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‘We’ve been waiting for this’: Rachel Yankey on women’s football, diversity and her legacy

With women’s football going from strength to strength, gal-dem sits down with sports legend Rachel Yankey to talk EUROs, being the first woman professional football player in England and the question on everyone's lips, is football coming home?

26 Jul 2022

Record breakers, history makers. This year the Lionesses have been on an incredible spell, making sure their fans get what they came for. During their opening EURO 2022 game at Old Trafford, they secured a 1-0 victory over Austria and then headed south to Brighton where they set a new record by beating Norway 8-0. The Lionesses are giving it their all with their ruthless tactics and their youthful rigour has been infectious.

One of the greatest players to have donned the England national shirt is Rachel Yankey. The 42-year-old began her career playing football at Mill Hill United before moving to Arsenal at 16 years old. In 2000, she joined Fulham making history as the first woman player in England to do so. 

Called on to represent her country, Rachel was also a key player for the Lionesses with 129 caps to her name, setting a new record. The growth in investment and interest in women’s football has been astronomical in recent years and continues to hold a promising trajectory. 

We sat down over Zoom to speak about the legacy of being England’s first ever professional female footballer, her career at Arsenal, the glaring problem of racial and class diversity within the game and, of course, the question we’ve all been thinking – is football coming home? 

gal-dem: Can you talk me through your football journey and what it felt like being the first professional female player to be registered in England?

Rachel Yankey: I started at Arsenal at 16 years old and playing for my team was a massive honour. To train with so many wonderful footballers was great. Women’s football wasn’t as visible as it is now – but I suppose the disappointing thing was back then we had to pay to play football and make contributions towards hotel fees and buses. Slowly, it started to change and we started to get money but not money that you could live off. Then when I moved to play for Fulham I was offered the opportunity to become a professional and it was a massive privilege for it to be my job. It became my sole focus. I would play football, go home to rest and recover and then go again the next day not having to think about work or any other problems. That was a massive benefit and you could see how it improved us all.

How did it feel to make your debut?

Rachel: It was a massive honour. The benefit of being young when you make your debut is that you’re fearless and a bit naive about what you’re going into. I just wanted to play and someone gave me another opportunity to play. It was fantastic and I scored on my debut too so I have really good memories from that. That’s why when I look at this England team there are so many young players and they just want to play football and show how good they are.

How can we continue this momentum and interest in women’s football throughout the year?

Rachel: This is something that has got to happen and for many years we’ve been waiting for this. Hopefully, the fact that businesses are getting on board and aligning their values to the women’s game will help. It’s difficult to be a female footballer because you’re constantly being compared to men but you’ve got to be driven and hardworking. I see so many more dads taking their daughters to the park for a kickaround now and it wasn’t like that when I was playing so I think the world is changing and hopefully, we can have more open-minded businesses and people that make the right decisions.

“When I was young and coming into the England team, it was a lot more diverse – so, why is that?”

Rachel Yankey

It’s great that women’s football is growing but there’s an obvious problem with diversity. How can we help change that?

Rachel: I know that the governing bodies are trying to address it. The funny thing is the way that people have tried to grow the game [means]  diversity has gone under the radar, because when I was young and coming into the England team, it was a lot more diverse – so, why is that? Clubs and training facilities are not [in the] inner city. When I first started at Arsenal we used to train at Highbury and it was quite easy to get to but now getting to the training ground in London Colney would be so difficult. You’ve got to pay to sign up so we have to ask, are we outpricing people? If you’re only generating a sport for a certain class, and that’s not to say you can’t have different ethnic groups in that class, then you’re already making it harder for people. All of these things are major problems and a factor why the team doesn’t represent. Then you’ve got to look at coaches, what are they looking for? Sometimes in men’s football people will take more risks with those who have raw talent because the rewards could be so great. It’s not like that in women’s football. There needs to be more opportunity and more done on this.

The Lionesses are having an incredible spell, so I have to ask, is football coming home?

Rachel: I’m trying not to get carried away but we do have a talented side and it would be brilliant if we could go all the way because that would be another building block in changing people’s perceptions and inspiring young boys and girls to get involved in the game. There’s really good players and teams in this tournament.

You’re a huge role model for so many young people. What message would you have for them?

Rachel: Be brave enough to go out there and be yourself. You have to follow your dream and be passionate. I never thought I was doing this to inspire people. I just enjoyed playing football and people liked that and were inspired. So go out there and when people say that you can’t do something or they try to put you down, show them that it can be done.

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