Former England and Arsenal player Kelly Smith spoke exclusively with 90min to explain the unique experience of playing professionally in the United States, the progress of women’s football and most importantly, her stance as an advocate for young girls to receive equal access to football.
Smith was one of the best to grace the Barclays FA Women’s Super League, but behind the scenes, the Arsenal women’s side were treated like ‘second-class citizens to the men’. Now, She fights for young girls everywhere to have the opportunities she never enjoyed.
You moved to the United States at 17, what was that experience like for you?
“Scary. I had to leave England at that time because the women’s game, 20 odd years ago now, was not in a good place or well respected and my dream was always to become a professional footballer.
“I got the opportunity to go to college in the U.S. on a scholarship, and that for me was the bright lights because in 1999 the USWNT had just won the World Cup and the game was absolutely booming. So I went out there, studied for three years and was lucky enough to play professionally about a year after I graduated. I stayed out there, and the way the professional game was going it looked like the league would start, it did and I signed for the Philadelphia charge.
“It was an interesting time living out there, home sick and quite emotional at times as a young kid not knowing anyone else out there, but I stuck with it and I am glad I did because I got to live out my dream as a professional footballer in America.”
Given that you were part of the football scene in the U.S., what do you think about all the new reports coming out on the NWSL and its management and did you experience anything like that while playing in America?
“No, I didn’t experience anything like that nor was I around it. But I do think it is such a serious issue and I am glad these players have spoken out and have the courage and bravery to talk about it.
“For them to live in that torment and experience that is just pure evil. Nobody should be subjected to that, made to feel like that or do things they are not comfortable with. It’s been all over the news here. Over the weekend, 11 out of the 12 teams came together and supported by linking arms in the center circle before the game to show that across the world, especially in England, we support the U.S. players.
“It was such a powerful moment, I got goosebumps watching it in the stands. I know there is an anti-harassment policy in the U.S. but they’re fighting to keep that in place, which is a good thing. Hopefully we will see some good come out of it, rather than what we are talking about now.”
Women’s football has obviously come a long way since the early 2000s, as a former player and current spectator, how have you seen the game progress over the years?
“It’s the whole professionalism of the game, especially in our country. A lot of the clubs are taking it more seriously now than they did before, giving the players more resources and more funding into the women’s programs, which enable the athletes to train full time. It also allows for more staff on board, more physios and doctors.
“It’s becoming more well rounded now, and certainly on the international level now too. You can see as they put more money into the programs a more competitive level forms, more competitive Euros and World Cups.
“The game has really come full circle since I first started playing in front of one hundred people, maybe, now England are getting 45,000 spectators at their games. Millions of people are now watching these tournaments, when they come every two or four years. The interest now is definitely women’s football. “
You previously spoke about the uncomfortable situation around the installations during your time at Arsenal, admitting the team was forced to use the men’s installations when no one was around. What do you think about the team’s current state now?
“Arsenal, even at that time, when I was 17/18 treated us like second-class citizens to the men.
“They got everything, and the women always got the last training session, whether that be 8:00 at night. We were not allowed in the facilities until everybody was off. You were made to feel like you were worthless.
“I know now, the women’s team is looking to build a new facility on the men’s training ground and expand it. They have full access now to their world class gym, and are allowed to use the swimming pool when finished training. It’s more equal access, same as Manchester City and Chelsea.
“I don’t know how things are in the mid to lower table teams, in terms of their training schedules or what facilities they’re allowed to use. But it’s certainly improving.”
You’re now a Barclays ambassador, I would love to hear more about your involvement with theFA Girls Football School Partnership now aiming for equal access for girls’ football
“They came to me in 2016, and wanted me to be the face alongside Ian Wright. It was an honor really, obviously I’ve played for Arsenal and England. Our roles are really to promote the women’s game at a grass-root level, in schools and obviously at the FA WSL.
“For me, growing up, I didn’t have any opportunities to play in girls teams until I was a little bit older so this initiative to let girls play is all about giving girls equal access. It’s about giving girls access to football in schools by 2024. I am a big advocate of that because I think you lose a lot of girls from football at that age, around seven or eight. Many don’t have a team or don’t know about a team, if they don’t have an opportunity we just lose them.
“We’re trying to raise awareness to get schools to form a football team, whether it be just play time or an after school club. It’s really important we reach that age gap to not lose them, and give them the access to play.”
I’ve found that after doing a couple interviews, it’s become a common theme that former and current female players started their football journey by playing for a boys team. Did that shape your outlook on playing, or motivate you differently?
“Yeah, I had to fight a lot harder to prove myself. Fortunately, I was quite good and skilful at that age, but some of these girls that don’t have that talent but want to have fun with their friends. We want them to have those opportunities. The more they practice the more they can become good level players, or even professional players.
“It’s all about opportunities. For so many years, young girls haven’t had the chance. I want them to have the opportunity, because I never did.”
Which current athletes do you wish you had played with?
“I’ve played with most of the England squad, but there are a few newbies that I’ve been really impressed with and that’s Lauren Hemp from Manchester City. She, for me, has progressed rapidly over the last few years. There are not too many players that get me off my seat, but she is certainly one of them. When she gets the ball, she makes things happen. She’s lethal and so fast. Most players cannot keep up with her as she dribbles the ball. I think she will be a standout player.
“Leah Williamson, I played with her at Arsenal as she was breaking through the ranks. She has certainly developed and will continue to. She has just been given the captain’s armband in England so you can see the faith and the respect she has from the new manager coming in.
“They’re the two players that spring to mind, oh and Lauren James, who is just breaking through. She just signed for Chelsea, phenomenal talent.”
What do you think of Tobin Heath at Arsenal?
“I love Tobin Heath, I spoke to her last week at the training ground. She is just delighted to be there, she’s a massive Arsenal fan. Obviously when she left Manchester United I asked her if she wanted to come back and play in the league, and she said the only club she would play for is Arsenal.
“Over the last few years she’s made it known that she wanted to come to Arsenal. She’s a fantastic person, and a brilliant player. She’s a game changer. She’s unstoppable at times, the way she plays and shifts the ball from left to right, so comfortable with the ball. She fits straight into that Arsenal side because of her technique, skill and creativity.
“I know she’s enjoying life and getting to play in the Champions League, which she obviously didn’t get to do at Manchester United.”
Lastly, What advice would you give now to these young girls looking to break into the field?
“Work hard and never give up.
“Dream big and believe in yourself, because if you won’t believe in yourself no one else is. You have to have self confidence, but enjoy the game. I have a daughter now who’s now two, so hopefully in the future she’ll be playing and have the equal opportunity.”