Clare Wheatley: Buccaneering left-back who overcame injury to become an Arsenal icon
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Born: 4 February 1971, Kingston upon Thames
Debut: Croatia (A) 18 April 1996
Occupation: PE teacher (1996)
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 local 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.