Sportsister chats to two of England’s top footballers about the World Cup, balancing life as non professional sportswomen and looking forward to Euro 2009.
Arsenal and England striker Kelly Smith (pictured on the right) is one of the game’s best known players. She’s the only English player to have reached professional status by playing for eight years in the American league. Her success was so great that when she left, the University retired her shirt number in honour of all the records she had broken there. It was the first time such an accolade had been awarded to a female athlete.
She is now back in England where last season she helped Arsenal to their quadruple success and with over 50 international caps is a key figure in Hope Powell’s England squad.
Fellow England and Arsenal team mate Rachel Yankey (pictured on the left) is no stranger to success either, also playing a key part in winning the quadruple for Arsenal. She’s England’s most capped player, with over 60 caps playing on the left wing and wearing the number 11 shirt.
Rachel has also been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year honours list in recognition of her contributions to the game, both through her competitive success and with the launch of the her own junior football academy.
How is the Arsenal season going for you so far?
Rachel Yankey: It’s going really well. We have just gone top of the league, and we are currently challenging for three titles (since this interview Arsenal were beaten in the League Cup by Everton) so we are hoping that we can get those three and make it another successful season for the Arsenal ladies.
And how is the atmosphere around the England camp after the World Cup and looking forward to Euro 2009?
Kelly Smith: It’s still really good. We had a training camp in January (in La Manga, Spain.) Obviously the competition for places is really rife. After having a successful World Cup, Hope (Powell, England coach) included five youngsters in the squad for the camp who were new call ups – so she is keeping us all on our toes, trying to keep it fresh. But it was a good week out there with quite intense training.
How did you feel returning from a successful World Cup tournament? Have you noticed a difference in the attitude of the media or the general public towards the team?
Kelly Smith: Yes, personally I have. The amount of people that come up to me and speak to me, I definitely get recognised a lot more. It has changed a lot of people’s perceptions about the women’s game, and that’s what we wanted to do by going out there.
Tell us a bit about the kind of training and preparation you do before a game?
Rachel Yankey: We were preparing a lot obviously before the World Cup. We all have training programmes set for us, and have to do a lot of fitness work and strength and conditioning work too. This is all continuing now, as we have the Euro qualifiers happening.
Usually for England we meet up the week before the game and train together throughout that week. And with Arsenal, because we are not professionals, we have training twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday evenings unless we have a game mid week. Our training programmes are going well, the squad is fighting fit and very healthy, so we’re looking good.
Do you follow a particular diet or nutrition plan?
Rachel Yankey: When we go away with England the food is all prepared for us, so we are eating good healthy food that the dieticians arrange. But all of us know what to eat and what’s going to benefit us and what’s not.
Can you describe an average day to me?
Rachel Yankey: Well, working at the moment. So for me that’s coaching in the schools with the kids during the day and then training afterwards. And that can be my own training or training with Arsenal.
How did you get into football?
Rachel Yankey: I started when I was about eight years old, just kicking around the football. And two boys who lived across the street from me decided to join a team so I just tagged along with them to that. But then got told that I wasn’t allowed to play for a boy’s team so went along to a girl’s team instead. And I just kept playing from there and that lead to Arsenal and then to England.
Kelly Smith: Similar route to Rachel really; started playing at about five or six, then got kicked off two boys teams for being a girl. I think the parents were more jealous than anything, that there was a girl on the team that was taking the place of their son’s. That was soul destroying for a kid at that age to be told that you can’t play the game that you love.
But then like Rachel, I moved to a girl’s team. There wasn’t one in my area so I had to travel quite a distance. And then from there went to another couple of girls teams, then to Arsenal, then out to America, and then back to Arsenal.
You have both had stints in America, is that right?
Rachel Yankey: Yes, but slightly different ones. Kelly was playing in a pro team when she went over, and when I went over it was afterwards, and there wasn’t a pro league then, it was a semi pro league.
(Rachel briefly played for the New Jersey Wildcats in a bid to help them push for the title in the final month of the season. They were successful and Rachel was named in the league’s Team of the Season.)
Do you think that women’s football, and women’s sport, is treated differently in the US?
Kelly Smith: Yes, I think it is much more on a level over there. There is no men’s game and women’s game, it is just one game. And as a result the women’s game is a lot bigger there than it probably is over here. Although the women’s game is growing tremendously in this country I think there is still a little bit more attention over there because of the success of the national team.
Who are your biggest inspirations in the game?
Rachel Yankey: When I was younger I used to look up to players like Ian Wright because of the way he played football…always with a smile on his face, and always looked like he was having fun. Plus he was a great footballer.
What’s the favourite goal that you have scored?
Kelly Smith: One that sticks out in my mind is when I was playing for Arsenal, and I was a substitute at the time, and I had just come on and we were playing against Charlton our main rivals. And I think it was on my second touch I managed to hit a 40 yard shot and chip Pauline Cope, who was playing in goal. We needed to win that game to win the league, and although I didn’t play a big part in the game it was obviously nice to come on and score the winning goal.
How do you manage to balance your work life, your football and your personal life? Is it hard to get the right balance?
Kelly Smith: We’re hermits!
Rachel Yankey: It is a bit hectic, and sometimes you do get a bit fed up. And for other people that aren’t in football, for them to understand that we have to balance everything – it can be a bit difficult. But at the end of the day I suppose we still do it because we love football.
How do you relax when you get the chance?
Kelly Smith: Shop, cinema, cook food, have friends round – just normal things really
What do you think is the hardest thing about being a female footballer today?
Rachel Yankey: It’s the work football commitment. Everyone just assumes that we are on the same stage and the same rating as the men, because we play football at a high level for a club like Arsenal and playing for England.
So I think it’s that people automatically assume that we are professional footballers and that we have loads of money and big houses. But we haven’t, we’re just normal people that enjoy playing, but we play at an elite level. It’s hard trying to have a job too. I suppose it is hard for us to try and understand that people don’t understand where we are, and that women’s football isn’t big enough yet and that people realise that it is kind of like a part time sport.
Rachel, tell me about your football coaching programme
Rachel Yankey: I work in mostly primary, but some secondary, schools. It’s in Brent, North West London, near where I live. I go into schools in curriculum time and for after school clubs and coach the kids’ football. It’s for both boys and girls. It’s mostly a fun session just to get people dribbling a ball, just to try and to get them in to football a bit and make them see how fun football can be, and to get them outside doing some exercise.
And if either of you had any advice to give to young girls who were thinking of taking up football, what would it be?
Kelly Smith: It’s a great way to keep fit, to meet new people, you make friends for life and it’s enjoyable, running around, kicking a ball and celebrating a goal.
Rachel Yankey: It is very good socially because everyone knows about football don’t they? Boy or girl, you can always have a conversation with someone about it!
Louise Hudson, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Look out for Sportsister’s interview with Kelly and Rachel’s England and Arsenal team mate Lianne Sanderson, coming soon.