‘We were a team full of competitors.’ Arseblog Exclusive with Arsenal Ladies legend Jayne Ludlow

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13 years. 356 appearances. A club record 211 goals. 11 league titles. 7 FA Cups. 6 League Cups. 1 European Cup wearing the captain’s armband in the final. Jayne Ludlow’s Arsenal career is literally unparalleled. Joining the club from Southampton in 2000, the Welsh midfielder became one of Britain’s premier midfield talents with her indefatigable box-to-box style.

After her retirement in 2013, Ludlow took the reigns at Reading Women, before taking the Welsh national team job in 2014, a position she still holds today. Ludlow was a talented athlete and netball player as a youngster in the Welsh village of Llwynypia. Yet it was football that she turned her hand, or feet, to.

“My dad managed the local team when I was younger, Saturdays down the park watching his team and watching him manage, that was my youth,” Jayne tells me. “I played in the playground with the boys and it always felt normal. I just enjoyed being competitive and I loved scoring goals like most kids! But I know I had a different opportunity that girls my age didn’t have back then because of my dad, I was always around football.”

Jayne represented her county at youth level in netball and basketball and commuted to Barry Town to play football, where her talents won her a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania. However, she cut the US adventure short. “I didn’t really know what I was walking into and the setup, educationally and in terms of football,” she admits.

“I didn’t have Google to help me out back then! I went on a pre-med course; but it would have taken me seven years to qualify as a physio compared to three in the UK. Football-wise the standard was good- better than I had in Wales but not as good as I was expecting. I did enjoy my six months out there it just wasn’t what was best for me.”

Jayne moved to England to continue her studies and to play for Millwall Lionesses, but she didn’t stay with Millwall for long. “I moved to London to do my degree at King’s College,” she recalls. “I had some contacts down at Southampton, I knew the manager Vanessa Raynbird, who I played against many times for Barry Town.

“I was travelling down from London to play there and that was a bit of a journey, but I had been playing for Millwall Lionesses who trained indoors at a local school. The setup at Southampton was better with training pitches and the coaching setup was better.” In early 2000, a game against Arsenal Ladies, the standard bearers for women’s football, saw her career change course again.

“Then I played against Arsenal for Southampton and scored a nice header- which I remember very well!” she laughs. “Sian Williams was the Arsenal captain at the time and she was managing Wales, so I played and trained under her and she said I should join the club. I will be forever grateful to Sian for giving me that opportunity. I went to train with Arsenal and worked as hard as I could, kicked a few people and they never got rid of me after that!”

Ludlow instantly appreciated the environment she was being inducted into. With the likes of Faye White, Angela Banks, Clare Wheatley and Sian Williams in the team, Jayne finally felt that she was playing at a level commensurate with her competitive nature. “When I arrived I was in awe of those players and loved training with them, suddenly you’re playing with really intelligent, fit and competitive people.”

Jayne quickly established herself as a goal scoring midfielder and the team won the treble in her debut season. On reflection, she puts her ability to score so frequently down to her teammates. “When I first arrived, we played a 352 and I was the attacking central midfielder, so I had a lot of freedom to get forward,” she recalls. “There was a big focus on the wing-backs, Kirsty Pealing and Clare Wheatley delivering from wide.

“Our philosophy was always to play forwards and we had some great players putting some great balls in the box and my job was to arrive at the right time to finish moves off. One of the things that allowed me to stay in the team for so long was my competitive nature, but also the physical aspect. I would say my biggest quality was that I could run all day.”

I ask her about the club goal scoring record, which she still holds ahead of superstars like Kelly Smith and Marieanne Spacey. Ludlow suggests longevity explains why her record has remained intact, “I stayed for a good few years. Kelly went to America and Marieanne wasn’t there as long as I was. If they had 13 years at Arsenal they would have out-scored me.” Jayne is not convinced she will hold onto the record for long, “If Viv stays for another couple of years, I think my record might go!” she chirps.

In the summer of 2005, Ludlow spent a short spell on loan at New York Magic but this time her sojourn Stateside was only ever intended as a temporary one. “I enjoyed my short stints in the US but to be honest, the New York Magic loan was never a long-term ambition. I had nothing much to do that summer and I wanted to carry on playing and Arsenal didn’t mind. New York is a great place, so I got to spend a few months in a great city and play football.”

Though football in England was still semi-professional, Vic Akers was creative with the way he looked after the players. Vic often found the girls other jobs around London Colney. Alex Scott worked in the laundry, Emma Byrne and Ciara Grant had administrative jobs within the academy setup. “We were one of the few clubs that did that so there was no reason for me to leave to be honest,” Ludlow explains. “Football wise Arsenal were very advanced too.”

Jayne was given the opportunity to put her physio qualifications to use within the club’s academy system. “I qualified as a physio in 2002 two years after I joined and there was a role going as a physio in the girls’ academy. I also got to do a bit of coaching, which is what I really wanted and I had that role on top of being a player for ten years in the end. It was perfect for me.” Perfection is rare in life, let alone sport, but Jayne and her teammates experienced something close to it in 2006-07.

