“In the warm-up I remember playing two passes that didn’t even go to my player and I was like oh, I’m gonna have an absolute stinker of a game. I remember that moment when it happened and I remember just heading it in – I thought, I can’t celebrate”
Every once in a while you have a player that no matter who they play for, they command respect from their team mates, opposition players and opposition fans. West Ham Women’s captain, Gilly Flaherty has been a professional footballer for over thirteen years; starting as a fifteen year old making her debut for Arsenal Ladies against Birmingham City in October 2006. Since then, Flaherty has been a serial winner throughout her career at Arsenal, Chelsea and now West Ham. Winning no fewer than 7 FA Women’s Cups and 4 FA WSL titles, Flaherty has earned the right to be regarded as a legend and a pioneer within women’s football.
I recently caught up with Gilly where we discussed her career to date, rooming with Becky Spencer, that goal against Chelsea and her aims for the up-coming 2019/20 season; including a special message for the West Ham fans.
Flaherty recounts one of the earliest memories that she has; “I got into football through my Dad. I remember it vividly, I watched a game of football on the telly and I remember turning to my Dad who in the armchair behind and going Dad, I want to learn how to play football. He said right, I’m going to see if you’re serious or not; here’s a ball go and stand outside and I want you to learn how to hold the ball in your right foot, just dead still, hold it. So I was like, alright then – it’s going to take a lot longer than just a day. It took me 3 weeks to learn how to do it. I went back to him and said, Dad – I’ve done it now. My Dad then told me to do it again but with my left foot. So that’s how I got into football and then I started doing trials for Millwall Lionesses – that’s where I first started off and it just grew from there and obviously I then went to Arsenal and then Chelsea after”.
At the time of writing, the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup is nearing the conclusion of the group stages with a variety of world class players on display and arguably reaching a wider audience than previous international competitions. Consequently, this is a prime opportunity for young girls to see their role models on a global setting. As a role model to many girls today, Flaherty discussed some of the role models that she had whilst growing up. “My role model growing up was Katie Chapman, purely because she went to the same school as me, my sister went out with her twin brother – she was very much there and I remember seeing her then as I was getting older and I had more of an interest in football. I would look out for her when she was at Charlton Ladies at the time and she was how I pride myself in how she plays. She’s a tough tackler, she’s very in your face. She’s just a gritty player who wants to win. There was also John Terry from the men’s football when I was at Chelsea.
For me being a role model, I like to see myself as someone who connects with the fans; I spend time with the fans, I engage with them on social media, supporting youngsters. If parents and young players need a bit of advice, I’d like to think I’m one of those players that will engage and interact with the fans”. By way of coincidence, a young fan spotted Gilly during this interview and came over to say hello. It was clear to see that the fact Gilly spent a few minutes with her and taking an interest in her football was a moment that would be treasured.
During Flaherty’s career there has been a significant shift in the way women’s football has changed and has been perceived. The most important change has been to the FA WSL league when in September 2017, the FA announced a complete overhaul and restructure that would see, for the first time, a fully professional league with teams required to fulfil several criteria in order to be granted a licence to compete. Furthermore, a higher percentage of women’s games are being broadcasted and streamed and there is a much more prominent social media presence. This is in stark contrast to when Flaherty first burst on to the scene. “When I started I was doing four jobs and then playing semi-pro for Arsenal in the evenings and weekends and we were getting involved at that point in the semi-finals of the Champions League and we still weren’t full-time or professional. For us, the game has grown massively – the standard and level of football has grown, obviously we’re all now full-time professionals in our league; the quality of the football’s improved. There’s more media backing now, people are more aware of it. It’s grown massively even within the last five years of me being a pro and it’s exciting to see now where the next 5-10 years football will come in this country”.
Gilly Flaherty: The Footballer
Since I first started watching Gilly play several years ago at Chelsea, I was struck by just how skilful a player she is. A player who has fight, hunger and determination – someone who has genuine love and respect for the game. A natural born winner, however, I was interested to see how she viewed herself as a footballer. “I’d like to say that I’m committed, that I’m dedicated. You know that I wear my heart on my sleeve whenever I play games. I’m a winner – I like to win, I want to win. I don’t like drawing or losing so I’d say that’s a massive part of me as a player but I think any manager that works with me knows that I’m going to give 110%. I might not be having my best game but I won’t stop trying and I’ll keep going until the final whistle. In regards to now, I’m currently captain, so for me I’d like to think I’m responsible, that I’m a leader, that when the going gets tough I step up for the team and I’ll lead by example. That’s how I’d like people to think of me”.
We have seen that whilst many are supportive of women’s football there are those who are less supportive and Flaherty discussed this in some detail and said the following; “Touch wood I’ve had quite a smooth ride within football in the sense that I’ve not had any sexism directed against me or obviously any prejudice for being gay. I’ve been quite lucky in that sense that I haven’t had that but I know players who have. For me, doing things last year like the Rainbow Laces campaign and standing up and saying you know what, I am gay and that’s just how I am and whether I’m with a boy or a girl I don’t change who I am. I think that had a better response than what I thought it would have. To be honest, I didn’t go online and read the comments because for me I would have got annoyed if I saw a comment about it. It might be the one minority so for me I’ve been quite fortunate but I would be the first to back someone up if they did have something said against them.
