It would be great to see both Leeds United teams marching upwards together - Sue Smith

I never wanted to leave Leeds United.

It was the most successful and competitive time of my club career, sharing a dressing room with the likes of Steph Houghton, Rachel Daly, Carly Telford, Gemma Bonner, Ellen White, Jade Moore, Sophie Bradley, Jess Clarke and Remi Allen.

When Leeds missed out on the Women’s Super League, I had no choice to leave and it was not just my loss. In the same way the Premier League will be better for having Leeds United, so will the Women’s Super League.

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I started at Tranmere Rovers and did not want to leave there either. I made my debut at 14 and they were my friends, and still are. I had a free role which basically meant I could do what I wanted but to progress I had to play for a better club – one that would pay me, rather than me paying match subs to them.

Sue Smith winning the 2010 League Cup with Leeds United team-mates including Steph Houghton, Rachel Daly, Carly Telford, Gemma Bonner, Jade Moore and Sophie Bradley.Sue Smith winning the 2010 League Cup with Leeds United team-mates including Steph Houghton, Rachel Daly, Carly Telford, Gemma Bonner, Jade Moore and Sophie Bradley.
Sue Smith winning the 2010 League Cup with Leeds United team-mates including Steph Houghton, Rachel Daly, Carly Telford, Gemma Bonner, Jade Moore and Sophie Bradley.

I had broken into the England team where I was coached to be a winger or a No 10 and there were people looking at what I was eating and how I could improve. I needed that professionalism at club level to stay ahead of the best players in the country.

I spoke to quite a few teams and it came down to a straight choice between Leeds and Doncaster Rovers Belles.

When I went with my mum and dad to see the training faculties at Thorp Arch my mind was made up. Even though the Belles were an historic name and a team I always wanted to play for, it was an easy decision.

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Thorp Arch was a world away from the Bebbington Oval leisure centre where Tranmere trained – often on grass next to the astroturf pitches we were unable to get on, clearing off dog muck before we started and finishing when it got dark because there were no floodlights.

Leeds had all sorts of coaches and sports scientists, things I had only experienced on international duty. They even had training kit!

I watched a game and there were fans there – not just the mums and dads at our games.

I always want to do things the right way, and I looked at mum and dad and just said, “This is the business.”

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When I signed, the chairman, Peter Ridsdale, wrote a letter welcoming me and talking about my attributes.

He had taken an interest, which was amazing.

That was the big thing about Leeds at that time: it was one club – a Champions League club.

We regularly met the men and did appearances with them. Mine were often with Alan Smith, which normally meant being asked how we were related. We are not. Smith is quite a common name!

So many people support any team wearing the Leeds shirt and I became one.

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I used to watch the men on Saturday, then play on Sunday. My friend, Lucy Ward, was the head of education and we often watched the Under-18s too.

A coach-load of fans cheered us on in the FA Cup final. For some, it was their first women’s game, but they wanted to get behind Leeds and when they sang the Elland Road songs, it was brilliant.

When I was on international duty I would tell my team-mates how fantastic the set-up and atmosphere were, and soon some of them wanted to join. It was not just the quality of players we signed, it was the quality of people they were off the field.

That one club ethos is so important, as you can see at the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea now, but it stopped in 2005 when then-chairman Ken Bates ended the funding and stopped us training at Thorp Arch.

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We were left to pretty much survive on sponsorship, but actually did quite well for the next five years, with Leeds Metropolitan University coming on board.

I would go into the university to give talks, and if sports science students wanted experience, they would help us.

We progressed each season, reaching cup finals and moving up the league. We could have dominated for a good few years.

The turning point came in 2010 after we beat Everton 3-1 to win the League Cup. We were top at Christmas, and had a good FA Cup run too. Our manager came into the dressing room and told us we had not got any funding for next season and our bid to join the new WSL had been rejected.

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There was a real danger Leeds United Ladies might not exist any more. With our motivation gone, we finished fourth and all but four or five players left because by then, you had to be in the WSL to play for England.

It was only thanks to a group of 13 or 14 fans Leeds kept going.

The next turning point came when Andrea Radrizzani bought the men’s club in 2017 and brought the ladies back into the fold, the official kit and Thorp Arch.

Now the club can think big again, and WSL is their target. They are in the best position since my time there.

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But women’s football has become extremely competitive and there is still a lot they will have to do to return to the top.

The players are paid according to performances, whereas rival clubs provide basic wages on top of the bonuses, making it harder to compete for the best players.

They will need a full-time manager, rather than relying on volunteers, and an even better pathway so the next Gemma Bonner can go into the first team and not feel they have to leave.

The desire from the club to invest not just money but time needs to continue.

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Building the strong links with educational establishments we had will be huge.

Before the coronavirus pandemic the girls were doing really well, second in Women’s National Division One North, which is the fourth tier of the female pyramid.

Even now I still look for Leeds’s results – men’s and women – because once you’ve played in that all-white kit, the club has a place in your heart.

It would be great to see both back where they belong, marching on together.

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James Mitchinson


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