Arsenal won every single game they played domestically, bagging another domestic treble. However, they added the European Cup to their trophy haul that year and they remain the only British women’s team to win the prize. In Europe, there had been plenty of quarter-finals and semi-finals in preceding years until they usually came up short against one of the continent’s big guns.

“I just remember those European games being really fun, we travelled, competed at a different level against teams we didn’t always play and sometimes we were good enough and sometimes we weren’t but we loved the challenge,” Jayne says in her typically matter-of-fact way. “Usually in the latter stages we were playing fully professional teams and we were still training two, maybe three evenings a week at that point. In the years before 2007, we were never badly beaten though.”

In the 2007 final, they upset the odds to beat Swedish side Umea, who boasted Marta in their ranks. Arsenal squeezed out a 1-0 victory over two legs. “When you look at the team for the final it wasn’t the usual team of that time. Faye was coming back from injury, Kelly was suspended for the final, so other players had to step in. We had youngsters like Anita Asante and Karen Carney in the team when they were teenagers.”

Arsenal did a good defensive job in the first leg in Sweden and won 1-0 thanks to Alex Scott’s last-minute strike. Jayne says the 1-0 win in Sweden in the first leg gave them much needed clarity for a largely defensive game plan in the second leg at Boreham Wood. “We knew the job we had to do,” she says again in that matter-of-fact way that is very much her style. “It wasn’t the job we were used to; but we were good players and we knew we could do it.

“When you look at why elite level teams win things the leadership in the group is a huge part of it and we were a team full of leaders,” she ponders. “We were a team of competitors with good experience, we knew this was a chance we couldn’t throw away. And look, did Umea have chances? Hell, yes! We had a bit of luck too.” Ludlow wore the captain’s armband for the final with Faye White on the bench, having just recovered from an ACL injury.

The Welsh midfielder didn’t quite enjoy the same luck three years later. Jayne missed the 2010 FA Cup Final due to suspension after picking up a needless red card for retaliation the week before the match. The Gunners badly missed Jayne’s influence and lost the final to Everton in the last minute of extra-time. Ludlow took the incident in her stride.

“It was tough to take but I wasn’t too down about it. Personality wise I’m not a sulker, I owned the mistake, learned from it and moved on. The way we always operated at Arsenal was to forget a game as soon as it was over. We were the same with trophies, it was a case of ‘win one and then move onto the next one.’ We didn’t dwell on things.”

Jayne suggests that it was only during the autumn of her career when she began to experience low points. “I knew I was coming to the end and I knew that physically I wasn’t where I needed to be. My position changed because I had to adapt. I played a more defensive role. There were probably things I could have done to make that adaption easier, but look, when you’re an older player coming to the end there’s only so much you can do, it’s not nice however you approach it!”

She retired from playing in 2013 leaving a cavalcade of trophies and accolades in her wake. She instantly went into management with Reading and has now managed the Wales team for six years. Jayne worked largely with Vic Akers during her time at the club but fondly recalls Emma Hayes’ stint on the Gunners coaching staff during the quadruple winning season.

“The thing that jumps out at you from Emma from the start is that she’s a competitor. She always wanted to be the best,” Ludlow explains. “She helped me and the other girls a lot, but she was always going to be a number one somewhere.” Jayne says she still speaks with Hayes, as well as her Arsenal head coaches Vic Akers and Laura Harvey.

“I’m in touch with all of them infrequently. Emma is probably the one I speak to the most, every few months. Vic I speak to about once a year and Laura maybe less than that. Looking back; I have taken a lot from all of them. As a coach you have to be yourself, but I have taken bits from all of them and I couldn’t have asked for a better grounding as a coach than being at Arsenal for all those years.”

And Arsenal couldn’t have asked for a better midfielder than Jayne Ludlow.

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Peter Story Teller

Irony of our top goalscorer being a mid-fielder but how many women put in a stint of over 350 games for one club? Even Viv has a way to go to notch up 200+ goals! Jayne is often forgotten amongst the array of talent Arsenal have fielded through the years but the stats do not lie and she deserves the “legend” title.

Der Kaiser

Great insight. As an American, the coverage of Arsenal Women isn’t as available so the added coverage since Patreon began has been much appreciated. Keep up the good work Tim.

Chrishgooner

Lovely article on a genuine Arsenal legend.
I wonder if Jayne has ever been considered for the AWFC management post?

Homer

Really nice article here.
I love hearing about other parts of the club. We don’t get much Arsenal Women’s news here in the US.

trugun

Jaynes medal well deserved, but Shelley Kerr’s medal could not have had anything to do with Arsenal. Without doubt the worst manager of Arsenal Ladies ever, it took quite a few years to get Arsenal Ladies back to a decent level after Kerr left

Tim Stillman

Yes, although to be fair that was a period of upheaval at the club generally. By their own admission, Arsenal were slow to react to teams actually challenging them domestically.