Unless you were a die-hard women’s football fan you probably only knew the name Yankey if you were a US Sports fan or had a nose for the candle company. You certainly wouldn’t have known the name Houghton or White or Aluko, in fact you probably didn’t know the names of any of the 18-strong squad that represented Team GB’s women’s football team at London 2012 four years ago.
But to those who know, Rachel Yankey is an Arsenal Ladies – and Fulham – legend. There’s no reason she shouldn’t be known. At 36, she’s one of the most experienced players in the FA Women’s Super League, has played for Arsenal for 15 years across two spells, and has just the 129 England caps to her name and an OBE.
She was also England’s most capped player ever, overtaking Peter Shilton before current England star Fara Williams surpassed her record and went on to record her 150th cap earlier this year. Like her 17 team mates, Yankey represented her nation at 2012 at an event that not only captured a nation’s heart but also changed the face of women’s football in the United Kingdom.
“I never thought we’d get the crowds we did but it also wasn’t something I ever thought of going into it. I know it was us who were playing but the bigger picture was always about doing our little bit for Team GB,” says Yankey.
Women’s football was far from an afterthought to those who attended the Olympic. A combined 55,000 people watched the first two games in Coventry and Cardiff before an unprecedented 70,000 people marched into Wembley to watch Steph Houghton’s free-kick defeat Brazil in the final group game.
Whilst the journey would end soon after against a strong Canada side, Yankey believes she and her teammates achieved as much off the pitch as they did on it.
“Being in the Olympic Village and representing our team was huge. It was all about not letting everyone down,” she recalls.
“We never really looked at it as just playing football and it’s weird to say I wasn’t surprised [by the crowds] but I did think people would come out and support us because of what it was. People didn’t come for free, they had to pay and people actively wanted to get to know more about us and more about the team – that was maybe the bigger surprise.”
Speaking at a recent KickItOut event, fellow international Casey Stoney said the Olympics were bigger for women’s football than the Women’s World Cup and Yankey can understand where her Arsenal teammate is coming from.
“I don’t think we really appreciated what the Olympics was until we actually went into it. As a footballer, the pinnacle of your career is the World Cup but the difference is with the Olympics, it’s a major tournament for us. For the men, it’s really for the U23 players and for us, it was a lot about the bigger picture.
“The amount of people watching makes it such a massive event and it helped put women’s football on the map. I don’t think you would have got the crowds we did if it hadn’t been the Olympics – people get gripped on it. We don’t have that mass following but people were sending us photos of Wembley Way full with people and we never imagined it would be like that. Those pictures and memories will always stick with us because it did a lot for our game.”
Sadly, on a day where Team GB has now surpassed its medal target for Rio 2016, neither men’s or women’s football has a representative from the home nations. Political issues stopped the likes of Yankey representing her nation again and she says it’s “disappointing” but “out of our control.”
“I don’t think people appreciate how difficult it is going to a major tournament without having that experience at international level. For the younger players, it’s an experience they’ll never come across again.
“The other nations use the Olympics as a tool to bring through their youngsters and every British country is missing out on that opportunity and the women are missing out on a major tournament. It really does matter and I think it’s a shame that politics has taken over.”
With Scotland looking likely to join Mark Sampson’s England at Euro 2017 next year and Wales putting together an ever-improving national team, the lack of Team GB is also stunting the development of those countries and some key players who Yankey believes deserve the biggest stage.
“We were so happy in 2012 that someone like Kim Little was part of our team, she’s a world class player and should be playing on the biggest stage. I really hope Scotland get to the Euro’s because she’s fantastic. You’ve got Jane Ross too who came with us to London and trained and you could see how good she was.
“These players are special. I was teammates with Jayne Ludlow at that time and she missed out on the squad. I could see how much missing out meant to her – to represent Team GB and to think someone who is an absolute legend at Arsenal never got to the biggest stage is disappointing.”
So can Team GB have a future at the Olympics? “It’s out of our hands. There’s nothing we can do about it so we just have to knuckle down and play football. If there’s some agreement we can come to and it can mean a team can go to Tokyo in 2020 then brilliant. But we can’t get wound up about it because we can’t control it.”
Soon after the Olympics, Manchester City developed their own women’s side that is now one of the most successful in the country while others like Liverpool and Chelsea decided to take the challenge to what had been a dominant Arsenal side.
Whilst people discuss the lasting legacy of England’s bronze medal winning side of 2015, the legacy of the Olympics appears to have had a bigger impact in terms of football clubs putting their money into women’s football.
“I don’t know what the plans were for people behind the scenes but it makes it a lot easier for these people to buy into it when it’s being talked about,” says Yankey.
“Manchester City came in shortly afterwards and women’s football started to move in the right direction. British players got a worldwide stage to show how good they are and we’re all aware of how important the future is. As a player, I remember going into my first tournament with England and being fully aware you had to do well to help others and help the game progress for the next generation – you’re always aware of the bigger picture.”
So does Yankey believe that impact is taking shape? Arsenal of all teams have the ethos of giving their young players a chance whether it’s the men’s team or the women’s. The likes of Leah Williamson and Carla Humphrey have been at Arsenal since they were 8 years old and others like Danielle Carter, Chloe Kelly and Vyan Sampson are also products of the club’s academy structure.
“I don’t know how much of an impact it has had on them; you’d have to ask them! I’m sure how much women’s football has grown has helped them believe they can have a career because when I was that age, it just wasn’t like that.
“I wouldn’t have been able to name you many women’s footballers when I was growing up. The game is moving forward now and it’s become much more professional. These girls might have pushed a little bit harder when they saw that progress – I don’t know if they did but I really like to think they did…”