A few months ago, whilst brainstorming new ideas for this very site, I compiled a wish-list of people I would like to feature and interview as part of the profiles section. Thinking of female inspirational role models within the sporting world that young girls and women could learn a thing or two from, Rachel Yankey came to mind. For those who shockingly don’t know who this young lady is *shame on you if you fall into this category ;)*…. Rachel is female professional footballer who plays for Arsenal Ladies and happens to be England’s Most Capped English Football Player across BOTH Men and Women’s Football!
With a glittering career full of astounding achievements, I made it my top priority to somehow interview her for I knew my readers, followers and the wider audience of the world wide web would also appreciate an insight into this ladies professional career as well as the fantastic work she does with children and young people within the community when not playing on the pitch.
Always one to take matters into my own hands and never having feared rejection, I approached Rachel via social media platform Twitter and kindly asked if she would follow back regarding something she might be interested in.
Much to my delight Rachel followed back, and after pitching my idea she agreed to do an interview with me. Those that know me personally would be aware I happen to be an Arsenal supporter so for me, securing this interview was a big deal as I had a rare opportunity to ask some questions to a lady that is simply a footballing legend!
Having obtained the green light from Arsenal’s Press and Communications team’s it was all system’s go 🙂
With Rachel’s understandably busy and demanding schedule, my opportunity came last week and managed to talk to her via a conference call just after she had finished a training session.
Eager as ever to discuss all things Arsenal, what it takes to become an elite professional athlete, winning her 100th cap for her country and her work within the community I started the interview with a question everyone is probably keen to know….
At what aged did your love for playing football first begin?
I first started playing for a team when I was eight but loved football when I first was able to kick a ball which was quite young.
What was it about the football game that attracted you the most?
Hmmm *ponders* I don’t know.
It was something that everyone did really. At the bottom of my road there was a park where everyone gathered to play a game of football. My elder brother used to go with his friends and I often tagged along. We also used to do a lot of Cricket and play other games but football I found the most enjoyable.
Your clear passion for the sport at such an early age clearly spoke volumes as you decided to shave all of your hair off aged 8 to play football in the boy’s team whilst pretending to be a boy called Ray.
Why did you feel it necessary to take such drastic actions?
I didn’t really see it as drastic actions to be honest. I played football with two boys that lived across the road from me. They went to the barbers to get their hair cut and whilst there with them I decided to also get my hair cut and we all joined the boy’s team.
As it was an all boys team, they said you can’t be addressed with a girls name as it will sound funny so my friend Laurence came up with the name ‘Ray’ which are my initials.
I just found it easier to be called Ray. People didn’t ask questions when I played football as a boy because I was pretty good and to look at me, the way I moved whilst on the football pitch, I actually played like a boy.
The team and manager thought I was a boy and it was easier than saying ‘Look at the girl on the ball’. No one really noticed for a few years and would have probably stayed if they didn’t find out.
My Mum wasn’t really happy to begin with. I was one of those annoying kids when someone says ‘don’t do that’ my typical response would be why?
I’d then go ahead and do it anyway to only realise I shouldn’t have done it in the first place.
My Mum knew if she tried to stop me I’d keep cutting my hair so she eventually let me get on with it but she wasn’t best pleased.
Were there many female football teams / academies around when you were growing up as they are now?
No, definitely not, especially when I was eight and that’s pretty much the reason why I ended up joining a boy’s football team. My friends and I all wanted to play football, join a team and play football for someone but there was nothing around at the time.
One of the Dad’s at the boy’s school started a football team so we went to go and join. We didn’t see anything wrong with it until we arrived and realised it was an all boys team.
I didn’t know of any girls team really, it was only when I was playing in the boy’s league and Tony Chelsea was my Manager, he was at the AGM and all of the teams that were in the league were there and he was told you are not meant to have a girl playing in your team. My manager didn’t realise and didn’t see what the problem was and refused to tell me I couldn’t play because I am a girl.
That’s when Russell Mountford from Mill Hill United said that he run’s a girl’s team and will be delighted to have me on board so I went there. I could have gone anywhere but have quite fortunate that people have looked out for me and have given me opportunities
Have you experienced any type of prejudice being a young female who wanted to play football from the opposite sex?
Yeah just silliness at school really, some boys would be like ah you can’t play football because you’re a girl and my typical response would always be why. To be fair I was quite lucky to have the support of friends because I was good and could actually play football. Some of the other girls that wanted to play football but weren’t as good got a harder time than me.
Kids can be cruel at times; we all want to win and wouldn’t see the problem in refusing anybody the right to play. We all wanted to play for the best team. As I could play as good as boys there wasn’t a problem with me playing with them.
