Chelsea Women’s longest-serving player recently celebrated 10 years since she debuted for the club. Ahead of our home game against Birmingham this Sunday, here are some of Drew Spence’s recollections of how she has developed into an integral member of the squad.
On Sunday 4 January, 2009, a 16-year-old was called upon from the substitutes’ bench to make her first appearance for a side then known as Chelsea Ladies.
It was a freezing afternoon at Imber Court in East Molesey – Spence remembers this much because she was wearing gloves. ‘I’d never do that now,’ she jokes.
But, more importantly, she marked her debut with a goal against Rotherham United in an FA Cup fourth round tie to put the finishing touches on a thumping 9-1 victory.
‘It was a scuffed finish with my left foot,’ she recalled. ‘But a goal is a goal!
‘I would have gone into school the next day, too, as I was in my GCSE year. It's crazy to think about now, but at the time it didn't feel weird. There was actually another girl, Kallie Balfour, in my form who played football, and she's at Crystal Palace now. Back then she was at Charlton and playing for their Under-16s. Unfortunately when we played Palace earlier this season she was injured, which is a shame as it would have been nice to play against her after we'd been in the same class at school.’
Today, Spence is a confident young woman, at her happiest on the football pitch but never far from the action off the field when a wind-up is on the go.
Her leadership skills have developed, particularly since Emma Hayes became manager in 2012, but what was she like as a 16-year-old?
‘Shy – really shy,’ she says. ‘I wasn't really a kid who went out during the week when I was younger, I didn't really go out until I was 15 or 16 at the weekends. I had a back garden and I always used to play with my neighbour.
‘It wasn't until I was in year nine and above that I used to go out at the weekend and play with the lads and stuff. I'd play on a Saturday morning at the Fulham Centre of Excellence, go home, change into a full Arsenal kit, and then go out and play with the lads.’
The name of Cesc Fabregas adorned the back of her favourite shirt, which was the redcurrant coloured uniform produced to mark their final season at Highbury, although a decade spent with west London’s finest has muddled her allegiances.
At that time, and throughout her early years at Chelsea, the Gunners also boasted the best women’s team in the land. While Spence has subsequently played her part in, as Sir Alex Ferguson may have put it, knocking them off their perch, her priority a decade ago was very much attempting to carve out a career for herself in a sport that was still a little way off the heights it has reached in recent times.
‘When I was younger, we trained only twice a week and for the person and athlete I know I am today, that was never going to be enough for me to hit certain fitness requirements I needed to play,’ she said.
‘We used to train on the astroturf at night and we never used to have food here. Little things like that. Players come in now and expect certain things and sometimes I'll be like: “You guys don't even understand, we never used to have any of this!”
‘They'd switch the floodlights off while we were still training! It didn't matter if you remembered where you'd left your bag, because you weren't finding it again! It was pitch black, 9.30 at night.
‘Now we have our own training pitch and if there's anything wrong with that, we can go and use one of the men's team's pitches up the top. That wouldn't have been a conversation 10 years ago. It's a delight to see how far the club has gone, and it's exciting to see what else we can bring to the club in terms of silverware.’
As she alludes to, things weren’t going to plan for Spence on a personal level. While she credits both Casey Stoney, who captained us at the start of her career and then had a brief stint as player-manager, and Matt Beard, who was manager for three years, something wasn’t quite right.
‘I sat on the bench a lot when I was younger, which was obviously tough,’ she said. ‘But I should also say that I learned a lot from that. I think if we were full-time back then, like it is now, I would have played a lot more games.
‘There's nothing you can do about that, it's just the development of the women's game, and that's why I think the kids today are so lucky. They've got full-time straight away at 16 or 17 and I don't think I had that until I was about 21, when we started to move that way. But Beardy really helped me and whenever I see him today it's always nice. He always believed in me and put me in the squad.
‘Then obviously Emma came in, and while it was sad to see Beardy go, it was also exciting as Emma had so many things she wanted to do with the club and a future she saw for us. Everyone was excited about that.
