Kelly Smith talks childhood in boys teams and injury struggles
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Last Updated: 08/03/19 2:49pm
Ahead of International Women's Day on Friday, March 8, Kelly Smith tells My Icon about her childhood playing in boys teams, facing 'irate' parents and her injury struggles.
Like many, Kelly Smith's childhood was spent kicking a ball around the playground with her friends at break time - except she was the only girl.
There were no youth teams for girls when Smith was growing up, but the former Arsenal striker knew she had innate talent, even when the goalposts were jumpers, and refused to let the lack of options hold her back.
The children around her - at school and in the boys youth team she joined in her hometown of Watford - did not mind having a girl in their ranks, but it was their parents who refused to let their kids play against her.
Ahead of International Women's Day on March 8, she told My Icon: "I was playing on boys teams because there were no opportunities for girls to play football. All of my friends weren't into football, they were into girly things, and even at school in the playground when it was play time, I was the only girl. It didn't bother me, I was just really happy that I was doing something I loved and I knew I was good at.
"I was playing for a local boys team in Garston, where I grew up in Watford, and I was the only girl on the team. I was scoring five, six, seven goals a game and word got out that there was this new player that was really good and it turned out, I was a girl.
"The boys I was playing with didn't mind the fact that I was a girl, the opposition didn't mind, but it was the parents of the opposition that had a problem with it. They were irate that I was the best player on the team and embarrassing their sons by dribbling around a few players or passing the ball to a team-mate or slotting it onto the back of the net.
"They had a problem that I was a girl playing 'their sport' so my Dad had to sit me down and say 'this team are not going to play against your team any more because they refuse to play against you because you're a girl'. I was being told at that age that I couldn't do something that I was passionate about and wanted to do so it was very upsetting. I was crying, and my Dad put his arm around me and said 'look, we'll just find you another team'.
"The boys I was playing with didn't mind the fact that I was a girl, the opposition didn't mind, but it was the parents of the opposition that had a problem with it. They were irate that I was the best player on the team and embarrassing their sons... They had a problem that I was a girl playing 'their sport' ."
Kelly Smith on the reaction of parents during her childhood
"So we did, we moved across town and played for another team in the Watford area, and the same thing happened. My dad sat me down again and explained the situation - I was devastated and I didn't understand because I just wanted to play football and my sex was irrelevant, but back then, I was a little less accepted.
"Deep down, I always had a dream of playing football at the highest level I could. Even at that age, I wanted to play for England and Arsenal. That dream was there but I was told I couldn't do something I really wanted to do and I was good at.
"I couldn't understand why, just because I'm a girl, why can I not play this game that I love? All the boys can play, but why can't I? It was difficult, my dad said we would find another team, if you're good at this and want to follow it and want to play football, then we'll find somewhere else for you to go."
'I started drinking to numb my feelings'
While playing for the Philadelphia Charge in 2002, Smith ruptured her ACL, causing her to miss the rest of the season and the loneliness of recovery caused her to turn to alcohol.
She said: "I was devastated because it was the start of the professional league, I wanted to go out and prove a point and I was out for the whole season. It was hard because you're isolated, you're by yourself with the physio and you see your team-mates going out to training and you have to come to the games and you know you can't have any impact.
"I think I started drinking to numb my feelings. Drinking made me feel good because it made me forget and numbed the pain I was feeling. I was so low - I thought about killing myself. I felt so lonely, so isolated and I was spiralling out of control.
"My dad came out to the States and he knew I wasn't in a good position mentally because he spoke to me on the phone and he said 'that's it, I'm coming out to get you'. For me, that was a massive relief off my shoulders, knowing that I was so low and my dad was coming to help me because when I was in that situation, I couldn't ask for help.
"I felt embarrassed that I was using alcohol every day to stop me thinking, to get me to sleep so the fact that he was coming out to help me and put me on the right path was a massive weight off my shoulders.
"I was so young and not well rounded enough. I didn't really know myself before I moved out there and that was a difficult period because I'd put myself in that situation and I had this dream of being a professional and I had to do it in order to pursue my dream.
"I think I started drinking to numb my feelings. Drinking made me feel good because it made me forget and numbed the pain I was feeling. I was so low - I thought about killing myself. I felt so lonely, so isolated and I was spiralling out of control."
Kelly Smith on her struggles when injured
"You have to take each day as it comes and try everything you can to make yourself better, especially if you're in a rehab situation. You do everything you can to put you on the right path and not look too far ahead because there are going to be days when it is going to be tough but the next day might be better.
"Your career and pathway is not going to be easy at times, you're going to get rejections, you're going to face different barriers along the way - whether it be an injury or something else - but you have to have a thick skin, be strong mentally and talk to people."
Retiring the No 6 shirt
Between 1997 and 1999, Smith played for the Senton Hall Pirates at university in New Jersey and broke a number of school and conference records - but it was not always plain sailing.
She said: "I was spotted playing in the Watford Football Festival, playing against an American side and there were a couple of scouts there and they potentially wanted me to go over there for a soccer scholarship. At the time, when the approach was made, I was like 'wow, this is the dream now because I can be a professional player', because in England, at that time and playing for Arsenal, we were only training two evenings a week.
"I had this dream of being a professional, but I had my studies also and then there was this soccer scholarship there. I could be playing every day but also get an education so if I put myself in America, get my degree and make a name for myself out there, the opportunities are a lot more vast.
"I think it was a year after I graduated, they said that they were going to retire my jersey and that was something that was such a massive honour because I was only the third female in the history of the university to have that done."
Kelly Smith on the recognition from Seton Hall University
"I wasn't the most confident person, I was quite shy and reserved so I struggled to make friends and when I put myself in that situation, it was a real struggle. It was very uncomfortable, very scary and very nerve-wracking to leave your family at such a young age, but it's something I'm really proud of because I stuck at it and it got easier over time.
"I was allocated No 6 at Seton Hall University and I broke all kinds of scoring records and appearance records. The big thing out in America is that they recognise your achievements and I think it was a year after I graduated, they said that they were going to retire my jersey and that was something that was such a massive honour because I was only the third female in the history of the university to have that done.
"I have a banner now in the basketball gym and a circular plaque on the soccer field with the number six and my name above it. I've been back since and just to see that hanging up and the amount of respect that the university has, it is a proud moment for me and my family."
Don't miss the My Icon Sportswomen special, starting on Monday on Sky Sports Mix - the whole series will also be available On Demand, as are all the episodes from previous series.