10 years since her last game for the Lionesses, Rachel Yankey has urged the European champions to keep seeking out the raw talent she believes makes the difference at the highest level of the women’s game.
Yankey hobbled off with a hamstring injury during her record-breaking 129th appearance for the Lionesses on July 15, 2013 against Russia. Without the injured winger, England capitulated 3-0 to France in their final UEFA Women’s Euro match three days later. Little did she know, Yankey would never be picked to play for her country again.
New head coach Mark Sampson did not include Yankey in his first squad in December 2013 while stressing “the door is firmly open” for England’s most capped player. It is a view Yankey disputes. “Yeah, I got a phone call when the first squad was being announced to go to La Manga,” she reveals to me. “I had a conversation with him because I wasn’t involved in the 30-player squad and just sort of asked for reasons why – I won’t go into the conversation – but at that point I could tell that I was never going to be picked again.”
“Although publicly he’d said that the door was always open. I’m not quite sure that that was ever the case, but I suppose you’ve got to say that. I was a little bit disappointed when you’re picking 30 players to go in a training camp that you leave out your most experienced player.”
Ten years ago, Yankey was one of five black players in an England squad coached by a black woman, Hope Powell. Although the decade since has seen the Lionesses ascend to the summit of women’s soccer – reaching three successive tournament semi-finals before winning the UEFA Women’s Euro last summer on home soil – the diversity of the squad has diminished as England started with an all-white team throughout the championship. Heading to Australia for the FIFA Women’s World Cup this summer, only two of the 23-player squad are black.
Yankey, who became her country’s most capped player of all-time in 2013 – the first woman to achieve this accolade, believes these statistics are not necessarily a matter of race but class, with accessibility to women’s soccer in England dominated by, often out-of-town, affiliated academies rather than local playing fields.
“Players are being coached at an earlier age,” she tells me. “I still think we must make sure that we don’t coach things out of players. We still want players that can play off-the-cuff, like a Kelly Smith, who have the freedom to go and create moments of magic.”
“If you coach a player too much and make them rigid, then you’re going to lose that, but I think now, the players have the best structure, they have the best education on how to be a professional footballer in terms of what to eat, how to train how to look after your body, physios, masseurs, people from backroom staff that are looking after them, All these things are hugely important.”
“Nowadays you get into the game via a coached scheme or through a club. When I was growing up it was about going down to the park or going down the streets and playing with anybody that was outside. I remember that there was a lot of people, whether they were the same color as me or not, we related to each other in terms of how we spoke from inner-city London.”
“There was an understanding how you played football and that kind of raw football that you would get, that I think yeah, we’re probably missing. I look at Lauren James, Chloe Kelly, but possibly not many more, who have got that kind of raw sort of style.”
It was Kelly – brought up playing cage football on the streets of west London – who guaranteed herself immortality last summer by breaking the extra-time stalemate against Germany in the UEFA Women’s Euro final, with a goal born out of no coaching manual but hewn from years of improvisation and sheer desire.
In recent years, the English Football Association (FA) has launched measures to reach girls from inner-city locations and from diverse backgrounds. Figures released earlier this year suggest that as a result to its ‘Discover My Talent’ program, the number of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) girls participating at u17 level has increased from 5% to 36% in the last five years. An independent government review released this week into the future of the domestic women’s game in England has reiterated that “The FA should continue to publish data on the success or failure of its existing equality, diversity and inclusion interventions”.
The review heard many concerns regarding the number of visible role models from ethnically diverse backgrounds within the women’s game. Although five other players have surpassed Yankey’s total of 129 international appearances in the decade since, she told me what it means to still be considered a representative for her community.
“People always talk about role models, and I know since retiring a lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘you know you were the first person that I saw play football and I wanted to be like you’. Then some people relate to me because of the way that I wore my hair, so it’s about finding someone that’s relatable and we need to make sure that the grassroots level, the youth level of women’s football is being accessed by everybody.”
James goes into the World Cup beginning next week as England’s wildcard, a player capable of the unexpected as Yankey explains. ” She can be that off-the-cuff creative player, creating moments of intelligence and she’s got that self-belief. She’s technically brilliant on the ball, she’s fantastic, she’s strong, she’s got pace, she’s got an eye for a pass, but she hasn’t had all this coached out of her. There’s still elements that she probably needs to learn, but she’s young and she’ll get there.”
“That’s why it’s exciting seeing players like her go to the World Cup because knowing her character, I don’t think she’ll be phased by getting on the ball and playing in big moments in big games and yes, she’ll need looking after, but she’s a relatively unknown to most countries and that can be a real powerful thing for England I think.”
Rachel Yankey spoke to me exclusively courtesy of Freebets.com