The Barclays FA Women's Super League now welcomes World Cup winners and global superstars to England's shores. When Kelly Smith was a teenager, there was no such opportunity.
Commonly referred to as England's greatest-ever women's player, Smith had to swap England for America in search of a chance to play football. It became a path so well-versed that it even reached Hollywood - with a cameo from Smith herself. Now, as a Barclays ambassador who campaigns for equal access to football, a legend of the game is helping to create opportunity where there was none for her.
You were kicked out of Garston Boys Club after parents of the opposition complained. What do you remember about that?
I was devastated – I wanted to play football with my friends. When I found out what the parents were saying, it was really hurtful. My dad had to sit me down and say, “You can’t play, they’re stopping the team from picking you.” I didn’t get it, it didn’t seem fair to me. He said, “How about hockey or netball?” but I was like, “I don’t want to do that, I just want to play football.” I remember being so upset and crying all the time. He said, “We’ll find you a girls’ team.” There were no girls’ teams in Watford or Garston, so we had to research it and finally found one in Pinner, which was about a 40-minute drive away. That’s where I ended up playing.
When you were 17, you moved to America to find opportunities. What was that like?
It was such a difficult decision, because the opportunities for me in England were few and far between in terms of professionalism. We were training twice a week at Arsenal, from 8-10pm, and just used the facilities when the men and academy were finished with them. There was already a dampener on it because you knew you were only allowed there when the men weren’t around. We weren’t getting paid to play, and had to pay subsidies to play. I had to make a choice as a teenager to leave the country for bigger and better things. That was very nerve-wracking and very tough, as I was so close to my family. There was a lot of homesickness, but I had to do it to pursue my football career.
Do you feel like Bend It Like Beckham was based on your story?
Yeah, definitely. I was actually in it – one of my goals features in the film. It’s very much that, because she [Jess, played by Parminder Nagra] takes herself off to get a scholarship in America – a similar thing of wanting to be a professional footballer but not being able to in your own country. That’s what happened to me. I get a lot of girls asking if they should go to the USA and follow a scholarship. I say, “Why? You’ve got everything that you could possibly need here in England.” I had to leave because I didn’t have it then. Now you’ve got a professional league, run fantastically well. All the talent internationally are coming over, even the US players. That makes a statement about it being the best league in the world.
Was it hard to be thrust into the spotlight across the pond?
Really hard. I was the new English player in town, scoring goals, and the media attention turned to me. I’d never experienced any of that before, so the university gave me some media training to help. I had to work on it to finally become comfortable speaking in front of the cameras and in one-on-one interviews. I hated it – I didn’t want to talk to journalists, I just wanted to play football.
We read a story about you being asked to accept an award, but you were so nervous that you hid in a bathroom...
It was a banquet with four teams all sat on round tables – probably around 100 people – and I knew I was going to get an award. The defensive player of the year got up first and gave an acceptance speech... my heart sank. I thought, ‘There’s no way I can address this room’. I just froze. Before my name was even read out, I was hiding in the bathroom. There was no way I could have addressed anyone at that time of my life. I was uncomfortable in my own skin.
What had changed in the English game by the time you returned aged 26?
There were a few small changes. Players were paid but it was nowhere near the levels these days. We got expenses to represent England. A lot of the squad had to use up their holiday leave to play for their country – they were out of pocket. Having to find part-time work, just to play for England... it was so different back then. We played in men’s kit, and the training gear would be oversized. It didn’t make you feel too good as a female footballer playing for your country when the shirt didn’t fit.
But it’s come on full circle now. What the FA have done has been brilliant with the resources that it has, the finances they’ve put into it and the league structure. The professionalism and the standards that each team has to has to set and have in terms of the academies and the youth teams that every club has to have under the FA Barclays WSL umbrella - it’s just a whole different league to the one I used to play in. It’s brilliant, it’s music to my ears to see how much the game has developed in the last 20 years.
In 2006-07 you sealed the quadruple with Arsenal. Will we ever see an English team quite like that again?
When you’re in it, you don’t really appreciate it as much – but the players in that side were outstanding. I don’t know if that will happen again because of how competitive the league has become in England. Some of the teams we played knew they’d lost before we set foot on the pitch, because of the mental edge we had and the history of being very successful. Teams were scared to play us.
Now in this era, I think because of the league, all the teams are more level and had similar resources. I can’t see a team like Arsenal dominating the league, FA Cup and Champions League - which I think is a good thing. You don’t want one team dominating it every year, it becomes boring and you might lose viewership. So I think it’s great that so many teams now can beat any team on any given day. It’s good for the players, it makes for a more competitive environment. And that’s what the fans want to see, ultimately. You want your team to be performing against the best teams and you don’t want it to be a walkover.
You missed the 2007 UEFA Women’s Cup Final after giving the finger to opposition fans during the semi-final...
