Arsenal and England star says standard of women’s football must keep rising

Rachel Yankey, Arsenal Ladies

Rachel Yankey, Arsenal Ladies - Credit: PA Archive/Press Association Images

In a career spanning almost two decades, Arsenal Ladies forward Rachel Yankey has seen women’s football grow to an unprecedented level of popularity.

England’s third-place finish at last year’s Women’s World Cup helped to spark increased interest in the domestic game, translating into almost a 50 per cent rise in attendances.

The average crowd for a Women’s Super League fixture now tops 1,000, while top clubs – including Arsenal, who have just revamped the Ladies’ training facilities at their London Colney base – are pumping more funds into the sport.

Yet the veteran star, who is about to begin her 11th consecutive season with the Gunners, firmly believes there is no room for complacency.

“We still need some improvement on getting fans in to games,” said Yankey. “I think that’s a big problem and we won’t have cracked it until we start filling our stadiums and generating money as a stand-alone club.

“Yes, the standard has gone up, but that’s because of the facilities and the backing and I still think it should be a lot better than it is.

“The level of support that clubs are getting now, on the financial side, has gone up, and the ability to train every day as a professional footballer is accessible to more clubs.

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“The education for young players as well, with the sort of food they should be eating, and the way they should train, just wasn’t there when I was a kid.

“We should try and make sure that every time we play, it’s a fun game to watch. It needs to be high-intensity and enjoyable for people, either on TV or at the ground.

“That’s a massive challenge for women’s football because we need to generate even more backing and sponsorship, to raise the game as a business.”

The improved standard of the game, particularly since the Women’s Super League was established in 2011, has made it harder for Arsenal to maintain the level of success they enjoyed for the majority of Yankey’s career.

The 36-year-old, who also played for Fulham, Birmingham and New Jersey Wildcats, has helped the Gunners to win eight league titles and nine FA Cups, as well as becoming European champions in 2007.

And Yankey – who also won 129 England caps – intends to add to that tally during the coming season, with Arsenal bidding to upgrade last year’s third-placed finish behind Chelsea and Manchester City Women.

“We all want to be winning titles,” she said. “We enter three competitions at the start of the season and we’ll try our best to win all three. It’s going to be tough but I don’t think we’ll be a million miles away.

“You can’t overlook Chelsea – they won the league last season and they’ve added to their squad with the experience of Karen Carney and a couple of youngsters, including Jade Bailey from us.

“They’ve brought in quality and that will only increase their chances of winning the title again. Manchester City have a fantastic squad, I think, and they’ve brought in players too.

“For me, Sunderland have a good team as well and they’ve managed to keep the core of it, so I wouldn’t put it past them to do really well again. They probably haven’t got the pressure in terms of expectations either.”

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