A footballer will see a lot in a career spanning 17 years and counting – but few will have witnessed quite so many changes to the game than Rachel Yankey.
The Arsenal Ladies midfielder, who overtook Peter Shilton to become England’s most capped player in June 2013, has remained an ever-present throughout women’s football’s shift into the public eye. From a wide-eyed youngster wearing boys’ shirts to becoming one of the most respected footballers on the planet, Yankey opens up to FourFourTwo about life at the top ahead of England’s crucial European Championship campaign in Sweden.
Rachel, you’re now the most capped English player of all time – are you still pinching yourself?
Yes, a little bit! It’s a bit strange but just fantastic. When I finish I’ll be extremely proud of all the achievements I’ve had but for now it’s all about concentrating on the Euros and trying to make the team for the first game against Spain.
What has the reaction been like so far?
I have been a little bit overwhelmed so far. There have been so many positive messages from people who are proud of what I’ve done. It’s a little bit strange to be honest. The best message was from Ian Wright congratulating me – he’s been my hero growing up. To get a message from a major footballer like that was fantastic.
Is your hunger still as strong as ever? The World Cup in Canada is only two years away?
I don’t think I could ever question whether or not I’ll still be around so long as I’m fit and still playing. But I don’t pick the team! I’d definitely like to be playing for England. I don’t feel close to retirement or my age so I feel quite happy. I think I’m playing quite well so long as I’m doing that I will always have the intention of playing.
How far can England go in this tournament?
The players have never won anything at international level so it’s definitely an ambition of ours to change that. But you only have to look at the other teams, especially in our group – it will be incredibly difficult. We won’t be disrespectful and say that the team will do as well as we did in 2009 because playing Spain, Russia and France is incredibly tough. To get out of that group will be a massive achievement. After that it goes to one-off cup finals and hopefully we can get through them.
Who are the biggest threats to England’s chances?
You always have to look at Germany because they’re a massive team in women’s football. How they produce their players year after year, and their consistency, is amazing. Then there’s the hosts, Sweden, and France in our group too. I’d say they were probably the top the nations.
Germany have come out trumps in the last four tournaments – how on earth do you beat them?
I wish I knew the answer! But hopefully we’ll come up with that this time if we get drawn against them.
There’s experienced heads like yourself, and youngsters like Toni Duggan and Jordan Nobbs in the squad - is that a good blend?
Definitely, it is really good. As experienced players we want to pass on our knowledge to help the youngsters like Jordan and Toni show what they can really do. They’re there on merit – they are fantastic footballers and deserve to be in a position where they can play for England. We need them to perform but to be fair those guys have been there and won a European Championship before at youth level (under-19 championship in 2009). They will know how to handle the pressure and cope with being away for a long time. I wouldn’t worry about them too.
Do you remember your first major tournament well?
Being a kid I just took it in my stride. It was the 2001 European Championship and I really enjoyed it. I hope that goes for this summer too because if we can enjoy everything off the pitch then we’re more likely to enjoy the football on it too. I think that’s when you get to see the best, most talented footballers. These are the people who can light up the stage, like Toni. She has done magnificently well for Everton and we really want her to shine.
At the same time, is it your job to keep them grounded? We hear you’re a bit of a practical joker?
Who, me? Never. While you’re training and in the hotel you need to have a laugh – but respect the rules. Although I like a joke you have to remember that you’re representing your nation while you’re out there. But you must have fun and enjoy yourself because it’s not every year that you get to play in a major championship. It might not happen again. Once you get on that pitch though, it becomes serious. We all go out there with the same aim of winning the game.
How much has women’s football changed since you first broke onto the scene?
So much. I think the players are fitter, more talented and look like athletes. That’s no disrespect to players gone but if you’re not eating the right things and training the right way then it’s difficult to work and maintain a balance. We are educated better now and it’s easier for us to maintain that lifestyle. Off the pitch I have early memories of Umbro kit launches for a fitted women’s shirt – when I first started I was just wearing an extra-large boys’ kit. I was at the forefront of that and it was brilliant. I can really see so many fantastic changes.
Do you feel like a pioneer in that sense?
If you’d asked me a few years ago I wouldn’t say I was. But when I read messages I see a lot telling me I’ve been there the whole time, that I’m a role model and people are inspired by what I have done. I haven’t really looked at it until now but I suppose I am. I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to be involved in the way I have, and if I can give something back by playing then that’s great. We want England to be more than just champions, we want to emulate Germany and do it consistently.
After the Olympics do you think awareness of women’s football is at an all-time high?
Definitely, the Olympics took it to another level. I don’t think any of us players really understood what a massive sporting event it is until we were really in the mix. I’m not going to lie – I never thought women’s football would have so many paying fans at Wembley. I was in total amazement when we played Brazil.
In the Women's Super League it’s Liverpool leading the way this year – is that a bit of a surprise?
They have invested and done things the right way. Liverpool have got behind the women’s team and really backed it, and that is only positive for the game. As an Arsenal player we’re only halfway through, so don’t worry!
Arsenal are used to dominating the women’s game – is this a welcome new challenge for you?
When a team starts winning the league, the FA Cup and progressing into the Champions League, people don’t always realise how difficult it is at the start of a season. For Arsenal, who consistently get to the later stages in Europe, you are coming in at that stage when you are most vulnerable. Around March you’re playing against German, Spanish and Italian champions – top sides – when you’ve only just finished pre-season. They have a winter league, however, so are midway through theirs. By the time our league season starts you’re always playing catch-up, and if you get injuries like we did it damages you. It has been a difficult first half but people are getting back to fitness so hopefully we’ll finish strongly. We’re not that far off so nobody is that nervous yet.
Rachel Yankey, the most capped England player of all time, wears Umbro football boots www.umbro.com