‘Before that, we just used to get beaten! One year we made the FA Cup final, in 2012, but we lost to Birmingham on pens. I was so young then. That was one of the highlights of my early years here – and you never want a highlight to be a loss!
‘That shows you how far we've come. Emma came in, we didn't have the best first season, but she got rid of a lot of players and brought others in, and that's when everything started changing.’
The same applies to Spence. She recalls one fateful meeting with Hayes and her staff, which took place in Japan during the women’s equivalent of the Club World Cup, as a huge turning point in her career.
‘When I was with Beardy, he didn't really tell me how it was – but Emma did. I'd pretty much carried on the same habits as always and I thought my talent would help me out in the end. Really, you need to be able to do everything outside of that.
‘Japan was probably the best and the worst trip of my life! I got told off massively by Emma, Paul [Green], Stuart [Searle] and also Rob Udberg, who was part of the staff then. I just cried for an hour, basically.
‘After that it was the off-season and I made sure I did the right things, changed all my eating habits and when we came back in I tried to do the right things on the pitch. It's not been easy, but when you're growing as an athlete you learn so much about your body – what you can and can't do, how much recovery you need, etc. Emma and the staff really helped me so much.’
Year on year, her improvement has been tangible. The goal tally has increased – she scored in an FA Cup semi-final in 2017, when she finished the shortened season as our top scorer, and this term she has already reached double figures despite ostensibly playing in a deeper midfield position.
We’ve won five major trophies in that time, too, with Spence one of the unsung heroes. It was a nice touch that she was able to open the scoring in our WSL-clinching win over Bristol City last year, having also netted the first goal of the season, and maiden strike at our new Kingsmeadow home, against the same opponents.
‘It's a very big achievement to be at a club for 10 years and I am overwhelmed by it,’ she added. ‘I'm still only 26, so to have been here that long, and still have a lot of playing time left, hopefully I can be here as long as I wanted. This is my home, my family. I've seen a lot of good friends leave and a lot of good people come in. We're all striving for one thing and that's to win the Champions League and to be the best team in England for years and years to come. That's something Emma has wanted since she came here and that's what we train hard for every day.’
After a slow start to the season, which Spence covers with great maturity in her next answer, it should be noted we’re closing in on the WSL leading pack after a run of 11 straight wins in all competitions, while we’re also still involved in three cups, including the Champions League.
With the international break which interrupted our progress following a morale-boosting win at Arsenal, we’re back in action again at Kingsmeadow on Sunday at 2pm when we host a Birmingham City side who are just behind us in the standings. Its status, in terms of importance, is right up there with the Arsenal match in Spence’s eyes.
‘Oh, definitely,’ she says. ‘They've always been a tricky side to play against, but we'll be as ready for this as we are any other game. We approach every game the same. We can't afford to drop any points now, every game is a cup final for us, and we'll prepare for it in the right way.
‘We’re on a good run after a slow start. It was always going to be hard after last year, even if we'd kept all the same players. When you win a title, it's never easy, but then the next year everyone wants to beat you even more than they did before.
‘Then to lose a big chunk of that team, many of them having been here for years, is something I struggled with at the beginning. Big time. These were players I'd grown up with and really good friends of mine. It was hard to lose them. To lose your captain and your vice-captain...
‘We had to adjust to new players coming in and they've got to get used to the culture here and everything. The team at the beginning wasn't as close as before, because we hardly knew each other. We changed back to a 4-3-3, so we had to get used to that. All those things add up.
‘We had a slow start, but we weren't happy with that and when we lost 5-0 to Arsenal, that's when it blew up in our face and we were like: “Right, we need to turn this around now.” Now we're in such a good space. We all know what we're doing, we understand the formation more, we're just enjoying ourselves.
‘We know we had a rubbish start and we're kicking ourselves now, because if we'd won even one of those games, we'd be even closer. But we're chasing, we're the team in form, and we might be three points behind, but they now know we're coming. City and Arsenal have still got to play each other. Anything can happen. There's still seven games to go and we're going to carry on what we're doing and hopefully get closer and closer to the top.’
That’s what it’s all about for Spence at the moment, both personally and collectively. Keep calm and carry on.