I mainly experienced prejudice with Mill Hill United when I had just come from the boy’s team, I had short hair at the time and found that the parents from the opposition would often question if I was a girl or not.
I never used to show it, but those kind of comments hurt as you can hear what people are saying but are not in the position to respond back. It was never people my age that used to say unkind things; it was surprisingly older people watching the game or the parents of their children playing.
I remember once hearing an adult say to the referee, ‘check if that’s a girl’. Those type of things you shouldn’t be saying and were really hurtful at the time.
Maybe because I had short hair and always got told I played football like a boy so that’s why people maybe assumed I was a boy. To be honest to be told I played like a boy I took it as a compliment as it showed my ability and standard I was at.
You started your senior footballing career aged 16 and have gone on to become an iconic figure within women’s football, both for Arsenal and internationally for England, earning more caps than Peter Shelton which makes you England’s Most Capped Player in both Women’s and Men’s Football.
Did you ever think that you would achieve so much in the world of football when you first started your professional career?
No, not at all! I was just happy to be playing football. When I got the opportunity to play for Arsenal, I was told I would probably being playing in the 3rd or 4th team and was unlikely I would get into the first team. Some people from Mill Hill United thought it was a stupid move on my behalf and was a risk because Arsenal Reserves were playing in a league below the Mill Hill first team I was in.
I wanted to challenge myself. One of my mates left and went to play for Arsenal and people were commenting on how good I was so thought this is my time to prove it and it paid off.
How did you deal with the pressure, especially in your younger days when there was a certain amount of expectation on you as a rising football star?
Errrm….. I know this is really weird to say but I never saw football as a career. I never saw myself as a professional footballer. People always say you joined Arsenal and now you’re a professional footballer but that was not how it was for me.
I joined Arsenal and they train twice a week like Mill Hill.
I happened to have just left high school and joined the Arsenal Community Scheme which is the YTS scheme in coaching so that was my main focus really, just to learn how to coach kids and how to get qualifications as a coach so didn’t really look at myself as a footballer.
I just enjoy playing football. By that time my name was getting bigger, I was playing regular first time football whilst playing for England but have always been quite grounded so for me it was never about a career, all I wanted to do was play football because I enjoy it so much.
Having said that, playing for England was amazing! Playing for Arsenal in cup finals was amazing and people knowing who you are and recognising you for your talent are amazing but never thought any of this would happen to me.
Excluding family and friends, who has been the biggest impact in your professional career?
Errrrmmm, oh my word wow *thinks* Thanks for that! Me: laughs… I thought that would be hard question.
*sighs and thinks for a little more* I would say Vic Akers.
He’s been a massive part of my life growing up and is someone that I respect. He is a fantastic manager but it’s more than that for me. He loves Arsenal and he genuinely cares about us as individuals and what happens as a football club, to the point where I play for Arsenal, I am actually playing for Vic as I don’t want to let him down and I know a lot of people feel the same way.
I joined Arsenal when I was 16 and played under Vic then left, so it was a really hard conversation to tell Vic that I wanted to leave. He has always been so good to me and has said if I ever wanted to come back home the door will always be open.
In my time playing football he has always made me feel welcome and have a lot of respect for him both on and off the pitch.
Unfortunately racism still exists in today’s world. Have you personally experienced any type of racist comments during your time playing football as a professional football player?
Unfortunately yes. It was during the champion’s league two seasons ago where we were playing Rayo Vallecano in Spain. Every time I got hold of the ball, one of the fans would abuse but that was kind of normal for an away team.
But as the ball went off for a throw in, a man right in front of me started to make monkey noise and things like that. He threw a baguette at me and just didn’t really understand why.
Yeah, it wasn’t nice to experience and see. You see these kind of things on TV but was shocking to witness first hand. He is a grown man and I remember thinking why would someone do such things.
All of our players were offended by it, not just black players, our entire team were offended by this mans behaviour. The manager of the other team was very apologetic and said it is not a reflection of our club, we are playing at the men’s stadium and they were not their regular supporters. To know these things still happen is quite shocking and not nice really.
For those not familiar with the training aspect of football, briefly describe a typical training session at the Arsenal training ground.
Oh gosh wow you’ve stumped me there.
For warm up we would usually do jogging or some sort of football based skills and games. We usually do passing drills, different patterns of passes to warm up.
The main session would depend on what we’re working on. It could be possession games, things like where attackers out number defenders, small sided games.
You have recently taken part in Teroll Lewis’ Blockwork show featured on trace sports.