Thanks for bringing that one up! [Laughs] We were playing at Brondby and I’d made a slide tackle in my own half. I thought I’d won the ball, but the referee gave me a second yellow card and I was off. What angered me, even more, was the crowd jeering as I left the pitch. Then I kicked over a chair in the dugout. I got a three-game ban, so missed the two-legged final. I was devastated. Arsenal manager Vic Akers and president David Dein sent a letter to UEFA apologising on my behalf, but sadly it didn’t make any difference. I travelled with the squad to Sweden for the first leg against Umea, then remember sitting in the stand at Boreham Wood for the second leg and being a nervous wreck. My heart had never beat so fast – I couldn’t sit still. When the final whistle blew and we’d won 1-0 on aggregate, I leapt over the fence and embraced the players. It wasn’t just that one game, it was the journey the team had been on. We weren’t expected to win that trophy.
You were shy off the pitch, yet had a fiery streak on it...
I was Jekyll and Hyde – as soon as I stepped over that white line, I was someone different. Off the pitch, in my tracksuit or in normal life, I’d be shy and reserved.
How does it feel to hear people say you’re the greatest English player ever?
It’s a nice tag – growing up, I never imagined that people would eventually talk about me in that manner. I think I had a special talent from a young age that I worked hard on and honed to become the best player that I could. I had some injuries, but every time I returned I tried to prove I was back to my best, to help win trophies for Arsenal and England.
You scored a record 46 England goals. Can anyone top that?
Ellen White scored six at the last World Cup, so potentially if she stays fit. The Euros are in England next year – she could beat me then.
How do you think you’d fare in the Barclays FA WSL?
If I was in my prime, I’d be... well, this sounds arrogant – I don’t want to say I’d be the best player, but I’d be a big player. Now, aged 42, I wouldn’t last two minutes! The pace of the game, the tactical awareness and the fitness levels have all evolved, but I think I’d do OK.
Do you see a comparison between yourself and Vivianne Miedema?
We’re two very similar players but I admire her from a distance. She’s a top, top talent and her goalscoring record is breathtaking. And what she’s done from such a young age, I think she’s only 24 and she’s Holland’s all-time record scorer - at 24 - I think that’s outstanding.
And what she’s done at Arsenal, she’s very easy on the eye, the way she moves with the ball, they way she drops into the holes to receive balls, she’s not your average No.9 to stay up there and hold the ball up. She scores all kinds of goals and her assist rate is very, very good too and I think she’s probably the best striker in the world right now in terms of goal tallies and assists and what she’s done for the game in England and Arsenal has been phenomenal.
Which players do you wish you’d have played with?
Miedema. I wish I’d played with her. And just seeing the players that are over now, like Rose Lavelle at Man City. I love to watch her play. She’s very elegant on the ball, very calm and composed, can glide through tackles and has great vision. She’s a player that I love to watch. Along with Sam Mewis. I think they are winners, obviously won the World Cup with the US, they’re just top players to come over. Certainly when all those players like Kristen Press, Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan were rumoured to be coming over - when they finally announced it, you’re like, “Wow”, it’s mouth-watering stuff because these are World Cup winners. Coming to England and playing in the Barclays FA WSL is just… unreal. It’s made a lot of other leagues and players stand up and take notice. If it’s not the best now, in the next few years, it’ll be the best league in the world.
You're now a Barclays ambassador. With The FA Girls Football School Partnership now aiming for equal access for girls’ football - that must be something you’re passionate about?
Yeah, it’s brilliant. I love being a Barclays ambassador because I get to go into schools and see the smiles on the girls’ faces. Just seeing have the opportunity and the access to football is absolutely brilliant. I didn’t have that when I was growing up so in this day and age for girls that do have that, is outstanding. I think this is the biggest age range that they can drop out and lose interest in football, so having that opportunity to play in schools with other girls… they don’t even have to become a professional footballer, it’s just being given that opportunity that boys have. I think that’s crucial. You know, not every girl’s going to take it up but if they get a taste of football and they’re good at it, they can know that there are opportunities in football that can have, like being a coach, a manager, or working in the journalism world on football, there are many different avenues. But having that opportunity is brilliant and seeing the smiles on faces, and the lessons that the coaches put on, it’s absolutely brilliant.
Are there many current teams in the Barclays FA WSL that compare to the Arsenal side you played in?
I see Chelsea as being the current standout team so far in this league campaign. I think Emma Hayes has built a fantastic squad of players. She’s recruited really, really well and I think any given player that comes into that starting XI, you know they’re going to be on the top of their game. And on the bench, she’s got international players who can come on and change a game. So her squad is probably the best in the league. In terms of them in the Champions League, they’ve been in the Champions League for a number of years now and they’ve come very close. So if they can get back into it again, I think that squad is the best it’s ever been and they’ll have a real go at it.
* Kelly Smith is a Barclays Football Ambassador
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