Players: Clare Wheatley

Clare Wheatley: Buccaneering left-back who overcame injury to become an Arsenal icon

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Born: 4 February 1971, Kingston upon Thames

Position: Left-back

Debut: Croatia (A) 18 April 1996

Occupation: PE teacher (1996)

Ten years as a player and ten more as an off-field exec have made Clare Wheatley part of the furniture at Arsenal Ladies. Women’s Football Archive looks back at the once-capped England international’s career, part of an ongoing quest to profile EVERY woman to have played for England…

Londoner Wheatley got her start in five-a-side football before being taken on at locally-based giants of the day Friends of Fulham. But an enforced hiatus arrived when her prissy grammar school slapped its pupils with a football-ban.

Undeterred, she re-emerged with Sheffield Wednesday, while in South Yorkshire for her PE Teacher training course at Sheffield City Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University).

Back in the Big Smoke after graduation, Wheatley signed for Chelsea WFC in summer 1993. Chelsea boss Tony Farmer discerned leadership qualities and immediately handed her the team captaincy.

While Sheffield Wednesday had been jockeying for promotion to the National Premier League, Chelsea were in only their second year of existence and languishing in the lower echelons of the regional Greater London League.

Billed as Clare Stevens, Wheatley scored on her league debut in a 2–0 win at Leyton Orient on 26 September 1993. She became a fixture in Chelsea’s number 8 shirt and won over fans with her high energy and consistent goal threat from midfield.

More eye-catching displays for Chelsea saw Wheatley and prolific Julie Newell spirited away to national champions Arsenal Ladies’ pre-season training camp in 1995.

Crocked left-back Michelle Curley had been with Arsenal since their 1987 inception and rose from being one of the first ever female YTS players to playing for England. But an extended spell on the sidelines left her spot in the team open for Wheatley.

Manager Vic Akers famously warned his charges that “Arsenal Ladies is not a social club”. Wheatley soon bought into this ethos and became a trusted on-field lieutenant. She could “only stomach one episode” of bawdy 90s TV show Playing The Field.

In Arsenal’s German-style 3–5–2 there was an onus on the wing-backs to get forward. So Wheatley and Kirsty Pealling on the other flank conducted most of their business in the opposition half.

Wheatley’s Gunners league debut came in the rarefied environs of Anfield on 2 September 1995. The team rattled six unanswered goals past hapless 15-year-old debutante Rachel Brown in the Liverpool goal.

England manager Ted Copeland was casting about for a left-back and wasted no time in drafting Wheatley into the setup for the Euro 1997 qualifying campaign.

She entered the honoured ranks of England internationals as a substitute in England’s tricky away tie in Osijek, Croatia on 18 April 1996.

England won 2–0 thanks to strikes from Wheatley’s former Owls team-mate Vicky Exley, her first for England, and Kelly Smith. The match was notable for the debut of Mary Phillip and – shamefully – a pre-pubescent boy aiming a Nazi salute at black England star Hope Powell.

Disaster struck for Wheatley in April 1997 during a 6–0 win over understrength Millwall Lionesses. After tapping up Wembley’s Kelly Smith at Christmas time – already the best player in the country – Arsenal had romped to the league title.

Meanwhile Millwall were ploughing through a monster fixture pile-up in preparation for the Cup final on 4 May. It was a dead rubber fixture with a terrible outcome for Wheatley: the universally dreaded ACL knee injury.

She sat out the entire 1997–98 campaign and could not do her day job teaching PE. But better news arrived when Vic Akers got the gig as the men’s team’s kitman. This left a vacancy for a club development officer role which Wheatley delightedly snaffled.

After knee reconstruction surgery, Wheatley was back for 1998–99. She crowned her return with the killer second goal in Arsenal’s Cup final win over Southampton Saints at The Valley.

By admission, Wheatley had always battled fragile confidence – especially after her injury. She was destined never to win a second cap.

Mentally she held back the extra 2–3% needed to be a top international player. She remained a functional part of the Arsenal juggernaut without ever putting the hammer down and going hell for leather.

Wheatley was briefly forced into playing retirement in August 2001, after being wiped out by Doncaster Belles keeper Leanne Hall in the Charity Shield match at Kingsmeadow.

Hall presented Wheatley with a bouquet of flowers at the teams’ next meeting – a touch of class typical of the Belles.

