Tomorrow evening the Arsenal Ladies will play their Chelsea counterparts in the glitz and glamour of Emirates Stadium. Laura Harvey’s side are more accustomed to the more spit and sawdust environs of Borehamwood’s Meadow Park, where they typically play their home games. But in an attempt to promote the Women’s Super League (which runs during the summer) the girls get the chance to play on a better pitch, with better facilities and, more pointedly, to a bigger crowd.
The match with Chelsea represents their second game of the WSL campaign, which began with a pendulous 3-2 home victory over title rivals Everton at Meadow Park. However, Harvey’s side are reeling from the sting of elimination from the Champions League semi finals, having been beaten 4-1 by an impressive Frankfurt side over two legs. There’s little respite too.
After Thursday night’s game with Chelsea, Arsenal will face the same opposition at Griffin Park on Sunday afternoon in the Women’s F.A. Cup semi-final. Still, with likely title rivals Birmingham and Everton playing out a 0-0 draw this weekend, the game against Chelsea represents a good chance to start building a lead at the top of the WSL table.
But the game at Emirates also represents a chance to showcase the merits of the women’s game. The revamped Women’s Super League is now in its second season (naturally, Arsenal Ladies were the inaugural champions) and we are now seeing a big promotion drive. The decision was taken last year to play the WSL during the summer months in order to attract attendances.
There have been some innovative reforms too; with each WSL team being assigned a digital media ambassador. So Arsenal midfielder Steph Houghton will now wear her twitter handle @StephHoughton2 on the back of her shirt for WSL matches. Hosting a match at the Emirates represents part of that promotion drive, as Arsenal Ladies will play three home matches at Borehamwood during June and July whilst the men’s team are on hiatus.
In the build up to Thursday evening’s match, I was delighted to have the chance to speak with Arsenal centre half Ciara Grant. In her 14 seasons at Arsenal, Ciara has picked up 26 major trophies and has 100 caps for the Republic of Ireland since making her international debut in 1996. Ciara also holds an administrative post at Arsenal.
Ciara, you represent something of a core of experienced players at the club along with the likes of Jayne Ludlow, Rachel Yankey and Faye White. But there’s also a good blend of young talent in the squad. Who are you tipping to make a big impression on the first team this season?
We have the likes of Jordan Nobbs in midfield and Jenny Beattie and Danielle Carter upfront that are getting regular minutes in the first team. They will be looking to become fixtures in the starting XI this season. Gemma Davison is one to keep an eye on too. She’s been around for a while, but she’s still young. She’s just come back from America where she’s developed her game and is probably the quickest player I have ever worked with.
Recently we had the happy news that Faye White is expecting her first child. But what impact do you think her absence will have on the squad?
It means that the training ground is getting even younger! Obviously it’s fantastic news for Faye and we’re all delighted for her. She’s such a huge presence though, even when she’s not been playing of late due to problems with her knees. She’s such a huge character in the dressing room and on the training ground too. She’s undecided as to whether she’ll continue playing after the birth but if she does decide to finish, it’s the best possible reason to do so. But clearly this means the likes of myself, Jayne, Rachel Yankey and even someone like Emma Byrne, who has been around for a long time now, have to step up to the plate as leaders and pick up the slack.
Arsenal have taken advantage of the suspension of the WPSL in the US and re-signed three of their old players in the shape of Kelly Smith, Alex Scott and Gemma Davison. What impact has their arrival brought?
They’re a big influence for the simple reason that they are three excellent players. That’s why they went to the States in the first place. But at a club like Arsenal character counts for a lot too and all three are excellent characters. Unfortunately, Kelly Smith picked up an injury as soon as she arrived so we’ve not been able to see much of her, but Gemma is a huge prospect and Alex has immediately brought great quality and great character to the team. But the fact that they’ve all chosen to come back to Arsenal following the suspension of the professional league in the States tells you everything you need to know about the quality of this club.
Ciara, who do you see as the biggest challengers to Arsenal’s defence of their WSL crown this season?
We’ve played Everton twice recently, in the WSL and the F.A. Cup and they’ve been really closely contested games. Even when Everton went down to ten at Borehamwood we had to really fight to win the game. Birmingham will run us close again too; they’re in the F.A. Cup Final as well. After that, Doncaster Belles and Chelsea have improved their squads for this season. There’s been quite a lot of movement in playing squads this summer, so the league looks to be a bigger challenge overall than last season.
On a personal note Ciara, you recently won your 100th cap for Ireland, the first women to reach that feat. Where does that rank in your many achievements in the game?
It’s right up there with the UEFA Cup win in 2007 and the unbeaten season and any trophy I’ve ever won. It’s such a huge honour for me and my family. Only 3 men have got into three figures for the Irish national team, so to be the first woman is an amazing feeling. I won’t get to 200, but I’m still planning on winning a few more caps yet.
Moving onto Thursday night’s game and who should the spectators keep an eye on from the Chelsea team?
Chelsea have strengthened their squad and have great quality in their side. Helen Lander was a striker at Arsenal so we will know all about her. She is incredibly quick. They’ve also just signed Katie Sherwood from Bristol Academy and she’s an experienced Welsh international. One to keep an eye out for would be Dani Buet. She plays in central midfield and is a very feisty competitor!
Thursday’s game represents a different challenge, with a bigger pitch, a better pitch than at Borehamwood and, hopefully, a much bigger crowd. Do you see that having an influence on the game?
Not really. If you watch us play, you know we like to get the ball down and pass it and if you can’t do that at the Emirates then there’s something really wrong! It’s a bigger pitch, but it will be the same for both sides so I don’t think fitness will be an issue. Hopefully we’ll get the three points, but we really want to put on a good show for the fans too and show them what we can do.
Arsenal of course face Chelsea just three days later at Brentford in the F.A. Cup. Will Thursday night’s game have any bearing on Sunday?
We’re certainly not thinking like that at the moment. The focus is fully on Thursday and Sunday will take care of itself after that. The best preparation for Sunday is to play well and win on Thursday evening.
The revamped WSL has brought the Women’s game to semi professional standard for Arsenal Ladies now. What does a typical week look like for an Arsenal Ladies player nowadays? How do you prepare?
It depends on the fixtures, but we typically play on Sundays. So we train on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 5-7pm. After that, it’s down to the girls as individuals. Personally, I tend to go the gym on a Wednesday evening and do some running and some weights. Some of the girls will go the gym every day, some like some recovery time after games before hitting training again. But personally, I do a good session once a week between training sessions.
Finally Ciara, what are your aspirations once your playing career ends?
I haven’t really thought that far ahead in truth. I’m nearly 34 now but I still love playing and feel in good shape physically, so I want to keep playing for Arsenal for as long as I can. I’ve had some great years at this club. I don’t think the coaching side interests me in honesty. I think once my playing days are over, I’d like to continue in my administrative role at Arsenal and stay around the club. Clare Wheatley retired around 4 or 5 years ago but she’s still at the club as a Development Manager for the Arsenal Ladies and I too would like to stay around the club in an administrative capacity.
Many thanks to Ciara for her time. If you still don’t have a ticket for the game on Thursday night and are interested in attending, you can book tickets here at a rate of £5 adults and £2.50 for concessions.
Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA