When it comes to pioneers of the women’s game, they don’t come much bigger than Kelly Smith and Casey Stoney.
The former England internationals both have impressive records. Forward Smith is the record goalscorer for England with 46 goals in 117 appearances and defender Stoney has 130 England caps to her name. In 2018 she became the first Head Coach for Manchester United Women overseeing their promotion to the Women's Super League.
It’s been a few years since they both hung up their England shirts – Smith in 2015 and Stoney two years later in 2017 – but they will be sporting the national kit once again later this year all in the name of Soccer Aid.
On Saturday 6 June, Smith and Stoney will be representing their country once more as part of the England Soccer Aid team, playing at Old Trafford in the charity match raising money for UNICEF. It’s something that the pair are excited about, talking over the phone during a brief break from a promotional shoot.
Smith says: “It will be a proud moment for me. Having retired a good few years ago I never thought I'd wear the England kid again. So, to pull those three lions over my head and reminisce about my whole England career, playing at Old Trafford in front of a very big crowd with fantastic players for a great cause will be a very special moment for me.”
Stoney feels the same way. She says: “I think number one it's incredible to pull on those three lions again and to be part of such a special event for such a worthy cause. And obviously, for me personally, as head coach of the [Manchester United] women's team to be able to play at Old Trafford is a dream come true.”
They take it in turns answering questions, both clearly in sync about what it means to return to the pitch in support of Soccer Aid. When we talk they don’t yet know who they will be playing alongside or against – Olly Murs and Danny Jones are two of the names who have since been confirmed. They will face Soccer Aid World XI FC whose team includes Usain Bolt.
There are no nerves though about playing again on such a big stage. Smith says: “We've done this our whole career for 20 odd years, we're bred to play in front of big crowds and cherish every moment and play to the levels that we know we can.”
Smith recalled hearing that some of the celebs who will be on the team were nervous about the 75,000-strong crowd, but this doesn’t phase her: “For me and Casey, we've done it our whole careers in front of big tournaments and big crowds. We're just gonna lap it up and enjoy every moment. We won't be nervous.”
As a head coach, Stoney has just one concern: “I think it'll be more of I don't want to make a fool out of myself in case my players rib me for six weeks after.”
This year’s match will be the first to be played on a Saturday and only the second time that women will feature in the squads. It’s something that makes Smith reflect on how far the women’s game has come.
She says that since England’s 2015 World Cup bronze medal “the women’s game has really taken off in terms of attendances and viewing figures”.
“I think it now makes a statement that women can play on the same level as the men. And for me and Casey, it's an absolute honour to represent the women's side of the game.”
So how is training going? For Stoney, it hasn’t quite started: “I sometimes join in at training, but I need to start. I do train but I don't tend to run too much anymore because the body can't cope but I’m going to have to start running again.”
Jokingly she adds: “I bike you see, but I didn't think that it'd be appropriate to be pedalling around on Soccer Aid so I'm going to have to start training, running and getting as fit as possible because the last thing I want to do is go out there and pull a muscle.”
Luckily Stoney has a few more tricks up her shirt sleeve now that she’s a manager. She explains: “I know the game better now than I ever have when I was a player because of being a head coach, being in it every day and seeing different pictures and analysing the game from a very different view.
“Hopefully, it'll do me a favour because I could never run very fast when I played but hopefully I can read the game better than ever and I won't have to run very fast.”
Both Smith and Stoney are excited to be playing together again and are equally complimentary of each other.
Stoney says: “When you step on a pitch with someone of that quality it's always good to be part of and I do firmly believe Kelly put women's football on the map in this country, so to be able to grace the field with her again is exciting. I hope she shows again at Old Trafford what she's capable of – no pressure, Kell.”
Laughing, Smith says: “I love playing with Casey too because for 20 odd years we've been on the same national team and club teams on and off. Casey is a fantastic leader and marshals from the back. She’s very calm and composed on the ball and just brings a lot of calmness to the back. I've missed playing with her over the years of retirement.
“I think I'm excited just to put the shirt back on and the boots and experience this whole amazing event.”
Of course, Soccer Aid isn’t just about the football, and one thing that motivates both Smith and Stoney is to give children around the world opportunities like the ones they had growing up.
Stoney explains: “We've both got children and this is for an incredible cause to give children opportunities that they don't get that we got when we were growing up.
“Obviously, it's a fantastic occasion with a great crowd, great stadium and the opportunity to play in a fantastic game, but ultimately we want to be able to try and make a difference for those young people.”
Smith agrees and adds: “I was fortunate enough to have had a fantastic career and worked hard and been able to play and train with great players. There are so many kids around the world that don't get that opportunity.
“This money will help support these children and give them opportunities to play and go out and have fun and experience football. Football for me is the greatest sport in the world and this money will give these children hope and a desire to play football.”
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