Irrepressible Wheatley battled back again to represent the Gunners in the new-fangled UEFA Women’s Cup. She scooped a third FA Women’s Cup winner’s medal in 2004 and finally hung up her boots after bringing up a decade at the club in 2005.

“I’m now a team-mate of Lianne Sanderson and I can remember her in nappies – she calls me ‘Mum’ and when that happens it’s time to hang the boots up.”

When Arsenal Ladies godfather Vic Akers quit his General Manager role with the team in 2014, Wheatley was promoted into his shoes.

Right to Reply: Farmer on Stoney

Chelsea founder Tony Farmer sets the record straight

In March 2015, Women’s Football Archive published Casey Stoney: The Early Years. Now Chelsea founder and ex-boss Tony Farmer has taken the time to get in touch and point out some major shortcomings in the article. Tony hasn’t pulled any punches in patiently laying out the truth, dismantling a string of factual errors and calling out some downright baloney. His comments are reproduced here in full…

An interesting read unfortunately full of accusations and factual inaccuracies. It’s a shame that an article that was supposed to be about Casey Stoney ended up being one having a pop at Chelsea Ladies FC and me personally.

Casey Stoney came to Chelsea after a work colleague who saw her playing in a local little league tipped me off. I went to watch her and what I saw was a player who stood out and dominated the game. I approached Casey’s mother Sandra and explained I would like her to join Chelsea and that I thought she was good enough and strong enough for the club. I had to apply for dispensation from the Greater London Women’s League to play her due to her age. Casey’s parents were fully supportive. Then for the next two seasons drove Casey to and from training and matches. To say Casey suffered a 2nd season syndrome would be wrong. We lost six players and had big injury problems. Casey’s performance never dipped and it was a massive blow to lose her for 6 weeks.

With regards to the formation of Chelsea Ladies Football Club, it did take a year, but anyone who knows me would know that I bow and scrape to nobody, especially Ken Bates. One of the reasons for the time was Chelsea wanted me to get my FA Coaching Badge which I did. There were protracted talks about the shape of the club. They wanted the team to be a Chelsea supporters’ team. I explained if that’s what they wanted then I was the wrong man for the job. I wanted a successful team not a social club. I won that one. Chelsea also needed convincing that I was not looking for money from them as the club was actually surviving on donations from supporters, raising money from Save the Bridge bins all around the ground. Then there were also legal documents to be drawn up removing the club from any liability for matters concerning the women’s team.

As for the accusations that imply we in some way pressured or bullied the League to gain entry straight into Division 3 and then accelerated promotion to Division 1 are completely untrue and insulting to the players who worked so hard to gain success. Our entry to the 3rd Division was because the team was formed out of Bedfont Utd players mainly and the League’s belief that with the players we may attract as Chelsea would make us too strong for Division 4. There was no Division 5 back then. With restructuring of the Leagues no team was relegated or denied promotion by us joining.

As for our accelerated promotion to Division 1 accusations of us doing a Man City and dancing on the grave of sporting integrity is untrue and insulting. A team from the Premier Division were promoted to the National League South. Three teams were promoted from Division 1, but when they offered the 3rd team in Division 2 the extra spot in Division 1 they and subsequently all of the remaining teams did not fancy the jump in standard. As after missing promotion by one point in our first season and then going unbeaten in the league winning 16 and drawing 2 scoring 82 goals along the way, as well as beating teams from higher divisions in the cups. The League asked if we would be willing to make the jump. Never one to shirk a challenge after discussions with the players we decided to go for it. It was a calculated risk and I know there were many in the top two divisions and the League committee that loved the fact as they were all certain we would get relegated and slow our momentum. They were wrong as we again won promotion to the Premier at the first attempt. To suggest that we put pressure on the League to accelerate us through the divisions is both preposterous and incredibly insulting to the players who literally gave blood sweat and tears to achieve the success they so richly deserved. It’s preposterous because we had no power over such matters. We had the name Chelsea but anyone who thinks we were a wealthy club should look at the club’s accounts before making wild claims.

