Let me start by saying that I never once saw myself becoming a captain.
It’s weird because some people say, ‘They’re born to be leaders, they’re born to be captains’, but I never would have said that about myself, especially when I was growing up in east London.
There were only two girls who used to play inside the concrete football cage back then, me and friend Kim. We would join in with all the boys from the neighbourhood and, even though my brother would also play, I still had to earn my place.
I guess that equipped me to go on to become the person I am today. You had to earn everything in that football cage and nothing was given to you. Nobody was going to give up their spot on their team unless you were good enough to be picked.
It’s weird because when I was playing in that neighbourhood, I didn’t really have a team. That was when I was seven and then I actually got spotted in a local tournament in the east end.
Someone knew a member of staff at Arsenal and he came to me and said, ‘Do you know Arsenal have a women’s team?’ and I said I wasn’t interested because I just wanted to play in the neighbourhood in that local cage. It was actually Vic Akers who got in contact with me and asked me to come down for a trial.
I remember walking into Highbury on my first day and falling in love with the club there and then. We used to play five-a-side in the ball court and sometimes Vic allowed us to play off the walls in our little, small-sided games. It was so fast-paced and I suppose that formed how Arsenal Women played.
There was the added benefit of being able to watch the men’s team play, too. We used to have a section at Highbury, so I used to go and watch every single game that I could. I still remember when Wrighty scored the record goal and he took off the shirt with the number on. I remember him running around and me jumping up and down.
Back then I was a striker and Wrighty was my hero, I loved everything about him. In fact, he’s still my favourite player of all time because his smile is so infectious and you could see how much he loved the game. I suppose that’s what resonated with me, that I know how lucky I’ve been. Football’s given me so much in my life and every time I stepped on that football pitch, that’s something that I tried to express, that I’m so thankful, I love what I’m doing. I suppose that’s what I always saw in Wrighty.
He’s a lovely guy off the pitch, too. After the games we used to wait for the players and Wrighty, with a huge smile on his face, always used to say hello and speak to me and all the other players. They say to never meet your heroes, but Wrighty is absolutely the same guy that you see on the pitch as off it.
I think that’s how it should be with everyone and I suppose that I live my life by those same values. I don’t change, I try and treat others how I want to be treated, and I suppose that when I look at my life I feel so fortunate that I’ve got to do this amazing job. I don’t even know how I can call it a job. I’ve got to see so many things, and travel to meet so many people. What you see is just someone who’s just loving life.
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t tough in the early days. When I was only 20, I had one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had. I never, ever wanted to leave Arsenal because it had been my second family, my home and I would have been lost without it.
But then I knew I needed gametime. I was struggling to break into the team because I had these amazing players ahead of me like Julie Fleeting, Marieanne Spacey, Ellen Maggs, but then I received an exciting offer from out of the blue.
Marcus Bignot, the manager of Birmingham at the time, came to me and told me that I had to be playing week in, week out. I remember going to sit with Vic and crying my eyes out but he said to me, ‘Alsy, go and prove yourself and you will be back’ and that’s exactly what I did.
I left Arsenal as a striker and then when I returned a year later, I was a right back. Marcus played in that position for QPR at the time and I remember him coming into the changing room just before a game a against Everton and he was like, ‘Alex, you’re going to think I’m mad but I want you to play right back’. And I was like, ‘What’.
But then like I said, I’m one of those players who no matter what, if you tell me to do something, I’m going to do it. He just told me to go with my instincts, play my game, but just play at right back. So I just did what I did. I was this attacking player, running up and down but making sure that I got back and helped my team-mates. Actually, Hope Powell, the England manager, was watching that game and then after that game I got called into the England team.
Vic stayed true to his word, too. I had an amazing season but every time I’d step out on that field - and it’s weird because Birmingham gave me this amazing opportunity to play that season from such a young age - I was thinking about Arsenal and being back. I was thinking that I had to prove Vic wrong, I had to prove that I should be starting for Arsenal.
I suppose that’s always been my drive to make it to the top, to prove those people who maybe didn’t believe in me wrong. He was straight back on the phone telling me that I had to come home and that’s what I did, I came home.
I returned to find that Vic had built the greatest club side in women’s football – and the 2006/07 was truly unforgettable. We won the Women’s Premier League, the Women’s FA Cup, the League Cup, the Champions League, the Community Shield and the London County Cup. In short, we lifted every trophy on offer and won all 22 of our league games in the process, scoring 119 goals and conceding just 10.
I’ve got extra fond memories of that Champions League final, too – I scored the last-minute winner. Some would say it’s wind-assisted, but let me recall my side of the story. I remember I was running up from right back, up the right wing. I remember Vic Akers screaming at me because we were in the dying moments of the game, ‘Shoot’.
