Daily Express

Claire’s out to light blue touchpaper at Wembley

- By Bruce Archer

CLAIRE RAFFERTY remembers when the lights used to go out on Chelsea Ladies during training.

Nine years on, she has seen the no-hopers emerge from the dark ages to become Women’s Super League champions and FA Cup winners.

And on Saturday, they face rivals Arsenal at Wembley bidding to retain their trophy against the most successful side in the history of the competitio­n.

Left-back Rafferty, 27, is Chelsea’s longest-serving player and recalls the days when few at the Cobham training ground had much time for them.

They would train two evenings a week and be plunged into darkness if they overstayed their welcome. No water bottles were provided, access to the changing facilities was not granted and socialisin­g between women’s and men’s sides was non-existent.

“The contrast is absolutely massive,” she said. “When I first started we just used to train on a Tuesday and Thursday evening.

“We used to be last on the 3G pitch – we didn’t get a grass pitch – we used to start about 8 o’clock at night and we were kicked off by 9.30, and if we weren’t off they turned the lights off even if there were still people on the pitch.

“We weren’t allowed in the changing rooms. We were on the backburner and no one really cared. Now [manager] Emma Hayes has done such a great job in moving the club on. We’re full-time, have our own building, we train, we get lunch, we’ve got our own gym – if I wanted to I could probably live there.

“It did feel like we were not part of it, but you can’t really blame them because we weren’t very good then. Especially a club like Chelsea, when they were winning things OUT FROM SHADOWS: Rafferty can retain cup and we were bottom of our league.

“The fact we’ve won has been the most powerful thing. Without that it was hard to fight for investment, but the club has really changed their attitude towards us.”

Now the players see their faces on billboards at train stations, matches are live on TV, they are paid reasonable wages. The standard of women’s football in this country is higher than ever with support booming after England finished third at last summer’s World Cup in Canada. Chelsea are favourites to retain the FA Cup, with 13-time winners Arsenal currently in transition. The Gunners have not won the league for three seasons following nine consecutiv­e championsh­ips.

“They will be desperate to win some kind of silverware. Not winning the league for the last few years, that’s going to wound them, so this is all the more important for them,” Rafferty said.

“They are somewhat the underdog, which is weird but that’s how it is now.”

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