Football has always been part of my life. I’ve watched, played, coached, managed and mentored at various levels of the grassroots game, but mostly, I’ve loved and been inspired by those around me who are part of my football world.
Growing up in the pre-internet 90’s – around the time they used pig’s bladders for footballs – there were only two female footballers I actually knew existed. True legends of the game, they were Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey.
In a time when it was frowned upon for women to play football – Rachel cut her hair short and pretended to be a boy just so she could play – these two women pioneered the game, and have left a burgeoning legacy for future generations.
Good times and demons
Kelly has had a rip roaring career playing for Arsenal, England, Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics, and twice in America.
She’s battled injuries and her demons and come out on top and we were all here on a brisk but sunny day to say goodbye and wish her well.
On the 18 February, I joined a two-thousand strong crowd gathered at Borehamwood FC to honour Kelly as she officially retired from the game.
The traditional testimonial match was watched by an eclectic crowd of varying generations, genders – testament to Kelly’s broad appeal – plus a large dinosaur. You heard.
Everyone had one thing in common; admiration, pride and thanks for what one woman from Watford had done for female sport; akin to what fellow Watfordian, Elton John, had done for power ballads.
So, the testimonial brought together Arsenal Ladies versus Kelly’s All Stars – what could possibly go wrong?
Well, the Arsenal team were all young, like really, really young, and athletic and talented and, well, young – did I mention that?
The All Stars, meanwhile, were a mixed bag. Some were current England stars (three of the back four) and a few more in the midfield (poor Jill Scott and Ellen White must have covered at least 100km) gelled with some legends from the past such as former England manager Hope Powell, Marianne Spacey, Faye White, and Kim Jerry Silver.
Kelly herself didn’t play, citing her three-month pregnancy, but instead got some practice in on the sidelines for the planned coaching career ahead. But it’s testament to the Arsenal star that she gave a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to one of the unsung heroes of the grassroots game.
My mate Ciara Allen received a personal call-up from Kelly less than 24-hours earlier to play for The All Stars.
The former county-level player and current Football Association (FA) southwest England coach mentor is a great role model for any youngster willing to work hard for a career in the sport they love.
Rumour has it Ciara prepared for the occasion by drinking wine and running around her garden to loosen up her boots.
During her 15-minute cameo, she made some passes, trotted around and made us all very jealous and proud.
Despite a lack of speed from The All Stars – Powell broke into a slow jog in the twelfth minute, tricky business those tight hamstrings – there were fleeting moments of genius to be seen and the game remained competitive.
Towards the end of the game, a tackle worthy of an appearance in the 6 Nations rugby, led to a penalty for The All Stars.
A guard of honour was formed and England women’s top goalscorer made a final appearance in her beloved Arsenal colours.
To a backdrop of Kelly Smith masks, the 38-year-old slotted home with the ease and confidence we have come to rely on over the past 20 years.
Kelly will miss football, but not half as much as football will miss Kelly.
— Kelly Smith MBE (@kelly_smith10) 20 February 2017
We haven’t read the book… yet but feel free to let us know what you think and we’ll add your thoughts to our Sports Liberated Book Club.