Kelly Smith: Key weekend in women’s football offers a chance for pioneer to look back – and to the future

Vithushan Ehantharajah
·6-min read
Kelly Smith in action for Arsenal against London rivals Chelsea in 2016 (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Kelly Smith in action for Arsenal against London rivals Chelsea in 2016 (Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Kelly Smith is working this weekend as part of the coverage of Bristol City against Tottenham Hotspur in the Women's Super League. But she made sure to get Sunday off.

Come 2.30pm, she will be on her couch ready to shout the house down as her former club Arsenal square off against defending champions Chelsea in a fixture she knows all too well.

There will be a sense of pride. Smith was no doubt a trailblazer for women’s football during the 2000s when the sport had to fight tooth and nail for the pitiful coverage it received. She, thanks largely to 117 England caps (along with 46 goals), was arguably the country’s most famous female player. And without her work, along with others’, the WSL would not be where it is today. “The best league in the world, if not now then in the next few years,” according to Smith.

Will there also be a hint of “if only”? Smith’s strength along with a typical striker’s dash, all working around a dextrous left-foot, would suit the modern game. She admits to just a whiff of jealously, not only for those who are playing now but given those she might play with and against.

Read more: How England became the place to be in women’s football

“There’s definitely a part of me that thinks I want to play in this league,” Smith tells The Independent. “All the top talent are now here. It’s mouth-watering to think of the people now playing in it: Sam Kerr, Alex Morgan, Sam Mewis, Valerie Gauvin, Tobin Heath. All at the top of their national teams. Worldwide stars. And they’re all here.

“I’d love to have pit my wits against them.” Smith pauses for a moment. “But I don’t think I could do it now at 42, mind. My knees wouldn’t let me. Or my ankle!”

Smith was the kind of era-spanning player that makes it hard to nail down a definitive “start” to her career. Her senior debut came in 1994 for Wembley Ladies, while her first taste of professionalism came when she skipped across the Atlantic to turn out for New Jersey Lady Stallions in 1999.

The end definitively came at the start of 2017 when, at 38, she called time on a journey that took her to four league titles, a Uefa Cup. And plenty of memories against Chelsea.

“I always saw that as our big game, Arsenal-Chelsea. I’m sure the rivalry is greater now because they’ve been competing for years for silverware. Certainly when I played the tackles were flying in from everywhere. The concentration would be there. You could tell the focus and energy levels were higher. It was always a must-win game. A lot of the players hated each other, and the teams did, too, when you got over that line.

Kelly Smith in action for Arsenal in the 2016 FA Cup final against ChelseaArsenal FC via Getty Images
Kelly Smith in action for Arsenal in the 2016 FA Cup final against ChelseaArsenal FC via Getty Images

“Our record at the time was always very good. I think the last time I played against them was the FA Cup final at Wembley in 2016!”

Even superficially, Sunday’s encounter has much going for it. North versus west London, second against third, two sides who have won three WSL titles each. You have the best striker on the planet, and the competition’s all-time leading goalscorer, Vivianne Miedema, against challengers to her crown in the game’s most expensive signing, Penille Harder, and Australia superstar Kerr. All overseen by two coaches, Joe Montemurro and Emma Hayes, who have seen and won more than most. Hayes, though, has had the better of it between the two, winning all of the previous six meetings.

But the weekend is bigger than this fixture, as vaunted as it may be. Saturday’s opener sees up-and-coming league leaders United take on established force City in the Manchester derby, followed by a Midlands bout between Aston Villa and Birmingham City. Not for the first time, the WSL is using a weekend free of domestic men’s football to put their best foot forward, aided by broadcast companies such as BT Sport, who are going the extra mile by making Manchester United against Manchester City available for all on YouTube.

“It’s great to have these weekends that we all talk about,” beams Smith. “It’s massive that we’ll be able to watch them on our screens as well. There’s all this top talent that it’s important to put them on show.”

There are two sides to this. For one, more talent produces a better spectacle. But it also take the game forward collectively. The adage of getting better by playing better opponents has become a key fundamental of the WSL, especially as progress of standard varies across the league given the disparity when it comes to resources and, thus, professionalism.

“I remember some games I used to play in where you knew you had won before you stepped over the line. You knew there was a mental edge because we were ‘Arsenal’ and were unbeatable at times. It was a little bit less exciting. Now, it looks like any team can beat anybody.”

Smith lifts the FA Cup trophy with Alex Scott in 2016Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Smith lifts the FA Cup trophy with Alex Scott in 2016Arsenal FC via Getty Images

The key now, for Smith, is the next step. Such weekends do the game good, but sustaining the product means continuing its evolution. Standing still and admiring how far women’s football has come is counter-productive, even if there is much to admire.

Over the last week alone there has been plenty of evidence suggesting more progress needs to be made. From Greg Clarke’s comments that the lack of women’s goalkeepers was due to girls not liking the ball being kicked at them, to a number of female players being prohibited from training during lockdown because the majority of their academies are not classified as “elite”, while boys’ academies are.

Clarke resigned from his post as chairman of the FA, but ridding the system of antiquated views is much easier than correcting antiquated smallprint. Smith, while disappointed by recent events, is cautiously optimistic, and is at the heart of what are necessary changes to the system.

Smith is part of the FA Girls Football Schools Partnership, which is looking to bring together schools committed to the growth and development of girls’ football. With the help of Barclays, the scheme hopes to ensure continuous development through greater resources and equipment. The aim is to ensure the opportunities girls have in the game are on a par with boys’ by 2024.

“I think back to my time – I played with boys and didn’t have much opportunity to be in a girls’ team at a young age. But that equal access is vital, and it’s not just about creating the next generation of stars. It’s about inspiring them and keeping them involved in the game: as a journalist, videographer or via other avenues.”

As grand as weekends like this are for the current game, this is the kind of work behind the scenes that will ensure even better weekends lie ahead for women’s football.

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