Creative Soccer Culture

Jenna Schillaci On Her Journey & Playing At The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

Club captain and 11-year veteran. Safe to say that Jenna Schillaci has experienced most things with Tottenham Hotspur, from the lows of barely being able to raise a team to the highs of promotion to the Women’s Super League. But on Sunday she’ll have a new experience to add to the list as she leads the team out at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the first time ever as they take on Arsenal in the North London Derby.

The new Tottenham Hotspur stadium is incredible by any standards, and standing in it when it’s empty only adds to its ultimate grandeur. And it’s something that life-long Spurs fan Jenna Schillaci must be only too aware of as we sit down to talk ahead of this weekend’s game. Not that you’d know it from her calm and controlled demeanour…

To start can you give us a bit of a run down of your journey in the game so far, from where you started to now playing here?

I started playing just in the streets with my brother, or in the garden. I just had to follow them around. I had two brothers and at the time there was no girl’s teams in my area. I couldn’t join the boy’s team at the time so my Dad set up a club locally, at my brother’s club. I had to bribe all my friends to come and join it, just so we could play!

From there I went on to join Tottenham at 16. I went and my Dad came with me, so that last team folded. And then I played at Tottenham at 16 in the first team, and everyone was a lot older than me because there was no player-pathway at the time. It was youth and then straight into women’s football.

I left there and went to Uni and then I came back to Tottenham 11 years ago and I’ve been here ever since. It’s been a massive journey when I think of where I started, playing on a local playing field to now playing at one of the best stadiums in the world. Quite incredible.

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Your story is evidence of how much the women’s game has developed over the years…

Definitely. Just being at Tottenham I’ve seen how much it has grown and how big the club has got in itself. And now the opportunities that young girls have is just incredible. If they dream of being a footballer then the opportunity is there, whereas before I never in a million years would have dreamed of being a professional footballer. But I am one now and it’s just incredible. We’re now role models for the next generation and hopefully we’ll inspire the next group of girls coming though.

Can you paint us a picture of the physical differences, from changing rooms to having to wear men’s clothes to what it is now?

Well when my Dad ran the team we didn’t have changing rooms. We used to just turn up, play and then go home. Then when I played at Tottenham when I first joined we were playing in a dated men’s kit, so it was from two seasons before. It was down to your ankles and it didn’t fit at all. So, yeah, now it’s incredible. We get treated equally and everything is put on for us. We’ve come a long way from thinking of the changing rooms that I have been in to being here on Sunday – it really shows how far we’ve come.

What kind of personal sacrifices have you had to go through to get here? You must have seen so many highs and lows along the way?

There’s obviously been a lot of highs and lows, but the highs totally outshine the lows that we’ve been through. I started off playing just for fun – I’m a massive Spurs fan as well – and I just loved playing. All I ever wanted to do was play. Then the team – and all of it really – just started getting a lot more competitive. We started winning things, and when we started winning I kind of got the hunger and I just wanted to win and see how far I could go. 

So to go from just playing for fun we went to semi-professional when we got promotion to the WSL, where we had to balance training three nights a week, working full-time, so Monday to Friday, trying to fit in your friends and family, which you couldn’t really do at the time – our team was our family. We spent so much time together. So from that to now being full-time professional, yeah, I’ve had to work very hard and there’s been times when I’ve wanted to quit and retire and all sorts, but I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve had a good group of coaches that have always talked sense into me. It’s just a great place to be. Yeah there’s been lows, but the highs outweigh them.

My Dad set up a club locally. I had to bribe all my friends to come and join it, just so we could play!"
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Does it feel like you’re part of a new era or a new chapter for the women’s game, and how does that feel?

It’s an incredible feeling, especially having been involved in women’s football for so long. Seeing these big grounds and these amazing attendances and the interest, which just keeps growing; I really thing this is just the start. The buzz around the WSL at the moment is incredible and I feel like we’ve come in at the right time. It just seems to be growing.

What are your highs and lows, are there particular moments that stand out?

So the lows, I remember that when you’re playing for fun, girls would drop out at the last minute, and you’re turning up to matches and you’ve barely got 11 players. There was one season and we were battling relegation and we had some players that just didn’t turn up at the weekend, and it wasn’t helping our cause. I just remember speaking to Juan [Amoros] and saying I just can’t do this anymore, because half of us were fully committed. It’s understandable, because it wasn’t a job, it was just for fun, but I always put everything into it, 100 percent. And then he talked me out of it and we stayed in that league, and then from that moment on we just went up and up and up. So that was a low.