How does calisthenics / body weight training differ from the football training you are used to and what exercises do you enjoy the most?
To be honest, when I went to take part in one of Teroll’s shows I was injured which was a real shame as I couldn’t complete half of the exercises demonstrated. We had a game the day before and managed to get a dead leg during the match so I literally couldn’t move properly.
I think it is brilliant where you do body-weight as a form of exercise. I can’t do flag poles or anything like that, I think Teroll is super-human with the things he can do.
It was a really enjoyable experience. I like things that are different to your normal training regime. If you train in a sport for so long, after soooo many years doing the same kinda routines it becomes a bit repetitive so you maybe looking for something fresh to add in to the mix and Teroll’s workouts were completely fresh.
I love the idea of not relying on a gym to exercise, training outside and using nature’s surroundings and park benches etc to get a workout in. I totally believe in this way of training.
Obviously there are exercises you can only do in a gym but I just think going down to the park, having fun with friends doing press-ups etc and if there’s a tree climb the tree. Things like that he was doing on the day I attended, it opened my eyes and was really cool to take part in it.
Being a professional athlete, one assumes your daily diet contributes to your success on the field.
If you were to summarise a typical food diary, what would this contain?
Errrrm, you’ve probably asked the worst person in the world to ask this question!
I drink cordial based drinks throughout the day to keep hydrated, I can’t stand drinking plain water, and I find it boring!
Breakfast would usually contain eggs and salmon, that’s quite cool with toast or just cereal, I like Weetabix.
For lunch and dinner I would have things like chicken and rice with plenty of vegetables or a mixed salad. I must admit I like boring foods although I’m not fussy and would eat anything.
I’ve never been one for fizzy drinks, growing up my Mum never used to have them in the house but I’m not gonna pretend I’m a saint and I don’t like to eat the odd occasional take-away.
You need to have a balanced diet. Everyone’s body types are different and you kinda have to be in tune with your body and know what foods to eat that will bring out the best.
If I have a big game coming up for example I won’t go and eat a ton of greasy food, try and play well then be confused why I played badly.
What I put in my body is up to me and I’ll pay for the consequences if I didn’t play well.
What is your favourite treat to indulge in that is not part of your daily diet?
Oh I like crisps! All day everyday, yeah crisps are nice. *laughs*
I don’t have a particular favourite flavour but don’t like salt and vinegar.
You were previously appointed with an MBE in 2006, only to be acknowledged in this year’s New Year’s honours list for the prestigious honour of an OBE award for your services to sport.
What does this recognition mean to you?
It’s massive! I never expected anything like that to happen. Receiving an MBE in 2006 was just like…I thought it was one of my mates winding me up to be honest, I thought it was a bit of a joke.
I don’t know who nominated me as you don’t get to find out but that was just totally humbling for me, I was taken aback by it all really.
When you go out into the football pitch you aim to win the game, and if it’s a cup final you aim to win the trophy but you don’t aim to get a recognition such as an OBE so its very special.
To receive a letter acknowledging an OBE nomination… actually it was a phone call as the letter got sent to Arsenal, as we were on pre-season so I never got it.
I then got a phone call from Ciara Grant who was working at Arsenal saying to ring a guy from the cabinet office, it’s urgent. So I rang him and he explained he was trying to get hold of me, do you accept it?
I was like ‘accept what, what are you talking about?’ as I never knew but was just like wow when he confirmed I have been nominated to receive an OBE.
It’s pretty cool and to be acknowledged for services to the community youth games was very special, it wasn’t just about what I’ve aimed to do on the football pitch and play football, it was also for the coaching that I’ve done and things I have done within the community so that was probably the most special thing about it for me, it was really nice.
You’re naturally a left footed player…Aside from yourself, who in your opinion is the current best left footed player both men and women’s football?
We have a few left footed players at Arsenal. I’d say Jack Wiltshire and Kelly Smith but outside of Arsenal Lionel Messi ain’t bad!!
When it comes to sporting ability, I believe men and women should be treated equally yet despite being in 2014, we are still unfortunately seeing sexist comments aimed at female professionals such as yourself from time to time.
What advice would you give to aspiring young girls and women who want to follow in your footsteps and become a professional sportswoman but are put off by the negativity surrounding women competing in a sport that is dominated by the opposite sex?
Firstly, you always have to believe in yourself and enjoy what you’re doing. If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing and don’t believe in yourself then its quite hard to mentally battle against people’s negative comments.
But you can use those negatives comments in your favour to challenge yourself to be better. Always push to be even greater, even if you know you are better than the opposition playing or whatever it is, there’s always room for improvement to make yourself better than you were yesterday.
