Today is Rachel Yankey’s birthday. It is possible that there is an entirely new generation of football fans who aren’t aware of just how much of a trailblazer she was. Yankey, who shaved her hair and claimed her name was Ray in order to play for boys’ teams for two years whilst at school, was already an England international of three years standing when she went on loan to Canadian outfit Layal Dynamites, and had a conversation with Gary Mulcahey, then head of community at Fulham, about how Mohamed Al-Fayed – inspired by the 1999 Women’s World Cup in the United States – was about to make the Whites’ the first English professional women’s side.

Yankey dropped two divisions to sign for Fulham becoming England’s first professional female player. Her first season saw the side win every game until they were narrowly beaten in the FA Cup final by the Gunners, but the diminutive winger still insists that painful defeat on the big stage was the best thing to happen to a Fulham side that soon established themselves as a domestic powerhouse. The Whites went on to win the treble in 2002-03, remaining unbeaten in an eighteen-game league season (winning sixteen fixtures, drawing two) as they scored 63 goals and conceded just thirteen, to take the title some eight points ahead of Doncaster Belles. It was some way to finish their first term in the top flight. Yankey, and her fellow WSL Hall of Famer Katie Chapman, both scored as the Belles were beaten 2-1 in the FA Cup final at Selhurst Park and Gaute Haugenes’ side also won the Premier League Cup for good measure.

The Whites went on to win both Cups for a second successive year the following season, but Al-Fayed was already becoming frustrated by the Football Association’s failure to support the establishment of a fully-professional women’s top flight – which had been promised following the 1999 World Cup to give the English game the boost already experienced across the Atlantic. By the end of Yankey’s third season at Fulham, all bar one member of the senior women’s squad had won international honours. Al-Fayed, concerned by the poor form of the men’s side and having been forced by a fans’ campaign to abandon his plans to build luxury housing on Craven Cottage and return Chris Coleman’s team to their historic home, pulled the plug on his professional women’s project in April 2004.

Fulham’s Ladies side soldiered on until 2006 – when the link with the football club was lost. Although the women’s side was supported by the Fulham Foundation for a number of years, the formal link with the football was only re-established following last summer’s academy re-organisation. The successful Fulham women’s side which had swept all before it between 2000 and 2003 swiftly broke up. Yankey went to Birmingham City before rejoining Arsenal and contined to collect major trophies. Alongside former Fulham team-mate Rachel Unitt, she helped the New Jersey Wildcats win their only W-League title whilst on loan in 2005. She remained an inspiration to young boys and girls across the country having delivered online coaching tutorials via the BBC website and went on to win what was then a record 129 England caps as well as represent Great Britain in 2012 Olympics. Rachel, awarded an MBE in 2006 and an OBE in 2014 for her unstinting service to the game, led the London Bees for a year and remains a regular grassroots coach in addition to her role as a football pundit and mentor to many young players.

Yankey has been a regular at Motspur Park and steadfast in her support for Fulham’s women’s side and the development programmes run by Fulham’s foundation and the academy. We wish her happiest of birthdays.

It would be a tremendous indication of how her legacy has empowered the next generation if Fulham Women’s first Craven Cottage fixture since the days when Rachel wore the white shirt – the Capital Cup first round tie against AFC Wimbledon on Sunday 20 November sold out. You can buy your ticket to support Steve Jaye’s side here or by calling the Fulham ticket office on 0203 871 0810 and selecting option one.