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KICKING THE HABIT: Team GB and Arsenal woman footballer tells of her battle with alcohol

Kelly Smith in action at the Euro 2009 final against Germany

Published: 26 July, 2012
by CATHERINE ETOE

When Kelly Smith was a teenager she would videotape Match of the Day and practise the tricks and turns of fellow left-footer Ryan Giggs in front of the telly while her mum did the ironing.

It’s a dangerous combination that would result in a visit to casualty in most households, but not when the naturally gifted Smith was the kid on the ball.

“Apparently, as soon as I could walk I had a ball at my feet,” she says in her autobiography, Footballer: My Story.

“I felt this was what I wanted to do from very early on in my life and I knew I was good at it.”

Smith was so good that she had played for England, won the league with Arsenal and accepted a football scholarship to the US all by the age of 18.

She went on to be the first Englishwoman to both play professionally in America and be nominated as FIFA women’s world player of the year.
Her US college retired her shirt (a great honour meaning no one can play wearing her number again); her first professional club turned her effigy into a kid’s moneybox; she’s England’s top scorer; has won the Quadruple with Arsenal; the Queen gave her an MBE; and she’s in the Team GB squad playing in London 2012.

But as we all know, there is often a price to pay for genius, and in Smith’s case it came on Priory clinic-headed notepaper, thanks to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

Smith supped vodka on her way to the Priory in 2004 but kept her boozing a secret until 2009 when she’d finally had enough of evading questions about how she’d coped with a raft of serious injuries.

“I wanted to say to the world: ‘I actually got myself into a real state due to drink’,” she says.

Footballer reveals just how much of a state the now-sober Smith was in. Having used beer as a social lubricant to overcome crippling shyness as a timid teenager in America, she explains how she went on to use vodka as a crutch during long injury lay-offs.

“Drinking became an obsession to me,” she says. “Soon I was at the stage when I couldn’t stop thinking about having a drink.”

It’s a disturbing admission from the one English player to have forged a career in America in the days when, in Smith’s own oft-quoted quip, women’s football in this country was a “joke”.

The thing is, Smith was and still is a game changer; the player fans want every pass to reach because they know they’ll see a touch of magic in return. A female Giggs, if you like. Just with different off-field foibles.

Yet it is not the fault lines cast by a shy personality that dominate Footballer; Smith agreed to this autobiography partly because she hopes it will offer women footballers the kind of inspiration she sought from Giggs.

“Young girls can now reach out and touch the potential if they have the ambition, the drive and the right attributes,” she says. “You can’t put a price on that.”

And so, while we get the lowdown on the drinking and how England manager Hope Powell, Arsenal boss Vic Akers, her parents and the Priory and Sporting Chance clinics helped her move on, it is not Smith’s boozy self that dominates this book.

It is Smith the footballer that resonates – her achievements and disappointments, the graft, the hunger, the esteem for rivals, the battles to overcome injuries that would have finished a lesser player, the strongly held beliefs about the game.

Written in collaboration with author and television producer Lance Hardy, it’s an entertaining read with Smith reliving key matches and campaigns.

There are small insights into the Arsenal and England camps but gossip is clearly not a Smith trait, and, having laid so much of herself bare, she pulls back when it comes to her personal life too.

We know what the support of key friends and her father Bernard mean to her, but little more. It’s a shame in some ways, but Smith seems keener to let her football do the talking for now.

• Kelly Smith Footballer: My Story. By Kelly Smith. Bantam Press at £18.99.

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