It’s tradition in England that a huge roar of “Yes” greets any goal scored within a football stadium. In Spain, Germany, and Italy you’ll hear what appears to be a different sound; commonly in Spain you can make out the word “Goal” being screamed by thousands of supporters if Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo have just put the ball in the back of the net.
It takes something very special to receive anything but the aforementioned to greet a goal, but every now and again a one-off strike will be greeted with a huge “Woah.” One of those moments where you can’t quite take in what you’ve just seen.
In the FA Women’s Super League, such a moment occurred at the Keepmoat Stadium on a cold autumn evening last year where Arsenal were cutting their way through a desolate Doncaster Rovers Belles side on the verge of the drop. At 4-0, the last thing the Belles needed was another goal going past them and maybe Kelly Smith wouldn’t have attempted such an effort if the game was closer.
What happened next was sublime. Just weeks before her 38th birthday, the ball fell to Smith well outside the Belles’ box. The attacker trapped the ball and with virtually no back lift, lofted it over the oncoming defenders and Nicola Hobbs in goal. It was inch-perfect, maybe even millimeter perfect, but either way, it was perfect.
It was as if Smith was playing the crossbar challenge with a bunch of obstacles in front of her — not only did she hit the bar, she scored the goal too.
It would turn out to be Kelly Smith’s last goal on the football pitch.
Now a full-time coach at the club, Smith is tasked with aiding the next generation of young girls who aspire to be like her, to be like someone who not only gave a lot to Arsenal or even England, but to the game itself.
But what impact has Smith had on those youngsters who are already making the grade? The young girls at Arsenal who initially grew up idolizing the England legend and eventually became teammates of Smith in the FA WSL? When Smith made her debut in 1996, current Arsenal players Leah Williamson, Carla Humphrey, Chloe Kelly, Rianna Dean, and Lotte Wubben-Moy hadn’t even been born.
“I never played in a competitive match with Kelly for longer than 10 minutes,” said Wubben-Moy.
“What she did was equally appreciated on the bench; however much I wanted to get on the pitch she made it 10 times stronger because Kelly was making me want to go on and win.
“Even though I only got to play and train with her leading up to her retirement, I can say she was still as hungry and as passionate as she’s ever been. For me coming into a field of work where you’re not expected to make it out of your thirties, Kelly gave me the inspiration that as long as you have the physical and mental skill — which Kelly had — you can keep going as long as you want.”
Wubben-Moy’s England teammate Dean echoes the sentiments made by the center back as Smith closes the latest chapter on her career.
“I joined the club when I was 11 and I just remember watching her and seeing the way she played, the impact she had on the team influenced me to want to play and to want to be like her,” she said.
Dean added, “To be able to play alongside her on the training ground meant so much to me.”
“She was my biggest role model, it was just a dream come true. Kelly made all the younger players feel very welcome and at ease. The things you could learn from Kelly in just one training session was phenomenal.”
Smith made her debut for Arsenal as a teenager after a short spell with Wembley Ladies, and quickly established herself in the first team before going on to secure the legend status she has at the club today.
Three more players who made their debuts at similar stages of their Arsenal careers to Smith and have had more chances to play with her than Wubben-Moy and Dean are Williamson, Humphrey, and Kelly — all of whom have felt a similar impact to both playing and working under Smith’s guidance during their time at the club.
“I remember watching a Champions League match Kelly played in a few years ago,” says Williamson.
“I remember saying to my mum, ‘I have to make it into the first team before Kelly retires, I have to play with her.’
“I will be forever grateful that I made it in time, someone that I have the utmost respect and admiration for and who totally lived up to the childhood expectations I had of my hero. Kelly always had time for me, words of wisdom when I needed them, and is the humblest person I’ve met. She never disappointed anyone and did exactly what it said on the tin, I will miss her being there to save the day and I will miss watching her play.”
For Kelly and Humphrey, playing and learning from Smith was an even greater experience because they were learning from someone who had made a career out of starring in the position they were playing in.
With both players capable of playing in an array of forward positions, they couldn’t have had anyone better to learn from and Humphrey says the Arsenal legend was definitely an “inspiration.”
“She definitely inspired me and she was my idol ever since I first saw her play,” said the 20-year-old. “It was such an honor to grow up and play with Kelly, I was able to learn from her and to watch her in training every day — she’d always shine, making it look effortless.
“With my family being lifelong Arsenal fans, I grew up supporting them too. Since I was a young girl, playing for Arsenal was always my aim, even if it seemed far-fetched back then. After watching their games there was always one player who stood out a mile to me — that was Kelly Smith.”
And Chloe Kelly also uses the term “idol” to describe Smith and says it was a privilege to be able to play and train alongside her as a teammate.
“Kelly was always my idol, just watching her was such an inspiration to not just me but probably any young girl out there playing football,” said the forward.
“As a forward myself, watching Kelly always scoring great goals was great for me and stepping into the first team and training with her as much as possible is pretty special. Even in training she showed her desire, not just for Arsenal but for the women’s game and that’s a great thing for us young players to learn.”
With more talented youngsters like Anna Patten and Taylor Hinds closing in on more regular time with the first team, they couldn’t have anyone better than Kelly Smith cheering them on from the touchline.