Kelly Smith will share a stage with Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka later this month, hoping to be the first English footballer of any gender to win the FIFA World Player of the Year.
Those casting a vote for the women’s award know all about her stunning natural ability — the 45-yard goal against Russia in August and the drive of the half-fit 31-year-old to drag her country to the European Championship final.
What they won’t have known is the private battle to exorcise the demons of drink and depression she faced by returning earlier this year to the United States — the country that almost broke her just five years ago.
What started as an American dream turned into a nightmare, forcing her father to fly out and bring her back home for rehab.
It started so well for the then 19-year-old Smith who landed a New Jersey college ‘soccer’ scholarship and stayed on to play in a new professional league.
But, after a successful first season with the Philadelphia Charge, her second was virtually wiped out by an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Miles from family and the friends she had made as a student, Smith found it hard to cope.
‘I was quite a shy and reserved person and didn’t really hang out with team-mates too much,’ she said. ‘So I was on my own a lot and dealing with these injuries. Obviously, you get yourself down.
‘You finish physio at one o’clock in the afternoon, then you wouldn’t have much to do, so maybe I’d start drinking to try and make me feel a bit better.
‘When you’re older you have more in your locker to cope with the emotions. But, when I was younger, when I couldn’t play through a broken leg, through knee surgery, I’d be drinking, I’d be depressed, I’d be having negative thoughts all the time like, “I might not ever play again”. So my psyche was wrong, all messed up.’
Her first major knee injury was not to be her last setback. The WUSA pro league folded through overspending in 2003, but Smith stayed in America as a semi-pro, only to break her leg in 2004.
Falling back into her drinking problems, she returned to England and checked into rehab, getting help from Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic.
‘I got myself in such a state that my dad actually flew out to America and brought me home because I wasn’t handling the situation well,’ she said.
‘Rehab was tough. Knowing that you’ve got a drink problem and all the issues and thought processes that I had in my head without talking to anybody about it.
‘I was just numbing myself with alcohol. I felt better for coming out the other side. It’s part of my history and I don’t really think about it too much any more.
‘Now, when I have an injury, I don’t hit the bottle. I still think about it, but I don’t go down that route. I speak to my friends, speak to family members if I’m feeling down and just get my feelings out rather than neck a bottle of vodka.’
Smith re-signed for her former club, Arsenal Ladies, coaching the club’s academy players to make a living between training twice a week and playing in the much more humble Women’s Premier League.
When the US League relaunched earlier this year, Smith initially rejected the chance to return.
‘I didn’t think I’d ever go back,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t in a good state when I left and the country had a bit of a negative effect on me.
‘But then when I heard about the players who were going to play in the league, it kind of whet my appetite to want to try it again.’
The Boston Breakers, one of seven teams in the inaugural Women’s Professional Soccer season, had been assigned rights to negotiate with Smith.
‘Boston gave me a week to think about it, even though I’d said no, and my views started to change after talking to my family about it,’ said Smith.
This time she was not alone.
This time she was not alone.
Boston also signed England and Arsenal defender Alex Scott, who owns a house with Smith in Hertfordshire.
The season could hardly have started better. Smith scored four in her first five Boston matches and was named the first WPS player of the month, in April.
But a new knee injury surfaced in June and refused to heal over the rest of the season, testing her state of mind and threatening her involvement in the European Championship.
Smith is still recovering after putting herself through pain-killing injections to make the finals.
But it was worth it: England got to their first major final for 15 years, even if the peerless Germany won 6-2, and Smith scored the best goal of her career against Russia, with a strike from the edge of the centre circle that kept Hope Powell’s team in the tournament.
‘As soon as I hit it I knew it was going in,’ she said. ‘It’s just instinct. Other people tell you you’re one of the best players in the world and you start to believe it. I’m lucky, a lot of people will have to work really hard at their technique, touch and skill, whereas I don’t.
‘I don’t really believe in God too much but I’ve definitely been put on this planet to play football and help develop the women’s game.'
from some 'newspaper'