Rachel Williams on 10 years in the FA WSL
Mon 12 April 2021, 11:00|Tottenham Hotspur
With the 10th anniversary of the Barclays FA Women’s Super League (WSL) on Tuesday, we caught up with experienced forward Rachel Williams who has been at the top of her game since the WSL’s inception back in 2011.
Over the course of her career, the 33-year-old has amassed 110 WSL appearances and played for Leicester, Notts County, Doncaster Belles, Chelsea, and Birmingham City before making the switch to Spurs last summer.
She lifted the FA Cup in 2012 and was part of Team GB for the London Olympics in the same year. Alongside playing football, Rachel works as a plasterer and runs a plastering business with her partner.
You worked closely with Rehanne during your time at Leicester. How much of an impact did she have on your career and where you are now?
“Rehanne and I go way back, I met her when I was 14. She was living and working in Leicester close to Northfield, the council estate where I grew up. She found me on the streets playing with a boys’ team and got me a trial at the Centre of Excellence. From there she gave me the opportunity to have an England trial. She told me I had a real talent and that if I knuckled down and worked hard, I could go far with my football. Up until I was 17, Rehanne was my manager at Leicester’s Centre of Excellence, then I went to Leicester College where she was my manager for the football team and then I played for her at Leicester Women.
“We didn’t have a team when I finished at the Centre of Excellence, so Rehanne set up the Leicester Women’s team. We started in the bottom league, worked our way up, won promotion four years in a row and eventually joined the national leagues.
“I owe a lot to her. If it had not met Rehanne I would not be where I am today. I doubt my football career would have taken off if I had not met her. When I was younger, I did not know of any girls that played or that girls teams existed out there. I just played every day with the boys and she found me. I have said to her since ‘I’ve only got the career I have because of you.”
What impact has Rehanne made since her arrival?
“There’s no day where I don’t arrive at training excited and looking forward to what she’s going to be teaching us. I have been in the WSL since the day it started and there is always something new to learn. It’s great to be working with Rehanne again, now in the adult part of my career, after she bossed me around when I was a kid!
“Over the years, Rehanne’s always been behind the scenes and personally I don’t think she really reaps the rewards for the work she puts in. When she joined the Club, I said it was about time you took charge. The level of detail she goes to for any individual player, for unit work or the team is unbelievable, so I wish her all the best.”
What was football like growing up for you and how did your early experiences shape your career?
“I didn’t know any girls that played football, so the only way I could play was to bug my older brother to take me with him and his friends. They would tease me and say ‘you can’t run as fast as us, you’re not as strong as us’, so I thought, right, well if I’m going to play with the boys then I need to be as good as them, so it went from there. I was about eight years old at the time. My brother always took me out with him and the more I played with them, I noticed I got better and better. It actually got to the point where I was getting picked before my brother and he was like ‘anymore of that and you won’t be coming with us’.”
What was the league like when you first started and how different is it now?
“Back then when I was at the Centre of Excellence at Leicester, I also played for a Sunday league team, where I had to pay to play. I would pay £2 a week to play. I never really believed that the women’s game could go as far as it has done now. I took it seriously whereas some of the other girls in that team didn’t work as hard as I did.
"I got into England U15’s and I remember the manager at the time asking me where I played. I said ‘on the park, on the pitch’ without realising she was meaning what position! I started out as a central midfielder which made sense because my idol growing up was Steven Gerrard, I absolutely idolized him.
"I have been fortunate because every manager that I have played for has seen my natural talent and almost worked the team around me, it is because of that that I feel that my career has gone as far as it has. For me, it has never been about money or fame, I play football because I absolutely love it.”
You’ve experienced some real highs over the course of your career. What was it like playing at the home Olympics in 2012?
“It’s a bit weird for me because I never take in the atmosphere when I’m actually playing. I remember the England game against Brazil at Wembley, the stadium was packed, and I remember looking around taking it all in and going ‘wow’ this is real now. It was a moment I went back to when Rehanne used to say to me about where the women’s game is going to go, I would never believe her and when I got there I had to stop and think ‘I have achieved something here’. My phone was going mad with my friends and family calling me, we were in the newspapers and on television, it really hit home how big it was. I thought I’ll take that, that can go on the CV!”
Every footballer goes through ups and downs in their career, were there any moments in your career when you felt like giving up?
“Not really giving up as such, I mean I was 22 when my Mum suddenly passed away, so I took on looking after my little brother and sister who were 11 and nine at the time. I never felt like giving up, but it was more about how can I balance this all? My partner and I had our own plastering business, so I was working full-time as a plasterer alongside playing and taking care of my siblings.
