LIFESTYLE

Former England Player Kelly Smith: Equal Media Coverage Of Women’s Euro Could Transform The Game

'Every school should have a girls' football team.'

19/07/2017 16:32 BST

Appetite is high for women’s sport in 2017, but former England footballer Kelly Smith believes there’s a lot more than can be done to boost enthusiasm. 

The former Arsenal Ladies player, who was appointed player coach for the team earlier this year, says more exposure to tournaments will give female players a chance to showcase how far the women’s football game has come. 

“We need the media to pick it up and report on it,” the 38-year-old told HuffPost UK. “We need to get coverage on the back pages, we need to show all the games.

“We need that new kind of following of people, like during the World Cup there were millions of people viewing in the early hours. We need that.” 

Ben Hoskins via Getty Images

Smith is a tour de force. Not only is she England’s record goal scorer, with 46 goals under her belt, but she has 117 caps and was the third English woman to reach the 100 cap milestone.

But it hasn’t always been plain-sailing, Smith experienced first-hand the prejudice against women playing sport. She got kicked off two boys’ football teams because she was a girl.

“I was kicked off for being too good,” she said. “The parents of kids in the opposition team didn’t want me playing and I faced adversity growing up.

“The boys didn’t care. It was more the older generation, which is why we need to change the mindset of young girls as early as possible and let them know it’s ok to and normal to play football.

“This is where you change people’s perceptions. I believe every school should have a girls’ football team.”

Smith started playing football from the age of six and has been playing professionally since she was 20 years old. Knowing a footballer’s career usually ends in their late 30s, her decision to leave the sport and start a family had always been in the back of her mind.

But she has plenty of standout memories of her time as a player.

She recalled the Olympics 2012 being a game-changing moment for women’s football, as it gave people a new appreciation for the female sport. More than 75,000 people turned up to watch England vs Brazil.

“When England does well at tournament, it gains a whole new generational fanbase,” she said. “We need exposure and and to give people an opportunity to watch and follow and gain an understanding of the players.

“Building relationships with the players, knowing their stories and learning how they got into the sport is so important. It gives fans a whole different connection.” 

Building relationships with the players, knowing their stories and and learning how they got into the sport is so important.

In January 2017, Smith felt the time had come to retire. Shortly after, she found out she was pregnant with her son. She gave birth to Rocco Jude in June 2017 and, due to having a c-section, hasn’t been able to train much since.

“It was a massive decision to leave playing football,” she said.

“Football has been my whole life. I haven’t had much physical activity recently because of being pregnant, but I’ve enjoyed watching it and being around it.”

Smith, who is currently on maternity leave, said being on the other side of the pitch and thinking in a more strategic way as a coach has been an eye-opener. 

“Hours are long and demanding, but it’s rewarding because the players respect me due to my career,” she said.

“But I have to earn my stripes in the coaching world and gain experience.”

David Price via Getty Images

Despite not playing, Smith is fully immersing herself in the Women’s Euro and has high hopes for the tournament.

“I hope to see filled stadiums,” she said. “There has already been a lot of great video footage and content on social media from the FA where they connect with the fans. I hope the England team perform well and hope they can earn new found followers to women’s football.”

There are a fair few players who Smith has her eye on this tournament, too. One being Eugénie Le Sommer, a French player who plays for Olympique Lyon.

“She’s a very classy player,” said Smith. “She moves so well with the ball, I love watching her play.

“But also, Vivianne Miedema who plays for the Arsenal Ladies. She’s a classy finisher and has improved dramatically. She’s good in front of goal - she showed signs of that in the opening games against Norway.

“I can tell she’s a leader and is going to step up.” 

Watch England v Scotland in the UEFA Women’s Euro exclusively live on Channel 4 on Wednesday 19 July. You can join the conversation using #Lionesses and for more information visit http://www.channel4.com/programmes/uefa-womens-euro-2017