One of only a handful of players to score for her country in a major tournament final, former England Lionesses and Arsenal legend Kelly Smith MBE is a name that is firmly etched into the history of British women’s football.
A serial trophy winner at Arsenal, Smith was a trailblazer. An experienced international and, perhaps most importantly, a women’s footballer who had made it as a professional in an era of non-professional leagues, unfunded clubs and – crucially – a male dominated sport.
Smith was one of few that broke through the barrier that had undervalued female footballers, though it required her to move her life to another continent. She moved Stateside to sign for Philadelphia Charge at the age of just 23 in order to become a professional.
Fast forward 21 years, and the outlook of the women’s across the United Kingdom game couldn’t look any different.
A fully professional league, packed to the brim with stacks of fully professional female athletes – women’s footballers are now beyond the point of just being professional, they’re on the verge of becoming worldwide names.
On the eve of the sold out Women’s Euros 2022 opener between England and Austria, Smith believes the tournament could push the game in Britain further than ever before.
Growth of women’s football here in the UK
“I didn’t have a pathway – I had to leave to progress” she remembers, “Now we have the Women’s Super League as one of the best leagues in the world, with young players looking up to the players in the league and potentially aspiring to take their places.
"The clubs are now fully professional and there is a pathway within the club structure to learn their trade. There’s youth systems and academies and there’s a hope they can go through them and get into the first team at their club.
"Any young player that comes to me now – and I get asked this a lot – asks me if they should go to America and I tell them ‘no’. Everything you could want or wish for is here.
"The structure is there at England level, the club structure is there. The way they came in going now, I tell them to stay here because you have everything you need on your doorstep."
And, while Scotland won’t be at the Euros, the success of the major tournaments such as Euro 2022 and the promotion of the game via Sky Sports and other media channel is having a huge effect on the growth of women’s football throughout the country.
Three fully professional clubs are now present in the Scottish Women’s Premier League, with a further two turning semi-professional this summer – and Smith knows the Scottish game will only grow bigger.
‘How close are we to full equality?’
Smith says: "I’m sure the other home nations will be watching, looking at other nations, watching what they are doing and how they are growing.
"Scotland were so close and have obviously made the World Cup in 2019 but narrowly missed out this time – which is devastating, because every country wants back-to-back tournaments and experience of them.
"But they will be watching the games, and going away and working hard as a nation at their own camps and putting it all in to getting there when the next set of qualifiers come around.”
With such a surge in popularity, the gap between the genders is evidently closing within football, but how far does Smith think we away from full equality?
“I think we are doing what we can right now, within schools and at grassroots level, to make more girls aware there is access to football for them.
"I’m at a tournament today with the Powerleague and there’s 28 girls or women’s teams – it’s great to see so many women interested in football and playing it. It has really opened my eyes a little bit. There’s so many women playing it, and enjoying it.
"How close are we to full equality? I don’t know, I couldn’t comment on that, but I think we are doing everything we can.”
As for England, greatness awaits as they enter the tournament one of the major favourites.
Smith, a major feature in the Lionesses’ last run to a Euro final in 2009, sadly lost out in the final, as England lost out to a superior Germany side that day by six goals to two. If England are to go one better on home turf this year, who does Smith back to spearhead it?
"Lauren Hemp,” she says, “She’s a game-changer. When she gets on the ball, she’s so direct, dynamic and hard to stop in one-on-one situation. Teams will know her, it’s how she does now when the eyes are all on her.
"Fran Kirby isn’t 100%, but you need her in the squad – she is a game changer. Keira Walsh and Leah Williamson are also a key partnership in the centre of midfield.
"I literally can’t wait. I want it to start today. Watching England’s performances in the last few friendly games – they’re ready for it."