Burnley’s Rachel Brown on the brink of history

Rachel Brown

Rachel Brown

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STANDING on the brink of history, Burnley-born goalkeeper Rachel Brown bares a surprisingly humble and pragmatic disposition.

When the 32-year-old steps out for Team GB at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday against New Zealand, she’ll become the only female player to have featured in the World Cup, European Championships, the FIFA All-Star elect, and the greatest show on earth - the Olympic Games.

With the weight of the nation on her shoulders the Everton stopper could be pardoned for showing perceptible apprehension, but nothing seems capable of agitating her immovable focus and composed demeanour. That’s what almost 20 years of experience brings.

“What a collection,” Rachel beamed. “There’s no other player that’s ever done that if you include the FIFA All-Star team selection. I’m the only player to have done that.

“I’m just lucky that I’ve been able to be fit at all the right times, around tournaments, and I’ve trained consistently and kept myself at a certain standard good enough for selection. I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved. Looking back now, to have played in two World Cups, two European Championships and now the Olympics, I’m so very proud.”

To say Rachel has embarked on an assiduous career would be somewhat of an understatement. Starting out at Accrington Stanley Ladies as an inexperienced yet assertive teenager, she endured an efficacious baptism of fire when signing for Liverpool aged 15. There she became the youngest woman to play in an FA Cup final when featuring in 1996, though the Reds lost on penalties despite Rachel saving twice from the spot.

But two of the protagonists from that fixture are ready to do battle again at London 2012, this time on the same side, as Great Britain will be guided by the same Hope Powell who scored past Rachel for Croydon WFC in that final. And what a union that proved to be.

Since Powell’s appointment as coach of the England women’s national team in 1998, the year after Rachel made her debut against Germany, the game and it’s reputation has risen, though at an ephemeral rate. On the pitch the women, who are ninth in the FIFA world rankings, reached the quarter-final stages of the 2007 and 2011 World Cups in China and Germany respectively as well as finishing runners-up in the 2009 European Championships in Finland.

But it’s off the field where the most remarkable transformations have taken place. Powell has shaken up the whole system; she oversees the Under-15s to the Under-21s, a coach mentoring scheme and The FA’s National Player Development Centre at Loughborough University. It’s a set-up that was completely alien to Rachel’s grounding.

“I kind of had the old school start to football where I played to enjoy it and there was no real structure,” said Rachel. “I was able to go off to university and lived a normal life, had a normal upbringing and just combined football with that.

“I’m quite thankful for that because it suits my personality more than a strict training programme. It’s very much more a professional setup now. I adapted to the new style once Hope got involved in my early 20s. I had the choice to sacrifice my life and time for football to stay involved with the national team.

“Others, who had the same upbringing, weren’t prepared to do that with the changes that were implemented. Ultimately that decision led to me being involved with Team GB. I think the decisions I’ve made along the way have been correct and this is the reward.”

That progression ultimately benefitted Rachel, in fact it proved revolutionary in the sport. In May 2009, Rachel, who has 78 caps for her country, commanded one of the original 17 central contracts that were implemented which enabled her to find a convenient balance between training and playing and her part-time secondary school teaching job.

“The pivotal moment arrived when Hope became involved with the women’s national team,” recalled Rachel. “She implemented sports science and all the things that have developed women’s football. To where the sport is now she’s made a massive improvement in the game.

“Hope has been the figurehead for change for women’s football over the last 13 or 14 years when she’s been manager of the England team. It’s not just a strict management role that she plays by any means, she heads women’s football along with the chief women’s football development officer Rachel Pavlou, she’s been involved in developing the game with the FA for a good number of years now so Hope has played a massive role in the game for women and girls.”

She added: “Her role as manager has been dwarfed by her developmental role with the FA. She’s not just implemented things for the women’s senior team, but more importantly what she’s done for grassroots football and kids at the centre of excellence.

“She’s been the most influential person in women’s football ever. Hope has pushed, argued and cajoled people at the FA to buy in to this change and this growing process. It’s taken time to establish the game in this country and establish the national team in the world rankings.”

Now the resources, facilities and infrastructure has been strengthened, the aim is to leave an indelible legacy on their maiden Olympic voyage. This is the next big leap in the women’s game, as they look to gain exposure alongside their male counterparts. Success would hopefully generate an influx of media attention, and with it the sponsorship and financial backing the sport craves. It’s an opportunity to reach out to spectators and entice more women to become involved.

The unembellished reality is that the women’s game isn’t currently a profitable venture, hidden in the darkness of the overbearing and lucrative shadow of the men’s’ game. But Rachel, who has fully advocated the movement and taken on an almost ambassadorial role in an attempt to promote the sport, is happy with the steps that have been taken.

“The thing I’m most proud of though is seeing how women’s football has developed in the time that I’ve been involved,” she said. “Just to know that I’ve been involved in that evolution, that growing process, is a massive honour. I’ve always done it because I loved it. I always wanted to play for England and see how far I could push myself.

“Women’s football has gone from having virtually no profile to being a sport with some kind of media profile which is fantastic. Media generates money; when there was no media interest there was no money but now there is some backing for sports scientists, weight training, and coaches. It’s only since Hope has been involved and implemented this professional foundation that really the results have been coming on the pitch.

“When I started playing for England we were decent technically, we could compete with teams for the first hour of the game, but it was always fitness that came between ourselves and the nations that were ahead in terms of development and training programmes. We’ve been playing catch up for a good number of years. But we are competing for honours now and the sports science side has really kicked in.”

A footballer by trade, an aspiring role-model by merit, a mercenary she certainly isn’t. Rachel’s career hasn’t been driven by materialistic or monetary gain, it’s been stimulated through passion, dedication, conviction and heart.

And Team GB, a union of mainly English players, including all-time leading scorer Kelly Smith, back after a stress fracture, plus Scots Ifeoma Dieke and Kim Little, will have to show the same characteristics when they launch the entire Games just five days from now. The Kiwis, Cameroon and Brazil stand in their path of a quarter-final berth, and a potential and long-awaited windfall.

Rachel, who has had to compete with the emergence of US-born Karen Bardsley, who plays her club football in the Swedish women’s Damallsvenskan league, for the number one spot, said: “I think it’s great. There’s been plenty of media activity and excitement around training. There’s been newspaper journalists, photographers, TV stations, who’ve treated us like one big squad. It’s not been a case of men’s and women’s teams, it’s one team - Team GB. It’s brilliant and as a more minority sport it gives us the opportunity to be in the media as much as the men’s football.”

She added: “It’s going to be fabulous. Once we get to the likes of Cardiff and obviously the Olympic Village then you’ll be completely surrounded by Team GB signing and branding. When we meet up with other sports and athletes competing in other events we’ll soon realise that we’re in the Olympics rather than a football tournament. That’s what will make it that bit more special. I’m looking forward to working hard in training now, kicking a ball, and getting prepared for the first game.”

Rachel and her team-mates continue their preparation for the Games with a friendly against Sweden at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium tonight before Team GB’s men take on Brazil. It is the first men’s and women’s international double header since 1989 when England women played Sweden, and Bobby Robson’s England took on Chile at Wembley.