I’d like to think that as the years go on that the less it will be but you’ve seen some of the comments with this Women’s World Cup so far. I mean I put a tweet out the other day which ended up being my best tweet ever, which got 3,000 likes but it’s true, with certain men, and I’m not discriminating all men because there are very supportive men towards women’s football, they seem threatened by women’s football growing. Women’s football is never going to take the place of men’s football – as much as we play the same game and the same rules, it’s very different. So it’s nice for me that I get to experience and share times with men who are supportive of women’s football and don’t see us as any different and enjoy the game.
Flaherty looked back fondly on her days as a young footballer plying her trade at Arsenal and how significant an impact they have had on the way she plays her football today. “I was at Arsenal as a youngster from twelve or thirteen years of age and I’d like to think that Arsenal were the ones who really developed me into the player that I am today. They taught me the ethos, ethics, the way my game is played – I’m very comfortable on the ball. I like to play football, I’m not your typical centre back that likes to play the ball long. I want to play football and for me that’s credit to Vic Akers at Arsenal who liked to get the ball down and play good football and get goals that way. I’d like to think that’s come from Arsenal but also the defensive side of my game – I don’t want another team to have a shot on target. Arsenal has created a lot of how I am and has defined me as a player”.
In January 2014, Chelsea came calling and Flaherty was part of a double transfer that also saw Katie Chapman make the move to West London and reunited her with Chelsea manager, Emma Hayes. “Chelsea taught me a lot about me as a player and maybe I had a bit more of a rougher time at Chelsea than maybe I had at Arsenal. I was playing senior football on a more regular basis and took a team that was second from bottom at the time to the top end of the table. That was probably a new challenge because obviously at Arsenal we were at the top end all the time since I was little. That was a new thing for me and a new experience but Chelsea and Arsenal taught me a lot about my football and all that I have learnt I’ve taken with me to West Ham now”.
Gilly Flaherty: The Happy Hammer
Following the 2017/18 season where Flaherty added another league and FA Cup titles to her collection, it was time to swap West London for East London after a season where appearances were limited. “I wasn’t really playing at Chelsea that season but I did get offered a new contract to stay. For me, I think where I am, the age that I’m at now – I want to play football. I don’t want to spend the last few years of my career being on the bench or not playing a lot. For me, I’m happiest when I play, I know that obviously there’s got to be a bench in football, I felt that I could still offer a team so much. It then came to the point where I wanted to leave Chelsea and West Ham got in touch. I spoke to Beardy [Matt Beard] and I had one phone call with him and I knew then that I wanted to sign. He gave me the confidence again to really believe in myself and Beardy is always someone who I’ve wanted to work with any way and I’ve known him for many years. Beardy was a big sway in me going from Chelsea to West Ham but it was the fact of guaranteed football and the chance for me to be a captain as well, which is something that I’ve always wanted to be within my career – everything seemed to just fit”.
West Ham were granted a WSL licence for the start of the 2018/19 season and Flaherty was joined by familiar Chelsea faces in left-back, Claire Rafferty and goalkeeper, Becky Spencer as Matt Beard looked to assemble a brand new squad that could compete in the top league. Flaherty spoke about the relief she felt tackling the unknown with familiar faces around her. “I remember when before pre-season started we all came in on the Sunday before the Monday session to meet each other and get to know everyone. It was the unknown because no one knew who we were signing. There’s always rumours and I remember me and Becks [Becky Spencer] sitting the carpark and I went – Becks, I’ve got to walk in with you, I don’t want to walk in a I don’t know anyone at all! So me and Becks walked in together and then obviously we met everyone else. It was a relief having Becks and Raff [Claire Rafferty] there because we knew each other’s standards and we could bring that into the club. It was also nice for all of us to be together and create history with each other”. Indeed, Flaherty noted that she roomed with Spencer on away days and had the following anecdote; “I’ve roomed with Becky Spencer; everyone who knows us knows that we get up and go down to breakfast literally five minutes before it shuts”!
Flaherty had previously touched upon being West Ham’s captain in their inaugural season but I wanted to know what it meant to her. “I wouldn’t hide it from anyone that I’ve always wanted to be captain, even from a very young age. I’ve always felt that I’ve had the qualities to be one, it was just unfortunate that at Arsenal and Chelsea I was never given the responsibility; I was only ever vice-captain. It was pleasing that when I spoke with Beardy about West Ham, he mentioned the captaincy to me so I didn’t put it in his head, he already had it in his head so I think that’s what made it more appealing to take it”.
