England legend Fara Williams admits the dearth of female role models in football when she was growing up forced her to turn to former Chelsea captain Denise Wise for inspiration, writes Tom Dean.
But with the growing popularity of the women’s game, she believes there has never been a better time to showcase football’s leading female stars to a new generation of young girls.
Attendances at women’s matches are set to soar this weekend as part of a new FA initiative which will attempt to capitalise on the men’s international break with a huge double-header.
The first Women’s Football Weekend will see the Tottenham Hotspur’s new 62,000-capacity stadium host the first-ever north London derby while Liverpool will lock horns with Everton at Anfield.
And there few better placed to have their say than Williams, who is the Lionesses’ most capped player despite growing up unsure that she would even become a footballer.
The now 35-year-old relied on family members and male footballers as her role models until her breakthrough at Chelsea opened her eyes to a whole new world.
“There weren’t too many female footballers that I knew of when I was younger so I learned my gritty side from my mum and my uncle,” said the Reading midfielder.
“I used to watch a lot of Chelsea games so I ended up looking up to Dennis Wise because he was our captain and a leader and that is what you look for as a kid.
“I never saw the England team on the TV and it wasn’t until I was 15 that I realised that there was even a path for women in football.
“But once I started to understand the game a bit more I looked at Kelly Smith and that was someone I went on to idolise.
“There has definitely been a shift now and the women’s game is more exposed through the media but that wasn’t there back in the day.”
Williams has spoken openly about her struggle to overcome homelessness to make it as a footballer after becoming estranged from her mother Tanya during her childhood.
Now it’s almost 20 years since she first pulled on her Chelsea and England kits and the landscape of women’s football has changed immensely during that time.
Spurs normally play their matches at National League Barnet’s The Hive Stadium, with a capacity of 6,500, but host the Women’s Super League champions at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Meanwhile, the Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton at Anfield represents a meeting between two of Williams’ former clubs – having won back-to-back titles with the former.
But on Sunday Williams will be playing for current club side Reading, for whom she has been in red-hot form this season, as they take on Bristol City at the Madejski Stadium.
“It is a big statement to send out and is something that the players have wanted for a long time – so it feels like the timing is right,” she added.
“This extra bit of exposure will help drive our game forwards and the big stadiums
“The one-off games are great for us to get behind and support but it is all about how we continue to get the supports on the seats.
“I am not sure how good the attendances are for the teams who aren’t Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City so it is important we showcase them too.
“We do give a lot of freebies away in our game and sometimes we devalue ourselves so now is probably a good time to stop doing that and start really trying to promote it.”
To follow the action, buy tickets and sign-up for The FA Player’s live Barclays FA Women’s Super League coverage visit womenscompetitions.thefa.com