During every season there’s lows – it’s football, it happens. You can play amazing one week and then the next week have the worst match of your life, but it’s just sticking at it, working hard and then just making sure you enjoy it, because the moment you stop enjoying it, everything just becomes ten times harder.

Obviously the highs: winning promotion at the old White Hart Lane stadium. That was a massive high for us. Then last season gaining promotion to the WSL.

Growing up you will have seen games being played out in these stadiums, and now you’re playing in them. How does it feel?

My family had season tickets and I used to love it, I literally counted down the days to match day. I was obsessed with Ginola at the time so I used to come in and watch him do all his set pieces, corners before the matches. But it’s incredible, I do remember sitting there and thinking that I’d never get the chance to play in a stadium like this, and then we ended up winning the league at White Hart Lane, and now we’re days away from playing at the best stadium in the world.

I was obsessed with Ginola at the time so I used to come in and watch him do all his set pieces before the matches"
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It must feel pretty amazing from your dad, having helped you and given you that pathway in a sense?

I’m very lucky, because I’ve got a very supportive family. As I said, I’ve got two brothers and Mum and Dad just spent all weekend taking us everywhere for football. They’ve been with me every step of the way. My brothers are massive Spurs fans as well, so they’re just really proud. And it makes me proud as well.

What does it say about the position of the women’s game now that you’re playing games here?

I think it’s a massive statement of how far we’ve come. And it’s due to a lot of hard work from people in the past and it’s going to take a lot more work to maintain it and improve it as well. But it just shows you that the interest is there. Girl’s football is increasing I think and it’s just a massive thing for women’s football. This weekend there’s three big games at three big stadiums. I think it’s important that the people that do come to support us then come back to our home grounds to support us as well. Just keep the fanbase and interest building. 

11 years is bordering on legendary status…

It doesn’t feel like 11 years. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime, sometimes it feels like it was yesterday. 

Does it feel like you’re leaving a mark in what you do?

I never really thought of it like that, but I think the minute it hit home was the first match of the season, where we played at Stamford Bridge, and standing in that tunnel, for the first time I could hear actual chants being sung in the crowd, and it took me back a bit when you think about how far you have come.

We were at that game. It was so refreshing…

Wasn’t it? You could hear the fans singing… it was amazing.

How would you say life has changed when you look back on the last few years?

I think even looking back six years ago, where we were still just playing really for fun. Then you started getting expenses paid for, you’d get your kit. It’s been a long time coming, but now we’re here and everything’s put out for us and all we have to do is go out on a match day and perform, which is how it should be at this level.

The minute we step on that pitch, it’s the performance that matters, so we just have to not let the occasion get to us"
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Do you find that the professionalism is just at another level?

Our level of professionalism probably changed two seasons ago when we were going for promotion. We had to change a lot at the semi-professional level to prepare us for this level. The rest and recovery and the training sessions have all gone up, and the quality each day; it’s all a lot more professional, but it’s the way that we should be and the girls have adapted really well to it. 

How high do you set your aspirations, both on and off the pitch, and what do you want to achieve?

I think for this season our aim is to establish ourselves in this league, which I think we’ve kind of already done already at the moment. We’re competing in every game that we’re taking part in and we’re not here to just make up the numbers. We deserve to be here and we’ve earnt the right to be here and we’ve progressed through the leagues to get here. It’s a career now and some the young girls in the team, I just look at them and I’m just jealous that they’ve got their whole careers ahead of them. The opportunities are endless if they just work hard and keep doing what they’re doing. It’s an amazing opportunity for any young girl out there to just fork hard and it can be a reality. 

With your experience do you see yourself as something of a mentor to the younger girls?

I think we’ve got a really good setup at the club. There’s a group of experienced players, and then you’ve got the young girls coming up who are doing amazing and have got their whole careers ahead of them. So any way that I can help them, I do. 

How do you think you will feel when you’re walking out of that tunnel on Sunday?

It’s going to be an amazing feeling. I’ll just be proud of how far we’ve come. But the minute we step on that pitch, it’s the performance that matters, so we just have to not let the occasion get to us and hopefully come away with a good result.

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Tottenham Hotspur Women v Arsenal Women kicks off at 3pm on Sunday 17 November.

Daniel Jones

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