I can’t even tell you where I was on the pitch but when you hear Vic shouting at you, you have to do what he says. I remember just putting my head down, shooting and then seeing it fly into the top corner. Then Emma Byrne ran up from her goal and the whole team engulfed me to celebrate. I suppose that quadruple season and the fact that we’re still waiting for another team in England to win it - it has to be up there as one of my greatest achievements.
It’s hard to describe that season because you it just felt like everything was going our way no matter what. Luck does play a part because everything just falls into place. You’re playing midweek, weekends, you’ve just played in the FA Cup and then you have to go and play a Champions League final.
You’re tired but you’re not tired because it’s like you’re just on this wave that just keeps going and going, and you’ve got this momentum. That year, it was meant to happen with it being Vic Akers’ 20th anniversary in charge of Arsenal. It was meant to happen that year and it was truly special.
The women’s game has improved a lot since then and I’d love to see how our Invincibles team would fare in the Women’s Super League. That’s where you can laugh with the younger players and they’re like, ‘Yeah it was easier back then’. Well actually, no, because we didn’t have the support, the recovery, the facilities, everything like that, and we still managed to do that. Imagine how dangerous that team would be if we had all the same support and we were professional too. Now that would be frightening.
I would continue to win trophies with that incredible team before, in 2009, I had an offer to leave Arsenal for a new challenge at Boston Breakers in their newly-established league, Women’s Professional Soccer.
That was me trying to be the best player I could be. It was a time at Arsenal where we had total dominance in this league. Nobody was really challenging us. We’d hit heights that I could only dream of when I started, and had the chance to go and win everything from Champions League finals to FA Cups, but I wasn’t a professional player until I was drafted in the WPS that year.
You have to remember that only five internationals were allowed on any team, so for Boston to come in and draft me as an international player was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. I knew that my aims were not just to be the best right back in England, I wanted to be the best right back in the world.
To do that, I had to go and test myself against the best players in the best league, which I did. Those were my explanations to Vic and fair play to him, he said that I had to go and do it as well. He knew that in England, we couldn’t offer that at the time. In the same words, he said, ‘I’m always here, this club is always here for you, go and do what you’ve got to do and then come back’.
I absolutely loved my time in America. It made me grow up as a person and mature with life experiences. I think I was only 23 but ultimately what I set out to do, to be the best right back in the world, I managed to do that. I was pushed week in, week out.
That American mentality of never giving up, I suppose that’s the main thing that I took. In America, you were never allowed to get away with just coasting as a player. They were totally different standards and, like I said, I grew as a player being in a different environment, learning different cultures, and I learnt so much about myself.
But then ultimately, it was all about becoming the best right back in the world. That was all about being in that different environment and challenging myself. Sometimes stepping outside your comfort zone makes you do that.
I took that form into the 2011 World Cup, and I just remember playing my best football. I knew myself that I was the best right back and then when you’re named that, that’s a good feeling. Then I remember straight afterwards I was like, ‘OK I’ve been named it, but I need to prove that I’m still it’.
Of course you can’t achieve all these things by yourself. I’ve been lucky enough to play alongside some legendary footballers and Kelly Smith was the greatest of all. She saw things on a football field and she could do things while other people were like five seconds behind her.
She would pick out passes for fun or just pick the ball up and run past players. For me, I feel so lucky that I got to play on the same team as her and not only that, I knew Kelly Smith as the person as well. She is an amazing person and an amazing character.
When I look back on the past 16 years, the word ‘luck’ comes up a lot. I’ve had such an amazing career with so many highs. There have been some lows, but to walk away from the game knowing that I played my part to get it to where it is and where it’s going, by meeting some amazing people along the way, I can just look back and have a huge smile on my face. That young girl who signed for Arsenal when she was eight managed to achieve way beyond anything that she would ever have dreamed of.
Throughout my whole career I didn’t once think that I was proud of myself. I always trying to prove to people that I deserved to be where I was. I suppose when people describe me, they will tell you how hard working I am, but I suppose I can sit back now and say that I’m proud of myself, of everything that I achieved. I’m proud that I did it by staying true to who I am and my values.
I never once saw myself becoming a captain but I guess what people see in me as a leader is putting others first all the time, making sure the team comes first, and that has come from my love of the club. It’s never about an individual, it’s about the group as a whole and how you treat people with total respect.
I think, naturally, I grew into the captain I am all out of the love for what I do and then the people around me, and the hard work it takes is what people saw and what’s been infectious. I hope that’s what people will remember me for, and that those values will continue within this club when I’ve hung up my boots.
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