“Rachel hasn't played well for the past year. Application, attitude, performance - that’s what it’s all about. I think it’s for her to come back and prove a point.”
These were the words of England coach Hope Powell in the summer of 2009, explaining why Rachel Yankey hadn’t made the squad, never mind the team, for that year’s UEFA Women’s EURO. Yankey, once renowned and celebrated as her country's first female professional footballer, was approaching her 30th birthday and her career looked to be on an inexorable slide.
Yet Powell’s challenge – that she prove a point; prove herself all over again – was embraced. Rather than sulk at her shock omission, Yankey took her coach’s criticism on board and uncomplainingly redoubled her efforts with the aim of once again becoming a key player for club and country.
Four years on, the results speak for themselves. Yankey goes into tomorrow’s EURO opener against Spain not only as an influential and effective member of Powell’s pool, but as England’s most-capped player - male or female - of all time. That was the remarkable title the 33-year-old acquired last month when she captained England in her 126th appearance, breaking the long-standing record of legendary Three Lions goalkeeper Peter Shilton.
"To even have my name mentioned in the same breath as Shilton is an honour," she said. "I was astounded I got one cap and if I never played again, it would have been fantastic to get just that one. It's amazing that I've won 126."
Yankey’s astonishment reflects the challenges that she, like many female players, has faced en route to the top of her profession. She can well remember, for example, her early days in the game, when she shaved her hair and played under the name of ‘Ray’ in an attempt to pass herself off as a boy in the local league. That youthful act deception was carried out with the simple, innocent aim of continuing to play the game she loved, and it is that same basic passion that has fuelled her renaissance.
However, while Yankey's hunger and ability have helped her win over 20 major trophies in her club career with Arsenal, Fulham and New Jersey Wildcats, success at international level continues to prove elusive.
Last year’s Olympic Football Tournament, in which she competed for Great Britain, was the latest that ended for the 33-year-old and her team with the group phase safely negotiated, but the trophy heading elsewhere. Nonetheless, her belief in England’s potential remains as firm as ever, and she has particularly high hopes for the squad currently limbering up in Sweden.
"I feel that this is probably my best chance, although hopefully not my last, to win a trophy with England," said Yankey, already turning her gaze towards playing on until the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™. "I've won everything I can win at club level, including the Champions League, but it would be the pinnacle of my career to win a big tournament for my country.
“We've got a really good team right now. But with 23 players in the squad it's about Team England, and the tipping point of your team is the togetherness and the support that you give each other. We've got that in abundance, and we've got to use it as a strength."
Confident though she is in the ability and camaraderie in the Three Lionesses’ ranks, Yankey knows that the EURO success will not come easily. Indeed, while England made the final without her in 2009, and arrive in Sweden dreaming of breaking Germany’s stranglehold, they also know that one wrong step in a tough group could leave them facing an early exit.
“Playing Spain, Russia and France is incredibly tough,” Yankey said of her team’s section. “To get out of that group will be a massive achievement in itself. After that it goes to one-off cup finals and hopefully we can get through them.”
The Arsenal star has identified France, hosts Sweden and, of course, the dominant Germans as the teams to beat over the coming weeks. And while there are sure to be more than a few bumps along the way, Yankey is a player well used to negotiating the ups and downs of football and emerging stronger.