With almost 250 England caps and a staggering 38 domestic trophies between them, Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey know the women’s game in England like few others.
Neither, though, was able to get their hands on the World Cup trophy, which they stood tantalisingly close to for photos in front of the Brighton Pavilion.
Making its way around the 24 nations competing in the World Cup finals this summer in France, the trophy was on the south coast four days before Arsenal have the opportunity to clinch their first title in seven years at the Amex Stadium against Hope Powell’s Brighton. The Lionesses play their World Cup send-off match here against New Zealand on 1 June.
Eight days later they have their Group D opener against Scotland in Nice. And while England may have dismantled their old foes 6-0 at Euro 2017, this time round it will not be as easy.
With Erin Cuthbert arguably Chelsea’s player of the season, Kim Little within one game of the title with Arsenal having overcome the ACL injury that ruled her out of the 2017 tournament and Jane Ross preparing for the FA Cup final with West Ham, Scotland have some of the finest talent the WSL has to offer.
“For me Kim Little is one of the best players in the world and if she can be fit and healthy and be the heartbeat of that team and dictate the tempo, they’ve certainly got a chance,” says Smith.
“When it’s your first World Cup there’s a bit more nerves and maybe England can take advantage of that,” she adds. “England have experience in bigger games than Scotland but they need to not get into the rivalry and emotionally stay level-headed and just think of it as another game.
“That’s going to be their toughest test – they need to come through that and gain a bit of momentum and confidence.”
“It will be very difficult,” adds Yankey, who scored against Scotland on her debut in 1997. “It’s always hard to play against Scotland because of the rivalry. England need to be focused, they can’t take anything for granted. It’s the most important game. Scotland won’t want to lose that game. Playing England they will 100% believe they can win, and they’ve got a very talented side.”
Despite the threat posed in Group D by their northern neighbours, and the 2015 runners-up Japan, the pair believe England have as good a chance as any of the title and that the professionalism of English women’s football has played the biggest part in England’s increased competitiveness.
“There’s a lot more resources being put into the game, financially the players are reaping the benefits, they’re full-time professionals, which enables them to train at the elite level more which raises the standard of the Lionesses and the game across the global scene,” says Smith. “For me there’s a number of teams that can win this World Cup whereas when Rachel and I were playing there were two or three favourites.
“Now, six or seven nations potentially, if they can get a little bit of luck and a good run along the way, can win this World Cup, which makes it more entertaining for the fans.
“In the years that Kelly and I were playing it was either none of us were professional or a couple were professional,” Yankey adds. “Now, the whole team is professional, everybody is on the ball and it really does make a difference being on the ball every day, making those passes every day.
“The team are confident enough to say they want to go there and win it and that’s a confidence booster in and of itself. They’ve got to live up to it but to be brave enough to send the message to other teams that England can do it and are a team to be feared is important.
“Whether they can go and do it? Who knows? That’s the joy of football. But they’ve got a good chance.”
For Smith, despite an injury-stifled season, the Chelsea forward Fran Kirby is the first name on her team sheet. “She’s the player that can make things happen in that England squad and if she’s fit and healthy you get the ball to her. Obviously Steph Houghton is a key player for them too, leadership at the back.
“There are a number of players that are really important to the squad. What I like about it is it’s a big squad of players that can all come off the bench and make an impact.”
England have had a strong start to this year, winning their first SheBelieves Cup with wins against Brazil and Japan either side of a draw against their US host. It may only be a friendly tournament but Yankey says it is about getting in the right frame of mind: “You need to be going to tournaments like that with the mentality that you are going to win and then doing it. It’s one thing saying it.
“It was big psychologically for them to win it in the manner that they did, away from home, beating Brazil and Japan and drawing with the US,” continues Smith. “These are teams that are massive teams at this World Cup and to come away with the trophy is going to give them massive confidence.
“Obviously they had a little blip against Canada [at the start of this month] but I think it’s good to lose a game like that and be brought down to earth a little bit along the way. You realise what you’ve got to work on but I think they’re in a really healthy state.”