‘I was proud to wear an England shirt – but saving lives is best job in the world’
Rachel Unitt, the England footballer turned firefighter, has achieved an ambition she set herself as a teenager
Ihave wanted to work for the fire brigade since I was 15 and went to my local fire station in Walsall for work experience while I was at school. I just knew that was what I wanted to do once I left football. More than 20 years later, at 36, I joined Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service. What was I doing all that time? I went to two World Cups, three European Championships, and won more than 100 England caps.
Growing up, football was a big part of my life. A day did not go by when I was not kicking something around; a stone in the street, a crushed drinks can or a football. Women’s football was not very popular when I was young. I played in school and for a local team, where there were only three teams in our league. Opportunities were slim. I did not even know if an England team existed until I saw them play on television when I was 15. From that day it was my dream to play for England.
My life changed when I was 16 and moved to Wolves Ladies. My manager put me forward to attend an England Under-18s trial and I was successful, scoring five goals in 18 games. It was during my first season with Everton a year later that I was invited to attend an England senior training camp. I made my debut at left-back in August 2000 and then moved to Fulham Ladies, the first and only side in the country to be full time.
It was during my second stint at Everton in 2005 where the women’s game started taking off. After hosting the Women’s European Championship, in which TV audiences totalled nearly nine million across three England matches, the Football Association awarded 20 players central contracts to allow players to devote all of our time to football, training 20 hours and more a week. It meant I no longer had to juggle work and football.
We have a fully professional league now, the Women’s Super League, which is one of the best leagues out there, attracting players from all over the world. Opportunity is a lot greater now, not just on the pitch but off it, too, with many former women footballers commentating on the men’s and women’s game and taking part in reality TV shows.
My football career took a turn for the worse in 2013 when I sustained my first anterior cruciate ligament injury, which took me out of the game for 14 months. I returned hoping to work my way back into the England squad but things did not go to plan and, four months later, I ruptured my other knee.
It was during rehab that I started to lose the drive and motivation to get back to the top. I was 33 and ultimately had fallen out of love with the game and wanted to focus on the next chapter of my life. I signed off from my England career in 2013 with 102 caps and eight goals, something I will always be proud of.
The dream of becoming a firefighter never left me. While I was at Birmingham, I applied to work for the West Midlands Fire Service – but did not get past the first hurdle. For the next five years, I worked as a teaching assistant in a special needs school, but I knew I was not going to give up.
Two years ago, I applied for a 15-week intensive training course at the headquarters of Staffordshire Fire and Rescue. As a footballer, pretty much everything you learn is transferable to firefighting, and that is what I wrote in my application. Teamwork is a big one: if you do not communicate in the fire service, whatever incident you are responding to, it could all fall to pieces. You have to have cohesion, trust, honesty – all skills you learn in football.
Last year I became a fully qualified firefighter. The job is very varied. We attend all kinds of incidents: fires, road traffic collisions, flooding, spillages. We rescue animals and we assist the police and paramedics at their incidents. Every shift is different. We don’t know what we will be called out to next.
Pulling on an England shirt was overwhelming and I felt proud and on top of the world. But saving someone’s life, pulling them out of a house fire or cutting them out of a car? There is no better feeling. That is why it is the best job in the world.
International career: Rachel Unitt won 102 caps and scored eight goals for England