The making of Arsenal's Rachel Yankey

England's first female professional and most-capped player Rachel Yankey speaks about her journey from park football against Kelly Smith to the summit of the game.

England women's legend Rachel Yankey reveals her "love of the game" and how she started out as a young girl for London grassroots club Mill Hill United.

The first professional women's footballer in England, her nation's most-capped player and the winner of 27 major trophies, Rachel Yankey has had some career.

First playing with Arsenal LFC aged 16 in 1996, the winger surpassed Peter Shilton's long-standing England record on her way to 129 caps, in addition to five for the Olympic Great Britain squad. She has claimed every major English honour multiple times and won the 2007 UEFA Women's Cup, as well as being appointed a United Kingdom MBE in 2006 – upgraded to OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire) last month.

With March's UEFA Women's Champions League quarter-final against Birmingham fast approaching, and fresh from signing a new two-season contract, the 34-year-old Yankey spoke to about how she took up football, her childhood games against future England and Arsenal team-mate Kelly Smith, her route to Arsenal and her own coaching career. What first led you to take up football?

Rachel Yankey: The love of the game. It's just a game that you can play – you don't have to have loads and loads of money to be able to do it, you don't even have to speak the same language as the other people, you can go down to the local park, which we used to do, and there'd always be masses of people playing football. And it was just about joining in and trying your best and making sure that you sort of stood out and could cope with the standard of play. And I think that's something that I've always enjoyed doing. Your first club was Mill Hill. What are your memories going back to then, of that club, your first club?

Yankey: It was more of a community club, and it was about giving everybody a chance and an opportunity to grow. We were just really good. We used to win everything. I used to play against Kelly Smith in the five-a-side. It was always a battle between Mill Hill and Pinner Park, who Kelly played for, and Barnet. How influential was your first coach, Russell Mountford, on your subsequent career?

Rachel Yankey talks to
Rachel Yankey talks to©

Yankey: He gave us all an opportunity. He recognised talent, and he wasn't put off that I was quite small. I remember one of the All-England competitions up in Nottingham he took me to – I think I played for the U16s, and we won that on the Saturday, and then he asked me: "Come on, I need you to stay and play for the women's side." And it was just like: "Really..?" You know, I was so young, but it was an opportunity. He recognised that if you are talented enough then you could withstand and be able to get out of situations. Maybe other people are more powerful and stronger and taller than you, but you could sort of work your way and work up some sort of magic. How would you compare the opportunities to play football for girls then compared with now?

Yankey: I think there is a lot more now. When I first started, it was by chance that I got into Mill Hill. I was playing for a boys' team, and I wasn't really meant to, and at the AGM the manager there asked: "Does anyone run a girls team that she can go for" And it just happened that Russell put his hand up and offered me the opportunity to go there. Now there is the Centre of Excellence, there's grassroots girls' leagues, academies, and all the way up to the first team, so there is a lot more opportunity and knowledge. Had you even watched women's football in a stadium before you started playing at a high level?

Yankey: Once, because a friend of mine's mum was doing a documentary on Donny [Doncaster] Belles. She was working with that team and she knew that I liked football so she invited me to a match – it was Donny Belles versus Arsenal. I can't remember the score but I remember going to the stadium and watching that. How did you first get involved with Arsenal?

Yankey: I played for my school in a five-a-side league, and [Arsenal manager] Vic Akers was the referee there, so that was the first time I'd met Vic Akers. At the time that I was at Mill Hill and I was making decisions: What do I want to do? Do I want to stay here or do I want to challenge myself? An opportunity came to sign for Arsenal, and I don't think you can let that go by. Kelly Smith joined the Arsenal coaching set-up this year – is that something you could see yourself doing?

Yankey: If I was offered the opportunity I'd love to do that. I've always worked in coaching since I was a kid, so if Arsenal offered me the opportunity then, yes, I'd love to do that. You have your own academy describe the work you do there.

Yankey: I work in primary schools, across [the London Boroughs of] Brent and Harrow, and I also run a voluntary football team, a grassroots football team, on a Saturday. So yes, I do a lot of football. Obviously the primary school work is more PE lessons and after-school clubs, and the football team is mainly boys. We've got a few girls down there, but they play in the Harrow Youth League, and it's just about getting kids off the street and getting them back involved in football.