous. Even when they're playing well, after training they are knackered and just go straight to sleep."
Samantha Collins and James Collins, a former defender for West Ham, are married. Samantha didn't even know James was a footballer when they met. "When I was 18 I worked in Starbucks. James came in all the time, and one day he brought in his friend Teddy Sheringham, who used to play for Millwall. I said, 'I don't follow football, but if I did, I'd support West Ham.' The next day he came in with a signed West Ham shirt. I didn't think anything of it until, one day, I was watching the FA Cup with my dad and I saw James. I was like, 'Oh my god, that guy comes into Starbucks and I’ve been chatting to him.' It was really surreal."
While the tabloids refer to WAGs as "lipstick ladettes" or "Stepford tarts", they don’t spend much time on the emotional labour involved in dating a footballer. For many straight women, having a boyfriend can be emotionally tiring. You end up filling in for the less robust support some receive from their male friends because, from the age of about 15, research has shown that as young men are socialised to "act like men", that means ditching things that feel feminine, like feelings and talking about those feelings with their peers. This can be magnified by a man's job involving 70,000 people chanting their name on the one hand, while being turned into a meme punchline for missing a pass on the other.
When Megan's husband played for Man United at the start of their relationship he was called a child prodigy for his clinical, athletic style, and often compared to Ruud van Nistelrooy. However, Will's career took a turn after his left groin "exploded". The 25th of February, 2016 is remembered as the night Marcus Rashford, then 18, scored twice on his Man United debut to send United into the last 16 of the Europa League with a 5-1 win. But the reality is that Rashford wouldn't have played had Will not been injured. "That night was bittersweet for me," Will told The Times. "I was happy for Marcus, but I had been waiting for another opportunity for so long, and that had been taken away from me by another injury. I often think, 'That could have been me.'"
After his groin injury, Will joined Hull City for £1 million, but soon after he ruptured cruciate ligaments in his left knee. "If your job and what you love is to run around kicking a ball, and then someone tells you you can't do it for a year-and-a-half, it's devastating," says Megan. "You end up feeling claustrophobic in your own body."
Injuries are hard on footballers and their partners, but their pain is magnified by the harsh criticism of fans. "I've tried to stop going onto Twitter and reading people's comments after matches," Megan continues. "When Will had injured his ACL for the second time during a game, somebody tweeted, 'The best thing that’s ever happened for Hull City was Will Keane getting injured.' I was furious."
Aside from injury and abuse, how do WAGs cope with their partners' moods when they play badly? I spoke to Alexandra Solera, who met her husband, Cardiff City goalkeeper Neil Etheridge, when she was working at a nightclub. "We have one of those really fluffy dogs you see on Instagram – it's basically a lion crossed with a teddy bear," she says, giving a truly incredible description of a Chow Chow. "Me and the kids always wait up for Neil when he's playing... the dog will greet Neil from the door and it releases all the bad energy. You can't be mad at a Chow Chow."
Footballers' partners may stick around for several reasons, even when things get tough. Clubs actively encourage monogamy because it signifies security and balance. And so footballers often stay with their childhood sweethearts for the majority of their careers.
I spoke to Lex Wilkinson – a 17-year-old aspiring pop star whose boyfriend, Ryan Edmondson, has just started on Leeds United's A-team – who credits football with making their relationship more adult. "Some of our mates in relationships need to see their boyfriend or girlfriend every day, but if we’re both busy for a couple of weeks, it's not a worry. We talk about really mature things – even my mum notices it. When I’m back from school and he’s back from work we sit down with a glass of red wine and talk about our day."
But committing to a man with such a demanding job often requires sacrifice. Footballers are bringing in all the money, so what you do is often subject to where they have to be. Alex initially worked caring for the elderly, but when Neil transferred to Cardiff she had to quit. "It wasn't something I could jump straight into because I didn’t know the area, so I thought, 'Well, what can I do?" So I put myself back through college" – and now she's a beauty therapist, meaning she can practice anywhere Neil goes.
Megan faced a similar decision when she quit a job she'd had working for jewellery and lifestyle brand Kendra Scott in the US. Maintaining a long-distance relationship while Will was in England proved too difficult. "Since I was 16, I've earned my own money," she says. "I like having something for myself. I'm 26 – I had always imagined myself as a career woman, and never thought I would be the type to get married and have babies young."
Balancing your own goals with those of your partner never really lets up. So the idea that WAGs are these overly tanned vampires, hunting for the latest "it-bag", feels like more of a puffed-up headline than an absolute truth. Instead, these young women sound like they’re doing what so so many others are in the UK: trying to figure out how on earth they’re going to get by, and be happy in the process.