Kelly Smith first signed for Arsenal aged 17, in 1996, from Wembley Ladies. Two decades on, in her third spell at the Gunners, she is set to play her first club game at England's national stadium in Saturday's FA Women's Cup final against Chelsea.
Smith has been part of several of Arsenal's record 13 cup wins, but this is only the second final at Wembley, where Chelsea beat Notts County 1-0 last year. A record crowd of well over 30,000 is assured for the London derby, with Smith – back to full fitness after missing most of last season with the latest of a string of injuries – set for only the second Wembley game of her distinguished career, having played for Great Britain in their 2012 Olympic group win against Brazil.
In a season in which 2006/07 UEFA Women's Cup winners Arsenal are seeking to re-establish themselves at the English summit by moving to full professionalism to emulate the likes of Chelsea, England's record goalscorer and former international Smith speaks to UEFA.com about playing at Wembley, her Olympic experience, the Gunners' investment and why her coaching career has "taken a back seat" this season.
UEFA.com: Does having the cup final at Wembley give extra motivation, a chance to play there for Arsenal after so many years?
Kelly Smith: Yes, definitely. Last year the game was at Wembley, and we heard that the final will be there for another couple of years; it's an extra incentive, certainly, it's the home of football in this country, it's a stadium that I'm in awe of, I've played there for Great Britain against Brazil in the Olympics, and that was an amazing occasion. So to get that opportunity to play with Arsenal, my favourite club team, would be an amazing achievement.
UEFA.com: You mentioned the Brazil game; what was the experience like in 2012 to step out there against Brazil?
Smith: It was phenomenal. Even to get a chance to play in the Olympics; you know, growing up we never really had that opportunity, because no team ever entered, it was the first time ever for Great Britain women to have a football team. So to be picked for that and just to enjoy that journey – living in the Athletes' Village, seeing all the athletes across the spectrum, from Usain Bolt walking down the street in the village to Mo Farah, it was just phenomenal. I just really lapped it up and took everything in.
To be in the Wembley dressing room, sitting there preparing for the game and walking out through the tunnel to what seemed like a packed stadium, picking your family members out and hearing the national anthem, it really was a proud moment. A great occasion, really. Glad that we won it, too, with the Steph Houghton goal. It was a memory to cherish forever.
UEFA.com: Is there a bit more pressure on Arsenal this year? Everyone knows about the investment that has been made; you've got these new facilities and lots of new players as well ...
Smith: I think it's pressure from ourselves, that we want to do well. Obviously having these new facilities has enabled us to be more of a group. We've got great training facilities, so we have the best of everything and we expect to perform and win. And that's the winning mentality that we all try and install in this club: we're winners and we want to win medals.
UEFA.com: Liverpool and then Manchester City and Chelsea, with the support of the men's clubs, had taken it to another level; was that a wake-up call for Arsenal, having been dominant for so many years with no one really challenging?
Smith: We've now signed new players, for the positions that we've needed, we've strengthened and we've really gone in the right direction. We've realised that we've been falling away a little bit, we've not qualified for Europe in a few years, not won the league even, whereas Arsenal in the past had been used to dominating the women's game.
And I think it's great that other teams now have really supported the women's programmes, such as Chelsea, Man. City and Liverpool, Reading even. So it's important for the women's game that that happens, but on the other front we've realised that we've struggled, so we've strengthened in the right areas and are looking to improve.
UEFA.com: Last year Arsenal brought in manager Pedro Martínez Losa, with his experience in Spain and the United States. You've obviously got to work closely with him as well as a coach, so what has he brought to the club?
Smith: He's brought a professional attitude and mentality. He's very focused and driven, and he's a really, really nice guy with it. You know, he's not a dictator, he really puts his arm around you if you need it, and he wants to get the ball down and play the Arsenal way, which is pleasing. He's got the right group of players in, that are comfortable on the ball, and he's got, I think, the right blend of youth and experience.
UEFA.com: You're obviously part of the coaching team, you had a spell as caretaker manager last year. How have you enjoyed that side of things?
Smith: My coaching has taken a back seat this season, because I've decided that I wanted to play. Whereas last year I picked up that injury four games in, and then took on more of a role helping Pedro within the side.
My coaching can be put on the back burner a little bit, because you can only play up until a certain age; you can coach for the rest of your life. A professional footballer's career is quite short, so I've decided to play this year but I'm still doing my A licence coaching badge, but not doing too much coaching within the team at the minute.
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