"What was great about playing back then was that we trained in the evenings, so I could do my job by day, help my brother and sister at home and train at night. It was just about getting the balance right. There was a lot I had to give up, of course there was, but I had to make it work because I wasn’t going to give up on playing football. I soon realized at 11 years old that my brother could wash my training kit!”
What motivates you to keep going?
“Football itself to be honest. I mean if you wake up and think I’m playing for money or fame on Instagram then you are doing it for the wrong reasons. I get up every day and at the age I am and the night before I am so excited for a game. It’s not a question of being motivated it is just something that is engrained in you. I’m going to struggle to retire because I’ll still be trying to play when I’m 40!”
You had two separate spells at Birmingham City during your career, how much of an impact did the club have on your career and where you are now?
“I was playing at Doncaster Belles and I bumped into Marcus [Bignot, former Birmingham City Women manager] at an FA Cup final. He said to me that big things were coming with the WSL going professional. Back then I was still young and naive to the opportunities because I was working full time.
“It was the dream team back at Birmingham City then; Laura Bassett, Emily Westwood, Becky [Spencer], Jade [Moore], Jo [Potter], Kez [Harrop], Chelsea Weston and Karen Carney. What a squad we had and Marcus’ message for me was to go out there and scare the life out of defenders - which I did. That year I won Player of the Year and Top Goalscorer at the FA Awards which was awesome.
“As a squad we went on for the next three years together competing for everything. A lot of how Marcus managed and coached us was fueled by fear. If your teammate makes a bad 40-yard pass, you had to make the best of it and turn it into a good ball. We would come off battered and bruised for each other. I definitely responded well to that style of management.”
The WSL began in 2011 and the following year, you won the FA Cup with Birmingham after beating Chelsea on penalties at Ashton Gate. Was that a highlight from your time at Birmingham?
“What a memory, that game had everything! I remember waking up in my hotel room and the sun was beaming through the window. My first thought was ‘why of all the days does it have to be this hot?’. I love playing in the rain, but it was red hot. I remember warming up and I usually block out crowd noise, but I had a lot of friends and family in the crowd, and they were making so much noise. They were asking if I could hear them, but you try to stay switched off from that because you know what is at stake and you don’t want to let anyone down. I had a couple of chances early on that my friends and family said they would have put their money on me scoring, but with the heat and the occasion it probably did get to me a bit. We went 1-0 down and then I scored in the 90th minute to level the scores at 1-1 to take it the game to extra time.
“Chelsea then scored, before Kaz [Carney] scored to take the game to a penalty shootout. I remember saying I did not want to take a penalty because I had nothing left and I felt so unwell, but Marcus was like ‘Rach you go first, because if you miss yours, we have four more to go.’ My penalty got saved, but I kept telling myself it was alright, and I knew a couple of Chelsea girls who might miss.
"When we got on to the podium - well I did not even get on it I just grabbed the champagne, danced along the front and started showering everyone - it was mad, and one of those moments where everywhere you look something was happening. People were celebrating, crying, sliding on the floor, screaming, the staff were going mad. We went out, partied and celebrated. Even now, it was the best day ever. The FA Cup was always something I wanted to win. I remember saying to Marcus ‘this is a big day, I want to win’, and thankfully we did.”
As one of the more experienced players in the squad, how do you look to help and support the younger players when you go through difficult times like at the start of the season?
“It is about balance. We know how to have a laugh, keep things light and make it fun, but we also know when it is time to pull up your socks because there’s business to take care of. The more you have that balance, the better the environment is.
“You do not want everyone to be feeling stiff, with people moaning, you want to enjoy it as a team. I will not look back on my career and think ‘oh I moaned then’ or something like that. I know that the 10 weeks I lost this season when I was injured, I am going to make up for. I don’t want to have any regrets because your football career is so short.”
What are your personal aims for the rest of the season and what do you think this team can achieve?
“For me, I just want to be at my best playing week in week out, being a nightmare for defenders, scoring goals, creating goals and working hard for my teammates. That is what I have always done, I have never put pressure on myself to be the top goal scorer or to be the best player, I literally want to play with a smile on my face like a kid in the park. I want defenders to think ‘oh not Rach again, it’s like playing against a brick wall, she never stops running or hassling us.’
“I’m looking forward to the next time Rehanne gives me the nod to start. Whether she wants me to play in the 9 or the 10 position, I am just excited to get going.
“For us as a team, we owe a lot to the fans because we had a difficult start to the season and we are not where we want to be. We want to make it up to them by finishing as high as possible. Our aim is to finish as high as we can because of the points we have dropped already. That is our collective aim and anything else is a bonus.”