Friday, March 1, 2024

‘I knew if I wanted to win trophies, Arsenal was where I had to be’ Arseblog exclusive interview with Arsenal Women legend Marieanne Spacey-Cale

On Thursday evening, Arsenal take on Southampton Women in the Conti Cup at St. Mary’s. It will be the first ever official meeting between the two teams (there have been other women’s teams with the Southampton nomenclature but they were not affiliated to Southampton FC).

In the dugout across from Jonas Eidevall will be Saints boss Marieanne Spacey. Spacey is one of the finest players in English women’s football history and, that being the case, naturally she spent nine years of her playing career at Arsenal, scoring 79 goals in 86 appearances.

Spacey signed for Arsenal in 1993, at the dawn of the Arsenal revolution as the Gunners dominated women’s football. She is also, at the heart of it, a big part of my origin story with Arsenal Ladies. I first went to watch a game at Highbury around 1996 or 1997 against Millwall Lionesses and Spacey was just head and shoulders above every other player on the pitch. Initially, she was the reason I kept returning.

I ask Spacey how early in life she recognised her talent, she answers that she wasn’t the first to spot her talent. “According to my family folklore, when I was two years old my Great Granddad said I would play for England one day,” she tells Arseblog News. “I just always played, as soon as I could walk I was kicking a balloon around the house or around the grass area outside where we lived.

“I was always playing football in the playground with the boys at school. I was in a netball team and a few of us started kicking the netball around like a football and we started a five-a-side team. I was just very sporty, I did every sport I could, I wasn’t academic.” Marieanne came to a crossroads as a teenager.

Spacey with Arsenal and England teammate Faye White

“I had a choice between playing for England U-16s hockey or playing football for Friends of Fulham FC and I chose football and here I still am.” Spacey would join Fulham FC in 2002 when they became the first women’s team in the UK to become full-time professionals- an experiment that unfortunately proved premature.

“I signed for Friends of Fulham when I was 13 but we were the nearly team, we nearly won the league a few times, we won the FA Cup once but lost some finals. My decision to go to Arsenal was because I wanted to win those trophies.” Spacey had dalliances with football abroad earlier in her career in Finland and Italy.

“I played the summer season for HJK in Helsinki and that tied in with the season in England. HJK released me for England training camps which was what I wanted.” Her spell in Italy was somewhat less ideal. “I joined Lazio but I came home after four days, it just wasn’t what they said it would be and they wouldn’t guarantee release for England training camps and that was the most important to me. I am still comfortable with that decision.”

As with most Arsenal legends, it was a conversation with Vic Akers that steered her career towards North London and she knew immediately that the club was on the cusp of a golden era of dominance. “I knew Vic because of everything he had done around women’s football and how he and David Dein spoke about what they wanted to achieve and how they were going to invest, not just financially, but time and resources into it.

“I trusted them and believed in them. I thought ‘if I want to win trophies, this is the place I need to be.’ Vic and Mr. Dein persuaded a lot of players that this was the club to be at.” Spacey says her and Akers, who achieved so much together, remain friends.

“To this day we are in contact and he is coming to the game on Thursday, I had a really good relationship with him. He was one of those coaches where we got to know him as much as he got to know us. When he wasn’t happy you knew he wasn’t happy but he always said his reason for that was because he wanted every player to be successful. He was driving us to be better. He always praised me when I was doing well.”

Spacey, who was in the England coaching setup before taking over at Southampton in 2018, says that Akers’ influence remains on her coaching career. “I use a lot of what he taught me as a coach. For example, if he felt the session needed a bit of a lift he would join in and try to score the winning goal in a small-sided game, he would bring that fun into it. Those were the things that made me smile in training and I have really taken that. I still use a lot of the things he talked with me about.”

If I were being a little reductive, I might describe Spacey to those who hadn’t seen her play as the Kelly Smith before the Kelly Smith for Arsenal and England. She was a withdrawn striker and the best attacker in the country by some distance. However, Spacey’s timeline crosses over with Smith, who will also be across from her in the Arsenal dugout on Thursday evening. Spacey says the signing of Smith in 1996 was further evidence that Arsenal was the standout club in the country.