Flaherty spoke about one of her previous captain’s, the former Welsh international, Jayne Ludlow and the impact that she had. “I’d say the best captain that I’ve worked under was Jayne Ludlow. I know that Jayne was vice-captain whilst Faye White was out with an ACL injury for 2-3 years, so Luds was always my captain. For me, she brought that passion, I think the same passion that I bring. She’d be upset if we didn’t win, she’d be upset if our standards weren’t good enough and I think that’s how I’d like to see myself. I wear my heart on my sleeve in the same way Luds did and I will always say, if anyone asks me about captaincy and who I looked up to, it will always by Jayne Ludlow. She was incredible with how she led a team and as a captain, she was very approachable one who would put an arm around the shoulder. She was one of the best, if not the best I’ve worked under”.
Flaherty was very reflective and candid when she looked back and assessed her first season at West Ham. “In regards to the league, I think we could have done a lot better than where we finished. We finished seventh but I would personally have liked to finish fifth or sixth. The main thing for us was safety within the division and not relegation. We got to an FA Cup final, which most players don’t get to experience within their career and I’ve been lucky enough to experience I four times, so I think that’s a massive positive because no one expected us in our first year to get there and not only did we get there but we did ourselves proud. It’s been a good season but now we need to build on it and improve for the next one.
The most challenging thing was dealing with the defeats. I think we had four or five losses in a row and I remember thinking this isn’t what I had signed up for. I had come from a team that is used to winning most of their games; even drawing at Chelsea would have been seen as a no-go, to coming to West Ham where the first few games we lost then the Man City game where we lost 7-1. I just remember sitting there thinking this going to be a long season but I would never have given up on the club or the team. Even if it was a relegation battle and we were fighting for the bottom two, I still would have fought until the last day. It’s a different experience for me because I’m used to being at the top end. It’s been a good first season for the club but we have to build on it”.
Flaherty spoke about two highlights from her first season at West Ham; the FA Cup final at Wembley and scoring against her former team Chelsea at Kingsmeadow. “It’s easy for me to say – walking out at Wembley for leading the team out. I think if you’re looking at the previous year when I’ll be honest in the sense that I was in a really bad place with football, I was on the bench at Chelsea, I wasn’t playing at the Cup Final and I was just very depressed. It’s the whole turn around within 12 months to be walking out there as captain and leading the team out it was just an unbelievable feeling and I really hope and I pray to God that I get to experience it again. For me that’s the highlight of the season, that and scoring against Chelsea and my first goal for the club. I waited all year for a goal and I remember we had a friendly against Lewes behind closed doors and I scored against them. I didn’t want my first goal of the season to be against Lewes! I remember Kate Longhurst saying, Gill, you’re going to score against Chelsea next week.
I remember thinking before the game in the warm-up; I was very emotional any way. I asked Jane Ross how felt playing against City at home and she said probably the same way you’re feeling now. When I played Chelsea at our home I didn’t feel this nervousness, I didn’t feel sick. I thought no, you’re coming to our home ground but going back to Kingsmeadow with all the memories I had there, I just remember thinking I feel sick. In the warm-up I remember playing two passes that didn’t even go to my player and I was like oh, I’m gonna have an absolute stinker of a game. I remember that moment when it happened and I remember just heading it in – I thought, I can’t celebrate. That’s one thing I said before the game to myself, if I score today, no matter how much you feel and however much passion you want to let out you do not celebrate. I remember just standing there and every player just jumping on top of me and I thought I can’t do it, no matter how much I want to knee slide right now I was itching inside to do it. I thought I can’t do that, I’ve got respect for my old team mates and I’ve got respect for the fans. It was meant to happen, it was written in the stars that I would score my first goal all season against Chelsea at home. I mean I got a big point for the club and that’s all that matters now”.
The same passion and will to win still burns inside Flaherty and she looks to build upon and improve for next season. “My aim for last season was to play every minute of every game, which I just fell short of by 90 minutes, so that’s going to be a goal again for me. Stay fit again because last season was my first season without injury and I can’t even begin to tell you the last time I did that. Also, it’s to get West Ham higher up in the league that this year, more clean sheets and to be more solid and more organised all round. And to get to an FA Cup final again”!
Flaherty also had a special message for the West Ham fans; “Just stick with us. We need all the West Ham fans, we need them all to come and support us on a weekly basis and stick with us through the highs and lows. Obviously we’re not unrealistic in the fact that there’s going to be highs and lows this year but the main thing is we have the supporters back in and knowing that we can go into any challenge”.
Gilly Flaherty: The Entrepreneur
As well as being one of the game’s most decorated winners, Flaherty has recently started up her own business – The Cryo-Lounge. “Me and my partner, Lil thought it would be good not to have a holiday this year, not to chill and rest up! We thought we’d convert an old show room into a shop and opened up the cryo-therapy business, which there’s nothing like in the area. It’s very unique and it’s something that can personally benefit me from being in sport. As the time’s going on and I’m thinking post-football and post-career, I’ll be honest in that I haven’t got a single qualification to my name so it made a little more sense to get something up long-term”.
The Cryo-Lounge is now open and further details can be found here.