The negative comments usually come from young boys and men. When I talk to a few young boys they actually are clued up on Women’s football. They watch women’s football and can name some of the players and what positions they play in.
They know their stuff but as kids and young adults sometimes is seen as not cool to know your stuff and when under peer pressure, it gets the better of them and they end up saying silly things.
You have been playing professional football since the age of 16. What is the secret to your successful and long career?
That is a good question and I honestly don’t know the answer to that *laughs*
I really don’t know. I guess I’ve just enjoyed what I’ve done.
There have been good times and there have been hard times. I have always had good friends around me and learnt through things that have happened. People have stuck by me and as I’ve got older, I have definitely started to listen to my body more, especially with injuries.
I’ve come to realise if I do this, its actually going to have a negative affect on me and I think everyday I am learning something different about what will happen and what won’t happen.
I have the confidence to believe in myself and standing up for what I believe in rather than just following other people. Weather that is right or wrong I don’t know.
Outside of football, how do you spend your time?
Outside of playing football, on a day to day when I left Fulham I started my own coaching company which goes around primary schools and delivers coaching sessions, educational work-shops and things like that to bring a bit more knowledge and empowerment into our younger generation.
It kinda takes me back to when I was at school. I didn’t particularly like writing and wouldn’t say I was one of those children that were good academically. If someone had asked me to write something about Ian Wright or write a story on football I definitely would have done that but otherwise wouldn’t be interested.
There might be kids in the school that were like me, so we go into the school and do an educational work-shop on journalistic writing. Kids get to interview me and ask me questions to write their own little story.
Most of my spare time is spent going into schools, but also like chilling out listening to music and going shopping.
If you had to choose, what has been the biggest highlight or achievement in your career so far?
With Arsenal definitely in 2007 winning the quadruple, it was just amazing! You can never say never but find it hard to believe that any other team will ever achieve this again. To have won the league, the FA Cup, the league cup and the champions league in one season was just amazing and would never forget just how gooood that felt.
Internationally, would have to be definitely winning my 100th cap for England playing against Turkey. I got to be captain for the day, happened to have scored a goal and won player of the match.
That was pretty cool, especially after I had been dropped from the 2009 Euro’s campaign, everyone was talking about me, saying I was retiring from the game which was untrue. People were saying I wouldn’t play for England again only to then fight my way back into the squad and go on to win my 100th cap was extremely special for me.
Finally, when that time comes when you decide to hang up your boots and retire from the game, what sort of projects would you like to undertake?
I love working with children. I run a voluntary kids football team which mostly boys attend, I am working on getting more girls involved but that’s kind of hard so more focus on that and my work within schools.
People have often commented on me going into coaching and management but I don’t know if I’ll be any good at it. I’ve never coached anyone elite, just children and young people so that might be something that I might want to have a go at when that time comes.
As I’m still actively playing football and totally focused on my games right now, its kind of hard to think what I want to do outside of that, we’ll just have to wait and see.
I haven’t planned for anything in my life just yet, I just usually roll with it so we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.
Having had the pleasure to steal half and hour of Rachel’s precious time, I was left pretty speachless at just how humbled, funny and grounded Rachel actually is.
Those who I had spoken to prior to this interview would comment on how nice Rachel is together with her infectious personality and noticed this myself during her interview. I found myself saying something complimentary to her after she had answered a question but gauged just how uncomfortable she dealt with praise of any kind as she laughed it off whilst muttering a bashful thank you.
For someone to be that grounded despite their successes speaks great volumes. Rachel clearly loves what she does and does not let her acheivements define her or inflate her non existant ego! She has put the work in, grafted, worked on her skills she has been blessed with whilst having to endure ups and downs in her career to deservingly becoming England’s most capped English football player across both Men and Women’s football *what an acheivement*
Rachel has every bit the right attitude to life, the self belief to constantly push her boundaries and puts time aside in helping others acheive. I believe good things happen to GREAT people, what she has acheived to date is because of the person she is. If we had more people like Rachel the world would be a better place.
Tonight is the start of the WSL season and would like to wish Rachel and the rest of her Arsenal team mates every success for the new season ahead.
To keep up to date with Rachel throughout the season simply follow her personal Twitter account.
For more information on Arsenal Ladies, they can be found online by visiting the Arsenal Ladies website or following them on Twitter.
Photo Credits in order of appearance:
Tom Dulat – Getty Images
Colvin Hazzard – Haz Pics Photography
Christopher Lee – Getty Images
Block Workout Logo – Teroll Lewis
Jan Kruger – Getty Images
Clint Hughes – Getty Images