Kelly Smith: Retired England legend called it a day
Bobby Moore, Sir Geoff Hurst, Sir Bobby Charlton, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney would all likely be found on a list of English football’s greats.But should there be a place too for Kelly Smith?
After England Women’s all-time record goal scorer announced her retirement on Wednesday, most key figures in the game would agree she was her country’s finest female player.
And with eight goals in 20 appearances at major international tournaments, there can be no doubt that the Arsenal Ladies legend delivered for England on the biggest stage.
Yet it was not just with a stunning volley from halfway or an iconic, celebratory kiss of her boot that Smith left her indelible mark on English football.
Successful stars are a necessity for a sport to grow; where would British cycling be without Chris Boardman? Gymnastics without Beth Tweddle? Darts without Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor?
It would be impossible to calculate the number of young females Smith has inspired to play football, so where does she rank among England’s most influential footballers?
‘The David Beckham of women’s football’
Speaking to current Arsenal and England players, Watford-born Smith’s impact on her team-mates is immediately obvious.
“She is one of the best,” Arsenal and England midfielder Jordan Nobbs, 24, told BBC Sport. “Watching Kelly in World Cups growing up, she was a unbelievable player.
“She could take on an entire team by herself sometimes to win you the game and was one of the only players in the world who could do that.
“She is the David Beckham of women’s football. She has been that stand-out player, that inspiration, that role model.”
Delivering at major international tournaments
A common criticism of some modern stars of the men’s game is their differing performance levels for club and country.
But the same could never be said of Smith, who scored four goals at the 2007 World Cup alone, prompting a subsequent appearance on Jonathan Ross’ then BBC One chat show.
“Kelly played a huge role is getting people to recognise women’s football as being entertainment,” said broadcaster Jacqui Oatley, who presents the BBC’s Women’s Football Show.
“By getting their attention on television, she helped to get bums on seats.
“In the rare opportunities for England Women games to be on television, with lots of people watching the team for the first time, she was outstanding and dragged England into the final of Euro 2009.
“We should not be shy about putting Kelly Smith’s name up there, just because she is not a household name in the same way that Sir Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore or Sir Geoff Hurst have been. She was an absolute inspiration.”
‘From the backwaters to the big stadia’
Since Smith became Britain’s first female professional footballer when she joined United States side New Jersey in 1999, women’s football in England has transformed from a predominantly-amateur game to one where some clubs employ full-time players, full-time coaches and even full-time strength and conditioning staff.
“There are many pioneers of the England Women’s game who deserve more respect and higher thanks than they are probably ever likely to get – but Kelly’s been really vital,” said BBC Match of the Day commentator Jonathan Pearce, who has extensively covered the women’s game.
“She helped propel women’s football from the backwaters, to the big stadia; from a couple of newspapers to big national, live television coverage. She wasn’t the only one, but she did play a big role in that.
“Kelly was the first England Women’s superstar, on the global stage. She showed to young girls: ‘Hang on, I could make something really special of myself here – look what Kelly Smith has done’.
“You can see the influence that Kelly’s had on some of the current England squad and I think that legacy will last over the next 10 years and beyond.”
‘Nobody else led the way like Kelly’
“Kelly is truly the definition of my hero,” said England Under-23 and Arsenal star Leah Williamson.” Growing up, I aspired to be like her and that’s never changed.
“I’m really grateful to have had the chance to play with her and watch on in awe. For girls looking up, there was nobody else leading the way like Kelly.
“She’s unlike anything else to come out of this country. Some amazing footballers have played for England but Kelly was the only one who reached that peak and competed on a world stage individually.”
Arsenal’s Spanish boss Pedro Martinez Losa added: “Of all the people I have worked with in my years coaching in women’s football, she has had the most influence on me.
“It is a shame we can’t see her playing more football because every day she was either training or the pitch with us was a privilege.
“She has been a reference for most of the Spanish players I have coached. When I coached in America, her popularity was obvious, with every player and every coach.”
Former long-serving Arsenal manager Vic Akers, who first signed Smith for the club, added: “She was the one stand-out player, the best player for England Women ever.
“That’s how iconic she is. We were fortunate to sign her. She scored so many memorable goals in so many memorable games.”
Longevity, durability and defying injuries
One of Smith’s greatest strengths was her longevity, defying lengthy injuries and her age to steal the show in big matches in the twilight of her career.
A surprise selection to start the 2016 Women’s FA Cup final aged 37, having required ankle surgery in 2015, Smith shone under the famous Wembley arch in the number 10 role.
That display was typical of the enduring class that saw her shortlisted for the 2015 Women’s Players’ Player of the Year award when she was 36.
‘A shame English girls couldn’t enjoy her in her peak’
Smith spent large parts of her career playing her club football outside of the UK so as to train on a full-time basis. In a different era, could even more English youngsters have been inspired to play by Smith?
“She was ahead of her time, not just in terms of her obvious talent, but also because the game was really in its infancy in this country when she came through,” Oatley continued.
“Therefore, when she was at her peak, sadly she wasn’t in our front rooms in the way that Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have been.
“That’s because, sadly, the game was not in a position to really nurture her in England at that time. It is such a shame she had to go to America to be able to be on the ball every day.”