“We played against Kelly when he played for Wembley Ladies and she was always special. When Vic signed her, we knew there was real intent in terms of taking us to the next level. Even though she was so young that’s how good she was. The year she joined us I started the season with her before I went off on maternity leave. I think we scored something like 15 or 16 goals in the first eight games.

“I would have liked to have continued that, she was an absolute talent with one of the best left foots ever. But she was also very humble, she must have known how good she was but you never saw it in her demeanour. She worked so hard and wanted to keep improving.” Though Spacey also says she was indebted to legendary right-back Kirsty Pealling who, like Spacey, is immortalised on the new Emirates Stadium wrap.

“I have to give a shout out here to Kirsty Pealling, who was one of the best wing-backs I have ever seen in women’s football. Kirst was technically and physically perfect and put the ball on a sixpence for me, she created as many goals for me as anyone else throughout my career.” I ask Marieanne what her standout moment was in Arsenal’s colours.

“I lost my dad six years ago. He was in the stand when we were playing Doncaster Belles in the League Cup Final in Cambridge. I hit one from about 30 or 35 yards that went into the top corner. David Dein was sat behind my dad and tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘I’m gonna show that to the boys.’

“For my dad, that was a really proud moment. For someone of the stature of David Dein to say that was something I really appreciated. Especially with everything my dad did for me, driving to see all my games, he would look after my daughter when I was playing. To get that from David Dein was huge for him.”

Spacey took the Southampton job in 2018 and the last few years have been a rollercoaster for the Saints. They were, unexpectedly, unsuccessful in applying for a license to join the Championship (the women’s second tier) in 2018. Covid twice denied them promotions as seasons were cancelled with Southampton sitting at the top of the table. They eventually worked their way up to the Championship in 2022.

Spacey said the original rejection of their application to join the Championship gave them time to take stock. “When I came to speak with Southampton it just felt like we could really build something here,” she explains. “Originally the plan was to be in the Championship because we applied for the license but we didn’t get it.

“I could have thought, ‘well, we haven’t got the license, I’ll do something else. Instead I thought, ‘we have something we can really build here.’ It’s one thing I really learned from Arsenal back in the 90s, we had the backing of the club and we were the team we wanted all women’s clubs to look like.

“We used not getting the license as a real driver and look at a proper five-year plan and our five-year plan was to be in the Championship and now we’ve created the next plan to get into the WSL. We are on target but as each year progresses, we are always driving for what’s next.

“This is not about immediate success; it’s about building sustainable success. Covid gave us time to get the infrastructure right and have systems that look after the players and staff. Sometimes if you get thrown into something quickly, you do those as you go.”

Come tomorrow night, Spacey insists she is keen for the limelight to be on the Southampton players. “I had a fantastic time at Arsenal, have great memories and played alongside some amazing players and staff. That will never change. But Thursday is all about our players at Southampton. It’s not Marieanne against Arsenal.

“It’s about our players stepping up and just enjoying playing against one of the best teams in Europe. And just giving us a gauge to see where we are. How close are we to that level? How far away are we? This is about the players testing themselves so I will be in the background.”

On Thursday, Marieanne may have a wish to be in the background. When it comes to the history of Arsenal Women, she is far more a Mount Rushmore figure who is very much in the foreground.

Arsenal play Southampton at St. Mary’s on Thursday evening, kicking off at 6.30pm, tickets are still available here.

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Alberto Balsam Mendez Rodriguez

Oh wow,

When I first used to watch Arsenal ladies,
it was the era of Marieanne, so this is a great read!.

Boff

Great article Tim!
many thanks; always good to read Ladies history, for those of us who came late to the game.

Michael

Good article Tim. I came late the Women’s game and these things are full of interest not least in the remarkable and unmatched history of the Women’s game.

Little Cubby

Spacey was always my favourite player even before she joined Arsenal pre Kelly Smith

Karen

It’s great to have articles about our heritage, especially when those women are still massively involved in the game.
Thanks

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