It’s not often you get to chance to speak with a Great Britain Olympian, a World Cup footballer and Chelsea wing-back all in one conversation, but that’s what you get if you sit down with Claire Rafferty, the Chelsea Ladies and England wing-back.
Women’s football is in the ascendancy and it’s good to see increased media attention of this arm of the sport. Public enthusiasm is building, but there’s still a long way to go. Claire, who was anticipating her return to the England squad for the forthcoming friendly with Sweden when we spoke, recalls the Team GB crowds at Wembley in 2012 as an “incredible experience”, and believes that Women’s Football could be drawing bigger crowds than it currently enjoys.
“In this country, we are not getting anything like the attendances you see in places like Germany,” she says. “It’s as much to do with the culture of British football as anything else. A lot of people do not yet take the women’s game very seriously, but it is gradually shifting.”
Changing mindsets about ladies playing what has always been regarded as the working man’s favourite distraction is clearly a long-ball game, but this starts at the top with the blazer-wearing fraternity that dominate the corridors of power in the sport. Progress has been made on and off the field in the acceptance and development of women’s football, but there’s still much to be done in the UK.
But one area that has impressed people like Claire is the way the Football Association has developed a business model geared towards the sustainability of the game. As a member of the England set-up, she is centrally contracted, rather like cricket and rugby’s approach to the men’s national teams. It’s dramatically different from top-flight football, and refreshing to see that the FA is trying to nurture and develop talent at the highest level to build a stronger national squad.
At a club level, however, Claire is just getting back to full fitness after a troubled period which included two anterior cruciate ligament injuries (making three in total). As a Chelsea lady, she trains up to six times a week at Cobham, Chelsea’s state-of-the-art complex in stockbroker Surrey and home games are at Staines’ Wheatsheaf Park. She’s been with Chelsea since 2007, joining from Millwall Lionesses.
The Chelsea Ladies side, managed by Emma Hayes, in some ways mirrors the multi-cultural line-up of Jose Mourinho’s team of multi-millionaires. There are players from Japan, Chile, South Korea, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands and Northern Ireland as well as a sprinkling of England internationals. “Some people complain that the introduction of foreign players isn’t good for the game as it stops young talent coming through, but we have youngsters at Chelsea that have great potential aswell,” says Claire.
Technically, there’s been a massive improvement from the ladies game of the 1980s and 1990s and the Women’s Super League that you can now see televised live almost every week. But how different is it to men’s football? Remembering the Billie Jean King versus Bobby Riggs “battle of the sexes” argument, could it ever seriously compete? “We had a couple of games against the Metropolitan Police men. The first game they thrashed us, but the second we won,” Claire reveals, with a wry smile. “We picked up a few ideas from the first game.”
“Technically, there may be comparisons, but strength-wise, forget it,” she adds. “Set-pieces, speed, challenging for the ball, we just can’t deal with a men’s team.”
But what of the women’s game, are there some sides that are more physical than others? “Yes, some, like Birmingham are physical and there are some teams that rely on the long-ball approach. We like to play football at Chelsea.”
Speed is one of Claire’s attributes, but she was also singled out by former England manager Hope Powell for her gutsy attitude. In July 2011, England faced France in a World Cup quarter-final in Leverkusen, and in typical English fashion, a penalty shoot-out was required. Claire, who was one of the younger members of the team, came on as substitute and stepped forward to take a kick in what was a high-tension situation.
Having overcome serious injury not once, but three times, there’s no doubting Claire’s determination to succeed and she’s hoping to be playing in Canada in 2015 in the next World Cup. “Right now after my recent injuries , staying fit is my number one priority.”
A special thanks to Claire for granting this interview to Game of the People.