When the history of women’s sport is written, the past 15 years will be regarded as pivotal. We have a few key players to thank for showing the way to the generations that follow. While it is never an easy option to be a full-time athlete and the commitment required is complete, it is even tougher to be the first in your field, the one battling for better facilities, politely requesting greater respect and reward, trying not to despair at the tardiness of the traditional media to notice that you are winning.
A few names stand out as game changers in their fields: Charlotte Edwards in cricket, Kate Richardson-Walsh in hockey, Katherine Grainger in rowing and Kelly Smith in football.
I was delighted when the BBC’s News At Ten ran a prominent feature on Smith’s retirement last week, but also sad that most of the people watching would have been hearing about her exploits for the first time. England’s record scorer (46 goals) was widely and rightly lauded for her achievements and the longevity of her career. She won 20 trophies with Arsenal and 117 caps for England.
Former England manager Hope Powell mentioned Smith in the same breath as Maradona and Messi. Vic Akers, who signed her for Arsenal, said she was ‘the best player for England women ever’.
Leah Williamson, who like Smith plays for Arsenal, summed up the influence she has had: ‘Growing up, I aspired to be like her and that’s never changed. There was nobody else leading the way like Kelly.’
Women have been playing football in the UK for more than 100 years, but when Smith was young she had to play with boys to get a competitive game. She was the first English player to be really successful in the US and she showed the thousands of girls who excel as athletes that football is a viable option.
Men’s football has the luxury of being able to pick from the vast majority of sporty boys in the country. For girls, football far too often isn’t an option at all. Smith succeeded when it was unfashionable and darned difficult to do so. For that, she deserves huge respect.
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