The name change from Women’s to Ladies was suggested by Ken Bates and we were more than happy to do so. To say we were threatened with removal of the Chelsea name on this matter is incorrect. We did face that threat which was made at Eurofest 96 just before we played Man Utd at the Bridge. That was over an advert in our programmes for The Chelsea Independent Supporters Association who often had run ins with him. That advert paid for us to produce colour programmes which in turn raised money towards pitches. I informed him that without the money that the CISA paid the club would cease to exist so he agreed to match it and have the club’s advert in its place. That meant a very awkward conversation with one of our main sponsors but fortunately they understood our position. It was a sad and embarrassing moment in the club’s history as we only achieved what we did in those first years because of the fantastic support of the CISA and Booth White. The fact that we were Chelsea Ladies FC in a lot of ways made our progress harder because of other clubs’ jealousy over incorrect assumptions that we were bankrolled by the club added to their incentive to beat us. It should also be noted that Chelsea FC could not stop anyone calling themselves Chelsea only use of the badge. Chelsea is a place name and therefore cannot be copyrighted or exclusive rights claimed.

Your reproduction of a part of an article and photos in our programme (without permission) is then completely out of context and claiming I was berating the players publicly is incorrect. Do you honestly believe we would have achieved what we did if I was constantly having a go at players? I always believed in positive criticism not negativity. We had an amazing togetherness and an unbreakable team spirit that others couldn’t replicate. I started the Chelsea Ladies Football Club Players Group on Facebook earlier this year which has around 60 members which reinforces that point. I cannot remember a single player ever leaving the club because of my behaviour, but if that is not the case I am sure that some of my ex players will put me right.

Now to your description of me as being ‘Madcap’ is interesting as you do not know me or have ever spoken to me. If being Madcap is convincing a club like Chelsea who I have supported for over 40 years, whose fans had a terrible reputation back then to start a Women’s football team. If it’s even wanting to be involved in women’s football when it faced massive prejudices at that time then maybe I was, otherwise I’m not sure what you mean.

You also said I must have done something right to bring through two of England’s greatest players. All I did was bring them to Chelsea and gave them a chance to develop and express their talents. As far as Fara Williams is concerned I had virtually nothing to do with her other than when the opportunity arose to see our U14’s play. Then all I could do was marvel at her skills and marvellous talent at such a tender age. Although she played a few games for the senior teams her development was with Nick Skilton who managed the U14’s and Steven Leacock Reserve and then 1st Team manager when I retired. Casey Stoney’s development was down to her inner belief, natural talent and total desire to be the best. What she has achieved in the game is down to her not me. As a coach and manager all you can do with players especially at such a young age is guide them, encourage them to use their talents, to not be afraid to make mistakes but to learn from them and to have 100% belief in their ability and make their dreams come true. The most important advice I gave to any player is never listen to people who are negative and tell you you cannot make dreams reality. Casey and Fara were destined for great things before they came to Chelsea. A fool could have seen that. All I did was give them a platform to develop on.

You finish by saying how many potential players didn’t make it because of my attitude or ‘my hothouse glare’. I would point out that in 5 seasons in charge, starting from scratch 3 players from that time, Casey, Fara and Clare Wheatley became full internationals which isn’t bad for a team that was outside the National League. But I would be appalled if that was the case. If I destroyed a potential international player’s career because of how I coached then my whole time in women’s football was a total failure and for that I apologise and hang my head in shame.

It is very clear that if anyone should be hanging their head in shame it is not Tony, but this website! Almost every important aspect of the article was WRONG. That hurts but needs to be made very clear. Pleading mitigation, the intent behind the offending article was to be positive. And the lack of coverage in women’s football does make it hard to cobble together scraps 20+ years later – never mind weave them into a coherent narrative.

But these are no excuses. Tony’s service and achievements in the game deserve respect, not badly-written drivel, playing fast and loose with the facts. Especially in what was a proud week for Chelsea who locked horns with Wolfsburg in the UEFA Champions League last 16. Thanks are due to Tony for the firm but fair rebuttal. Also a genuine apology both to Tony and any other readers let down by the original piece.

This website is a labour of love and always strives to tell stories fairly and accurately. Rubbing the subjects of these stories up the wrong way is a failure that goes to the very heart of the site’s purpose. If anyone else is irked by any deficiencies in any other article please get in touch like Tony did and it will be put right. The original Casey Stoney article will be corrected very shortly.

Casey Stoney: The Early Years

The making of a champion: England and GB captain Casey Stoney

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A look back at Casey Stoney’s start in the game with Chelsea: where England’s durable ex-skipper forged the mental toughness which separates good players from great ones.

UPDATE: article amended on 14 November 2015 to reflect new information. See corrections and clarifications below.

