In the most recent episode in our podcast series, I had the pleasure of speaking to former Arsenal, Crystal Palace and Northern Ireland international, Freya Holdaway. This is the longest episode that I have ever recorded and it could’ve continued on for longer as Freya is so eloquent, interesting and knowledgeable.
Freya began by described the early stages of her involvement in football and how she left mixed football and went straight into a women’s side. “Many moons ago fourteen-year-olds could play in the women league! I was quite a skinny kid but I was quite quick so I played quite a lot on the wing. Players would ping me the ball and I would just get my head down and run towards goal.”
At the age of sixteen, Freya successfully trialled for the Arsenal Academy and spent a year there before moving to the United States on a soccer scholarship. During that spell with the Gunners Freya worked with a young up and coming Emma Hayes, someone who she describes as the best coach she’s worked under. “Emma’s achievements speak volumes about her but for me, she was always so good with player management, understanding the person and their needs. I always got on really well with her and have always admired the approach that she takes with players and the game itself.”
With the success of the Women’s Super League, we both agree that it is vital that attention now turns to the women game from the Championship and leagues below so they can also grow and develop. Personally, I fear that the Championship will become fractured unless the whole league is supported to become fully professional in the next twelve months.
Freya told me, “I wonder how good I would have actually been had if I didn’t have to juggle my work career. I got my eight hours of sleep. I ate everything perfectly every day of the week. If I needed the extra gym session then I could fit it in somewhere.
“I think with all of these kids coming through and the way that women’s sport is going, especially with all of these multi-million-pound tv contracts, you need to be able to give people the resources to perform to the best of their ability and you’re not going to be able to do that unless there is some financial benefit for everybody.”
Something that many of this generation’s female footballer will be asking themselves. I find it strange how someone like Freya, an international footballer and playing for an internationally recognised football club, could not be a comfortably paid professional.
Freya explained the me that making her international debut in her mid-twenties definitely helped her with the transition to that level. “I went into it in good form so I had a bit of confidence. Being a centre back I have always liked to organise [my teammates] and I was never afraid of doing that with a group of players because I knew that even if I wasn’t playing well on the ball I could still have an impact on the game.”
After covering the Northern Ireland World Cup qualifiers I have become a fully paid up member of the green army. The nerve-wracking play-off against Ukraine showed that the team are capable of upsetting the form book.
On the boss, Kenny Sheils, Freya told me,”Any time that you talk to him he will always go on and on about how hard the girls have worked. He is very much focused on making sure that the girls are rewarded and praised for the work that they’ve done. Sometimes he doesn’t take the credit he’s due and that is the way he is. He has the greatest amount of respect for everyone that he comes across.”
Something that I echo from my conversations with him in the build-up to the England friendly match. Sheils was polite, honest, humorous and engaging. I felt that he’d have stayed online for as long as it took to speak with every single journalist on the call.
Freya described to me how Sheils has the full trust of the players and how important that is for the team. “Kenny is the perfect person for that group of girls. They trust so much in what they’re doing. He came in and was open and honest from the beginning and the girls appreciated that.
“Everybody wants to win a game of football, no one is going onto the game not to win but you all have to be on the same page, especially if you’re massively the underdogs. You have to all be on the same page for it to all click. I can’t wait to see what happens for them next year in the Euro’s as they will turn people over unexpectedly.”
Freya was sadly forced to retire from football earlier this year. She describes “I had three bad concussions in the space of eighteen months. The first I had a knock on the head with the classic egg on the head. The second I was knocked on the temple, initially, it wasn’t that bad but then I came off the pitch and ended up having two seizures on the side of the pitch.
“The third one wasn’t bad straight away. What has happened was the goalkeeper has kicked the ball out of their hands and as a centre-back I’ve gone to header it but I just didn’t feel right. After that I spent months with my ears ringing, I felt out of it for a long time and needed to take a month off work. I wasn’t looking at a laptop, I was sleeping for twelve hours straight which isn’t like me at all.
“It got to the point where COVID made us have that four month break and I started to feel really good again. It was the best I’d felt in about two years. I felt that this was down to the fact that I wasn’t heading the ball.
“I’ll sit here and say that it was an easy decision now because of the effects but at the time I had hours having conversations with people and days thinking about it. It was the right thing for me to do because if I can’t header a ball from a goal kick without feeling concussed then I shouldn’t be playing anymore.
We discuss this in more depths, including how she has coped since taking the decision, how the game of football is dealing with head injuries and the links to dementia and a little chat about her new dog. The latest episode of the podcast is linked below and available on all leading podcast providers. We encourage you to subscribe to automatically receive future episodes. If you like what you hear then be sure to share this episode and leave a review as it raises our presence within podcast lists.