For a lifelong Manchester United fan twiddling with her phone during a geology class at the University of North Carolina, the best possible distraction from a lecture on volcanoes and pyroclastic flows was an unexpected call from then-England head coach Phil Neville.
“Oh god, what have I done?” thought Alessia Russo, as she excused herself from the room to answer the call. As it turned out, Neville was phoning to offer her a debut senior England call up at the 2020 SheBelieves Cup. Fast forward nearly two years and she is the scorer of England Women’s fastest ever hat-trick and – after re-finding her form after battling back from a lengthy hamstring injury last term – she is leading the line for a Manchester United side chasing a spot in Europe.
“Last season was really rough, it’s horrible when your sport is taken away from you for such a long time, but it makes you realise your love for the game again. I’ve got a lot of goals and ambitions, but at the same time, I just love playing,” said the 22 year-old from Maidstone in Kent, whose father used to play up front for the Met Police and whose Italian grandfather ensured the whole family were Manchester United fans after a chance visit to an Old Trafford in the Eighties.
“United is part of our family. Grandad fell in love with Old Trafford and the team, so we were all raised as United fans. Growing up, for me, it was obviously about Ronaldo, but I also loved Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, that generation.”
When that call came from another of the ‘Class of 92’ in Neville, Russo had been in her third year of college football with the prestigious North Carolina Tar Heels, whose remarkable list of alumni includes United States icon Mia Hamm and England’s current head coach Sarina Wiegman. That spell abroad enabled her to continue studying – including that geology class she’ll never forget – as well as developing her game, scoring 28 times in 57 games for the Tar Heels, before the club she had supported as a child came calling in September 2020.
“It was almost like fate for me to come here. I love the club, it was the perfect fit for me. And it’s a group of such talented, young humble people to be involved with. It was a project I wanted to be a part of, and it’s one that I’m loving.
“We’re a changing room full of winners and I think that we need to start backing up our performances with results now. Everyone’s really hungry to get back on the pitch and show what we’ve got. I would love to keep winning and pushing for the Champions League with Manchester United.”
Fourth in the WSL, Manchester United face their head coach Marc Skinner’s former side Birmingham in the WSL at noon on Saturday, knowing a win would move them into the top three. They are on a run of three straight wins in all competitions, but Russo herself is also in top form, and full of confidence after coming off the bench to score an 11-minute hat-trick – the fastest by any player for England Women on record – in November’s 20-0 win over Latvia, in only her second senior cap.