All hail Kelly Smith!

Watching Kelly Smith shine for Great Britain's women's football team reminded me of an interview I once did with the 33 year old from Garston who is arguably the greatest women's footballer this country has produced ahead of Euro 2005. Enjoy!

Pivotal year for UK women's football

By Kaye Holland

England and Arsenal star Kelly Smith

Draw for 2005 Women's European Championships

Following the 1999 Women's World Cup final, Fifa president Sepp Blatter declared: "The future of football is feminine."

The 2002 Brit flick Bend It like Beckham brought the sport to the big screen, but for the last ten years the numbers of girls playing the sport in the UK has been rising dramatically.

Football has now replaced netball as the most popular female sport in England according to figures released by the Football Association. And by 2010, Fifa predicts that there will be as many women playing as men.

Yet despite the rise of the women's game in England, it still lags behind countries such as the United States where there are an astonishing 7.8 million players.

So why is the beautiful game suffering on this side of the Atlantic? One possible explanation is the men's game does not dominate to the same degree Stateside.

"The US doesn't have a men's professional league with all its history like we do and that has definitely allowed the women's game to grow," Arsenal and England player Kelly Smith told BBC Sport.

Smith should know. The England star, who missed the 4-1 friendly win against Italy on Thursday because of injury, spent seven years in America.

While US female players are paid handsomely to play, in England it is an entirely different ball game. British women - though serious about their sport - have to juggle day jobs with intense training commitments.

Fulham Ladies' pioneering move to professionalism did not pay off, with the club relinquishing its full-time status in 2003.

Fast forward two years and there are still no signs of a professional league.

"I can't believe that it was ever talked about. Women's football doesn't come into anyone's thoughts," added Smith.

Chelsea Ladies' manager George Michaelas believes the women's game suffers from comparisons to the men's.

"I liken it to women's tennis where they are the same sport but really different to watch. The women's game is graceful and a lot slower but still great to watch," he said.

Michaelas is frustrated by the mediocre media coverage of the sport: "It is hard to understand. Football is the number one sport among women yet it's not getting the coverage."

It is hoped that initiatives such as Fulham's decision to supply schools with complimentary tickets to matches will help raise awareness of the game.

Another crucial date is this summer's European Women's Championship in England. Manchester, Blackburn, Preston, Blackpool and Warrington will stage the tournament from 5-19 June.

Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell said: "It is a fantastic coup. I hope the media will get behind the England team in their Euro 2005 campaign."

Marieanne Spacey, manager of Fulham, told BBC Sport: "The importance of England's results cannot be underestimated.

"Euro 2005 is in England and the nation will expect. We have to reach the semis and then the coverage and interest should come."

No pressure there then - not that Smith is running scared. "Every team is up for it, but with the characters we've got I'm confident. We have lots of games in the build up to June and team morale is high."