Rachel Yankey discusses her childhood love for football
Rachel Yankey, England’s most capped player, has revealed the surprising lengths she took to get a game of football as a girl in a boy’s world.
The Arsenal forward quietly holds the record for most appearances in national colours, her 129 caps surpassing two-time European Cup-winning goalkeeper Peter Shilton’s 125.
Her other honours include 10 top-flight league titles, an MBE for services to the sport and appearances at two World Cups, as well as three European Championships.
But the unassuming 33-year-old had to pretend to be a boy to get a foot up in the game.
“I grew up playing football in the park with my brother and his friends,” Yankey told Sportswomen. “A couple of boys from school lived across the road from me and one of their dads started up a football team. I tagged along.
“It was a boys’ team and I was a girl – but I didn’t see the difference. I was just football; I didn’t understand that girls weren’t ‘meant’ to play football.
“We came up with the idea to call me ‘Ray’ – an acronym of my full name (Rachel Aba Yankey) – and I shaved my hair so I’d look like a boy and there’d be no disparaging comments. We were just three kids who wanted to play.
“My role model was Ian Wright. I grew up watching Arsenal and loving everything about the way Wright played. Football was just a game, a sport; I didn’t see the difference. So what if you’re male or female?”
Yankey has spent eight seasons with Arsenal over two spells spanning almost two decades.
She has witnessed major changes in the way the game’s profile and administration – central contracts were implemented for the national side in 2009, before the semi-professional Women’s Super League was founded in 2010 – but believes only a further change to its structure will aid development.
“The central contracts help but the players still need part-time jobs,” Yankey added.
“For women’s football to keep moving, we need to keep pushing on and strive to have a full professional league.”