Archaic FA laws saw Stoney booted out of her boy’s team at 11. She spent a wasted year in park football before pitching up at Chelsea WFC.

Sources remain divided about exactly how the move came about.

Either Stoney’s mum Sandra contacted the club through the local council, or Chelsea’s boss Tony Farmer spotted her charging about in the park.

[Photo removed by request]

Anyhow, she arrived as a spindly 12-year-old: a girl with a future in a woman’s world.

She burst into the first team in 1995–96, plundering seven goals from 19 games as Chelsea’s stylish number 10.

In 1996–97 Stoney found goals harder to come by, netting just twice.

She sat out six weeks of the campaign with injured ankle ligaments, a souvenir of her first meeting with the tough-tackling Millwall Lionesses.

Farmer was a master motivator who did not shirk from applying stick as well as carrot. In his programme notes he criticised his young team for their “woeful” lack of goals from midfield:

One of the reasons our return from midfield has been so poor is the reluctance of players to get forward into the danger areas when the opportunity has arisen and that has resulted in chances going begging. — Tony Farmer, “Talking Tactics” 24 April 1997

Meanwhile, England boss Ted Copeland was conducting a countrywide talent-trawl. He hoped to turn up skilful youngsters to replace his golden oldies.

Chelsea sent Stoney along to a trial where the verdict was a polite but firm “not good enough”.

All this added up to a heavy burden to heap on any 14-year-old’s slender shoulders.

Most angsty teens only have school exams, spots and having to tidy their room to sulk about!

These knocks may have derailed a lesser character but only added to Stoney’s confidence. Not confidence in an arrogant sense, but a level-headed and respectful inner belief in her capabilities.

Reborn as a defender, she famously battled her way into the England reckoning and stayed there, also playing her way to the top at club level.


Factfile: Chelsea Ladies

Women’s football scribe Cathy Gibb recalls a strong Chelsea team from bygone days: “What about the great Pat Budd days and her Chelsea team mates in the late 70’s and early 80’s who were quite a force to be reckoned with.”

Tony Farmer got the naming rights for a new Chelsea WFC in 1992, after a year of tough negotiations with Chelsea’s larger-than-life owner Ken Bates.

Farmer had been around the local circuit with Palace Eagles and Bedfont United. He drafted in Dave Impett as his trusty lieutenant.

The duo successfully badgered the Greater London League into letting Chelsea straight into Division Three, not the Division Five basement.

When they won Division Three at the second time of asking, the League parachuted them up into Division One for 1994–95.

But finishing second that season they entered the Premier Division for 1995–96, only for injuries to bite and Arsenal to nick a couple of their better players in Julie Newell and Clare Wheatley.

That was the football context into which young Stoney was thrust.

In summer 1996, wacky Ken Bates decreed that the ‘Women’ must become ‘Ladies’.


Verdict:

While Stoney blossomed in Chelsea’s shop window, a young seedling named Fara Williams was germinating in the club’s reserves.

Madcap boss Tony Farmer was clearly doing something right to bring through TWO of England’s all-time top talents.

But how many other potential world-beaters might have wilted under the hothouse glare?


Corrections and clarifications:

This article in its original form contained a number of inaccuracies, which have been corrected in the light of new evidence. Variously:

  • That “bowing and scraping” to Ken Bates was involved setting up the Chelsea women’s club.
  • That Stoney suffered “second season syndrome” (i.e. a loss of form) in 96–97.
  • That Chelsea’s elevation through the Greater London League’s divisions was akin to Man City’s artificial insertion into the WSL – and further that it “danced on the grave of sporting integrity”. In fact Chelsea were not moved up at other clubs’ expense, partly due to league reconstruction and partly because rival clubs promoted on sporting merit had refused their own places at the higher level.
  • That Ken Bates threatened removal of rights to the Chelsea name over the Women/Ladies nomenclature. Actually the dispute was over the women’s club’s links to their main sponsor, the Chelsea Independent Supporters Association (CISA), who Bates hated. In any case he could only remove the rights to club branding, not the name “Chelsea”. This may explain why the 1990–91 Greater London Premier Division had a team named Chelsea, as well as a Spurs AND a Tottenham!
  • That direct criticism of the team in the matchday programme notes amounted to “public berating”.
  • Any (indirect) implication that Chelsea enjoyed a financial advantage over rival teams, or did not enjoy good team spirit, was unintentional.