This week, one of Arsenal’s most decorated, illustrious and fascinating playing careers came to an end. Kelly Smith finally hung up her boots as a player. Kelly has undertaken 3 spells at Arsenal Ladies in between jaunts to America to pursue full time professionalism.
Circumstances have dictated that she return home to the Gunners twice. Kelly grew up as an Arsenal fan in an Arsenal family in Watford. It is the club of her heart. In her autobiography, Kelly Smith- Footballer, she says,
“I am an Arsenal fan, my affinity has always been with them. I had supported them as a kid and I just wanted to wear their strip and play for them. I had the first yellow JVC kit with the blue shorts. That strip was my pride and joy.”
There can be little debate that Kelly is Arsenal Ladies’ greatest ever player. Even 90s icons such as Marieanne Spacey and Sian Williams and the recently retired Faye White trail in her legendary wake. Kelly has been a lethal centre forward (she is England’s record goalscorer), a creative number 10 and in her later career, a gritty midfielder with a fearsome shot. She is regarded with awe throughout the women’s game and widely considered the greatest English women’s footballer of all time.
Her teammates and coaches speak of her in hushed tones. Hope Powell called her women’s football’s answer to Maradona. When I interviewed Arsenal Ladies manager Pedro Martinez Losa in 2014, he described her as “a special case.” In 2013, Kim Little told me that “I would trust my life with Kelly’s left foot.”
Smith’s career has been a fascinating journey and not just because she was such a good player. I’m usually loath to draw comparisons with male footballers when writing about women’s football, but like other greats such as Marco van Basten and Ronaldo, her career is punctuated by paradoxes, controversies and, unfortunately, injuries. I have had the fortune of interviewing Kelly twice and she is a taciturn, shy individual.
In her autobiography, Kelly describes her shyness as debilitating, particularly when she first moved to America as a teenager. Whilst playing for Seton Hall during her scholarship, she admits to hiding in the toilets at the end of season awards dinner so that she wouldn’t have to give an acceptance speech for her player of the year award. Kelly’s shyness and isolation stateside was such that she turned to alcohol to loosen her up in social situations, vodka had become her coping instrument of choice.
So when the career long spectre of injury took hold for the first time, alcohol again became her crutch. Kelly’s injury itinerary is long and varied. She tore her right anterior cruciate ligament in 2002. In her eagerness to return to action, she tore it again in 2003.
In 2004, she broke her leg. Her knee cartilage was damaged to the point that it was surgically replaced with the achilles tendon of a motorcycle accident victim. Upon her third return to Arsenal in 2012, she broke her foot volleying a football for a BT Sport advertisement. The foot was already injured and she had discarded her protective boot to film the scene. In 2015, she tore ankle ligaments after an awful challenge from Sunderland’s Abby Holmes.
Injuries have been such a constant accomplice to Kelly for a number of reasons. For a start, she has spent much of her career on a different level to her peers and has suffered a number of “agricultural” challenges. Secondly, she is so good that coaches are always tempted to abbreviate her absences as much as possible. She played for England at World Cup 2011 despite barely being able to walk. She almost single handedly carried Arsenal to F.A. Cup Final victory in 2014 after prolonged treatment for a thigh injury.
I interviewed her 72 hours before that 2014 final and knew full well that she was unable to train. Even in her mid-30s and on one good leg, Kelly Smith had the quality to win matches all by herself. Hope Powell took her to Euro 2013 despite injury because there was a small chance that she would have been available in time for the final had England qualified. (They were knocked out in the group stage on that occasion).
However, it is not just coaching staff desperation that sees Kelly reintroduced into the fray without adequate recovery time. Though acutely shy off the pitch, there is something about a ball and grass that releases the beast in Smith. It almost seems to act as a release valve for her demureness. It is difficult to reconcile the reticent figure you meet away from the pitch, with the spiky competitor that you see on it.
Anybody that has ever watched Kelly play will tell you that she knows how to look after herself, to say the least. She can also be illuminatingly forthright when quizzed about football, her great passion. Indeed, Smith earned FA censure last year when she publicly raged about the aforementioned appalling tackle from Sunderland’s Abby Holmes, laconically dismissing Holmes’ apology. “She should be thinking more about how to tackle, not how to apologise,” she pointed out.
Whilst playing in the more professional environs of America, Smith became disillusioned with the differences she saw in English women’s football when she returned for international duty.
“Women’s football in England is a joke” she once remarked. She was suspended for both legs of Arsenal’s 2007 Champions League final victory against Umea for flipping her middle finger at the crowd during the semi-final. Kelly is a fascinating character because, on the surface, you have this almost diffident individual, yet it’s very clear that still waters run deep.
Her career has been one of triumph over adversity. As a child, she was kicked out of Garston Boys’ Club in Watford for being a girl, despite finishing the season as top scorer. She left her Hertfordshire home for America as a teenager to pursue her dream of being a professional athlete, fully cognizant of the mental challenges it would present to such a shy, homely person.
Time and again, she has wrestled with the physical and mental anguish of injury and recovery. For Kelly, the mental side would represent the biggest hurdle because of her insatiable desire to play football. Tellingly, in her broadside against Abby Holmes, she exclusively referenced the psychological aspect of recovery, “I face the mental challenge yet again of recovering from a long-term injury… Twice before I have been the victim of a seriously bad challenge. Both resulted in broken legs and some serious mental repercussions.”
Like most geniuses, Kelly’s career has been a story of determination and triumph in the face of obstacles with a few regrets thrown in for good measure. As a footballer, Kelly has been without peer in England for her entire career and you would be hard pushed to find a coach or fellow player that would disagree with that contention. Following her selfless performance as a lone striker in the 2016 FA Cup Final, match winner Dan Carter told me “When Kelly is on the pitch, we all feel a foot taller.”
Kelly is tenacious, but graceful; every touch is as deliberate as a brushstroke. Technically she is exceptionally precise, which explains why she has continued to excel even as her body has creaked. Her left foot is both magic wand and jackhammer, there can hardly have been a women’s footballer with a harder or more accurate shot. Her final act in an Arsenal shirt was to lob the Donny Belles’ keeper with a delicious thirty yard chip that kissed the crossbar on its way in.
She treats the football as both friend and enemy all at once and the sport itself has revealed both angel and devil inside this incredible, contradictory footballer. Her list of achievements is almost endless.
England’s record goalscorer (despite the injury enforced pauses), she is an MBE, her number 6 shirt was retired by Seton Hall, the first female athlete ever to receive this honour in women’s soccer, she won 3 Big East Conference Player of the Year awards at university, she scored 30 goals in 34 games during Arsenal’s quadruple winning season of 2006-07, between 2005-2009 she scored 100 goals in 112 appearances for the club, Players’ Player of the Year in 2006 and 2007, she came 3rd in the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2009 (were it not for injury and a career that overlapped that of Brazilian legend Marta, she surely would have won it at least once), 2 WSL titles, 5 Women’s Premier League titles, 6 Women’s F.A. Cups, 3 WSL Continental Cups, 3 League Cups.
The epitaph of Kelly’s playing career is best surmised by the woman herself in her autobiography, “I longed to be left alone to play football.” A simple and reasonable ambition and one that she fought resolutely to achieve. It was a privilege to be able to watch her do it. She is the epitome of the old adage that you learn more about someone in an hour of play than you do in a year of conversation.
I was fortunate enough to converse with her, but I feel like I got to know Kelly Smith because I watched her play.
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