“I’m not saying I deserve to be in the England squad but I think I deserve to have been given a chance,” says Drew Spence, Chelsea’s longest serving player. A new two-year contract signed in March will take the 27-year-old into her 13th year with the club. Plenty of players have been ditched by Emma Hayes, with the manager unsentimental in her quest for success, but Spence, the only player to have been at the club longer than Hayes, remains firmly in the manager’s plans.
It is a huge vote of confidence for the midfielder, yet the respect of one of the most experienced club managers in the game, two league titles, a Spring Series trophy, two FA Cups and, this year, the team’s first League Cup, have not been enough to earn her a place in Phil Neville’s England squad.
Spence admits “the squad is difficult to get in, especially my position, because there’s so many good midfielders in England. It’s tough”. However with defenders such as Lucy Bronze and Leah Williamson filling in in midfield and formations tweaked game by game to try to compensate for injuries, the inability of Spence to get a look-in seems odd.
“Phil’s not spoken to me once,” says the softly spoken Spence, with no anger but a tinge of disappointment. “To not be given that chance makes me question: ‘Is it because of what happened?’ I think it is because of what happened, if I’m totally honest.”
Spence is referring to her involvement in the Mark Sampson racism case. In 2017, when her then Chelsea teammate Eni Aluko spoke to the Guardian about her treatment after taking part in an anonymous questionnaire on the culture within the national team, Spence was pulled into the ring as the unnamed player who, while the only player of colour in the room, had been asked by Sampson how many times she had been arrested. Initially Spence stayed quiet before writing to the FA to confirm Aluko’s account of the event.
After a very public and messy series of investigations, the FA “sincerely apologised” to both Spence and Aluko. The latter did not play for England again, but with more than 100 caps and the end of her career a bit closer she was aware she had less to lose by speaking out.
Spence, who was 25 and had attended only one England camp, under Sampson, stayed quiet in an attempt to protect her position. “The reason I didn’t speak out straight away was because I was worried,” she says. “I was stressed at the time. There was a lot going on behind closed doors. My main concern was whether it would affect me playing for my country. I’m happy with the decision I took – I didn’t speak out then, it wouldn’t have been right.”
She has had one call-up since, for the squad’s training camp in La Manga in the immediate aftermath under the interim manager Mo Marley, but she is a little sceptical of the intent behind her selection, speculating over whether it was to make the FA “look good in the media”. The FA said in a statement on Friday that “players are only ever picked on merit and all English players in the WSL are watched and considered for selection”.
Reflecting on the situation triggers a little frustration, but for now Spence is relaxed about her international future. Why? Because at Chelsea she has Hayes’s trust and feels valued. “Right now I’m not losing any sleep over it,” she says. “I’ve got a good career at Chelsea, we’re winning titles, we’re challenging every season, so I’m happy with my status at the moment.”
Her life at Chelsea is by no means a walk in the park. Staying in Hayes’s plans is tough. She had eight league starts this season – she started 15 games in 2018-19 – before it was halted by the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s difficult for me because a lot of people always write me off,” she says. “Every year, I’ve got to push myself. I know there’s going to be signings coming in every year.
“Emma’s made that clear every season really, to make sure that the squad is pushing again and pushing to another level. It’s just really believing in myself, making sure I’m doing everything right in training every day and competing with the players that come in.”
Hayes’s “honesty” in telling her where she needs to improve, and her willingness to adapt and take it on board, is the secret to her longevity at the club. “Emma can rely on me to be put in wherever she’s needed me,” Spence says. “I’ve played higher and lower. I’ve even played out wide sometimes, which is definitely not my game. Emma always wants a player that can play in different positions so she makes you adapt.”
Hayes prides herself on building teams of leaders, of finding the “right players”, and that approach has yielded trophies. Before the season was suspended, Chelsea were one point behind Manchester City with a game in hand and a domestic treble in their sights having lifted the League Cup in February.
The desire for the missing piece, that elusive Champions League, is huge, says Spence: “We were so unlucky last year not to make the final [Chelsea lost 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals to Lyon]. Some people say that you make your own luck but we should’ve made the final with the chances that we created.
“Obviously, not being in the Champions League this year was even more frustrating. If we don’t win it in the next two years I feel like it’ll be a massive failure to be honest, because the team we have at the moment can easily win the Champions League. I think everyone knows that.”