What is the price of following a sporting dream? For most it will be countless hours of hard work; single-minded, selfish, and lonely dedication to developing themselves to be the best player they can be; often sacrificing family, friends and even leaving your home country. England and Arsenal’s Kelly Smith has done all of this and reaped the rewards. She is England’s all-time leading scorer with over 100 caps, was recognised by FIFA as one of the top five players in the world four years in a row and received an MBE for services to football. However, she has also paid more than most. Numerous career threatening injuries and moves away from family and support systems have taken their toll. In the first chapter of her autobiography Footballer: My Story, she describes stopping in at a Harvester pub and drinking herself into oblivion despite being late for training with the national team. “Vodka makes me feel better about things,” she writes. “It makes me feel like I am in control. It makes me confident.”
Having watched Kelly play a few times on TV I never thought she lacked confidence. She has a dominant, almost cocky-style that demands attention from the other team and a tenacious ability to keep the ball. In fact throughout the book it is clear that she never doubted her own ability on the pitch. “I was born to be a footballer,” she says. In the chapter entitled ‘Rock Bottom’ she writes,
“It never entered my head that I wouldn’t be good enough anymore. I was always confident in my ability and I always had the self-belief to succeed. I knew the player I was and I knew the potential I had.”
Life is great when she is able to play the game she loves. The trouble starts when she is not able to play. We don’t get to know much about who she is off the pitch but the book is a honest and brave account of her battle with alcoholism and the realities of being a sportsperson at the highest level.
The other strength of the book is the insight she gives from having played the game at the highest level. She shares perspectives from her experiences playing for England, as well as in the US as a college and professional player. And she also details her ideas about the nature of training, the need for young players to focus on skills and the essential nature of more media/ TV coverage and the role of social media to help grow the women’s game.
The book is a fascinating account of the realities of being a female sportsperson — getting kicked off boy’s teams, playing on sub-standard pitches, having to balance elite level training on a part-time schedule and low wages. But it also documents a special time in the history of the women’s game, a time when there has been a massive shift in the profile and acceptance of women’s soccer/football, a time about which there is a lot to be excited. In one of the final chapters she says:
“When I was growing up, my role model was male, Ian Wright. That’s all I had. But today, a nine- or ten-year-old can watch women’s football on the television — in a World Cup or whatever – and see us play in front of thousands of people. […] [T]hey will inevitably lo
ok up to us. […] Young girls can now reach out and touch the potential if they have the ambition, the drive and the right attributes. They can all strive to a higher standard. You can’t put a price on that. If you don’t see that, you really don’t know about it. We are in a good place right now.