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I’m a long way off from bending it like Beckham, according to Rachel Yankey. No sooner are we taking free-kicks at Arsenal’s futuristic indoor training ground, than she is pointing out flaws in my technique that have gone uncorrected over two decades of Sunday league football. Clearly, I’ve briefly entered the realm of someone who strives for perfection, and sometimes even gets there, whereas the rest of us just try to be pretty good.
The Arsenal and England left-winger has agreed to have a knockabout with me. There are many roads to greatness, including Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours of practice”, but for us time is short. “So,” she says, “let’s concentrate on the basics.” Of which there are many: among other things, I should approach the ball at a 90° angle; shorten my run up; plant my standing leg closer to the ball; and rotate my hips more on the follow through.
It’s simple enough advice but having one of the world’s best female footballers as my instructor does rather increase the pressure. Yankey, 34, is the most highly decorated female English footballer in history, with 27 major trophies, including 10 top-flight league titles, an MBE for services to the sport, and appearances at two World Cups and three European Championships.
Yankey has also represented England more than any other footballer – men included. In June, during a 1-1 draw against Japan, she surpassed former goalkeeper Peter Shilton’s long-held 125-cap record. After the game Yankey was serenaded on to the team bus with “For she’s a jolly good fellow”. Patently embarrassed – see the footage on YouTube – she jokily mouths the F-word at her colleagues.
Yankey says she cannot remember a time before football. From the age of three, she has always had a ball at her feet. She grew up playing on her street “morning, noon and night” with two boys who lived next door. She copied the style of her favourite players – “always men, because there weren’t any female footballers who were role models back then,” she says, before nonchalantly striking a dipping, curling shot into the top corner from outside the penalty area.
Born in northwest London in 1979, Yankey lived with her English mother, Jean, and older brother, Simon. Her father, of Ghanaian descent, was largely absent. Money was tight but, says Yankey, it was the small things about growing up mixed-race that left the biggest impression. “I remember when shop assistants couldn’t get their head around the fact we were mother and daughter. They’d ask what we were doing out shopping together. And I’d think, ‘Really? Did you just say that?’ But that kind of thing happened all the time.”
Yankey’s journey to the top of women’s football has been unusual, to say the least. In 1980s England it was almost unthinkable for girls to play football seriously. So one afternoon, aged eight, Yankey escaped the attention of her mother and walked into a barbershop. She asked for “a grade two on top and one on the sides”. “My head was completely shaved. Mum was disgusted – you should have seen the look on her face!”
Still, the disguise served its purpose: Yankey started playing for the local boys’ team and, for two seasons, continued to wear her hair short and her kit baggy. Teammates called her Ray. “I was just a little girl from a modest background, wanting to play football. I didn’t care if I had to pretend to be a boy.”
Ray was always the shortest and skinniest player on the pitch but also the best. Ray was faster and had better footwork than the rest, so deft that “he” looked as though he was, at times, dancing.
Nobody questioned Ray’s eligibility until the final of a local five-a-side competition. “We played against a team with a kid from my school in. He told the ref I was a girl and I was told to leave the pitch.”
Undeterred, she continued to play but from then on, only with girls. She struggled at school and left with no GCSEs (years later she would be diagnosed with dyslexia). “I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to do,” she says.
At 16, she joined the Arsenal women’s team, where finally she encountered like-minded girls. Within two years of this breakthrough, along came another. While she was on holiday in Canada, she received a telephone call from London: “We’d like you to sign for Fulham”, the first and only women’s club in England to turn professional. Yankey – its first signing – was on the next plane home.
I learn about this history from Frank McMorrow, who was my sports teacher at secondary school before taking a year out to coach Fulham Ladies when they turned professional. “Rachel wasn’t a big bruiser or a tackler,” McMorrow tells me. “She was a flair player, a level above everyone else. You name it, she could do it.”
One afternoon McMorrow brought Yankey to my school to coach the girls’ football team. I stuck around to watch. The 5ft 4in Yankey had grown her hair out by this time, wearing it in plaits that reached down to her shoulders. She was softly spoken but became animated with the ball at her feet.
“I’ve been to a lot of schools but yes, I can remember your little sports hall,” she says, adding that the girls there “weren’t the best I’ve ever coached!”
Despite doing the treble in 2002, owner Mohamed al-Fayed’s experiment didn’t work. No other clubs followed Fulham’s lead. “It was a case of one step forwards, two steps back,” says Yankey. Still, the women’s game has come a long way since then. “We used to have to pay for our own hotel rooms whenever we played away from home. Women’s football was just a footnote to the men’s game. We even wore the same kits as them but in extra small.”
In the current semi-pro world of British women’s football, many players also hold down jobs. Yankey runs her own coaching business. Today, for example, she coached schoolchildren from 9am to 4pm before her two-hour training session for Arsenal. “We have to make a lot of sacrifices. I don’t get to spend as much time with my boyfriend as I’d like.”
Unlike male footballers, there is no multimillion-pound fortune for them to fall back on when they retire. In fact, England’s best-paid female footballers earn only £20,000 a year.
Surprisingly, Yankey doesn’t see the injustice. “People need to look at women’s football for what it is,” she says, citing poor attendances. “We are the part-timers. There’s absolutely no way we should be as good as male footballers. Of course they should get paid more.”
What is it about women’s football that provokes such antagonism among certain men? Yankey doesn’t mince her words: “Yes, generally women aren’t as quick or powerful as men and the game is less advanced. But that doesn’t mean women’s football is therefore worthless, or a joke. Football doesn’t belong to men; women have the same right to play, coach or talk about it as men in the pub do.”
For now, Yankey has a contest closer to home to think about. Unwisely, perhaps, I suggest that we end with a free-kick competition. Yankey accepts, and we set out a defensive wall of red mannequins we will have to bend the ball over and around.
We are standing about 25 yards from the goal, which suddenly looks very small. Beneath my bravado lurks regret. We will each take three free-kicks. Yankey goes first and makes it look easy. The ball curls over the wall before dipping into the bottom corner. 1-0.
My turn. I slightly scuff the ball upon contact but it creeps in nevertheless. The relief! 1-1.
We both score our next free-kicks: Yankey’s another beauty, mine slightly underwhelming. According to Yankey, “Any keeper would have saved it.” No matter: 2-2.
Yankey doesn’t look like missing. And so it proves: with her third and final free-kick, the ball flies into the top corner. 3-2.
I line up my final free-kick and Yankey offers a final piece of advice: “Ignore the wall. Pick your spot. Forget the pressure. And when the ball hits the back of the net, don’t forget to celebrate.”
It’s my best free-kick yet – powerful, with lots of curl – but, sadly, the ball doesn’t dip quite fast enough and crashes against the crossbar.
“It may seem like a small victory,” says Yankey, raising her arms in mock celebration, “but they all count.”