• England’s best ever female footballers have close to a thousand caps to their names

  • Three of our heroines of the beautiful game helped grow women’s football in its infancy

  • Three of the top four greatest English players of all-time are Arsenal legends

As women’s football continues to grow in stature and popularity perhaps it’s high time we celebrated the greatest English players who have done more than most to make the sport a modern-day phenomenon.

10) Sheila Parker

There may be more than nine players – particularly from the modern game – with greater ability than the centre-back but very few can surpass Parker’s immense influence on the sport, as it strode into an era of professionalism.

England’s first ever captain won six Division One titles with two different clubs, but she is chiefly recalled for leading little Fodens – formerly a works team from Sandbach - to an extraordinary Women’s FA Cup triumph in 1974 over much-fancied Southampton. Truly, it was an upset of upsets.

Inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2013, her lifelong dedication to the sport moved it several steps forward. Parker was recognised by the FA as one of the country's 'legacy players' in 2022. 

9) Rachel Yankey

An impactful attacker with a blistering turn of pace, Yankey represented her country 129 times and was a pivotal figure in Team GB’s Olympic quest in 2012.

Across 15 years and two different spells with Arsenal Ladies, the proud Londoner won six Premier League titles and averaged a goal every three games.

Successful seasons were also enjoyed with Fulham and the New Jersey Wildcats.

Always exciting to watch and always willing to take on her opposite number, one of the surest football bets was that the full-back would be beaten, trailing in the wake of the flying winger.

8) Steph Houghton

Current captain of Manchester City and former England skipper, Houghton is widely admired for her leadership qualities and defensive acumen, while off the pitch she is one of the most popular figures in women’s football.

In 2014, she became the first female footballer to grace the cover of Shoot magazine, and such is her heightened status from making 121 appearances for her country the classy centre-back can lay claim to being a household name.

All of this, while playing for the richest club in the world, has ensured that the North-East star is among the highest paid female footballers in the UK. In March 2024, Houghton announced her plans to retire from football at the end of the 2023-24 season.

7) Carol Thomas

In 2021, Thomas was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame, an honour that felt long-overdue for a winger-turned-defender who did more than anyone in pushing the women’s game forward.

Bet Calculator

At the age of just 21, the Hull-born star was handed the England captaincy, a position she remarkably held for over 26 years, as the Lionesses reached seven consecutive international tournaments, with Thomas playing in every game.

She is one of only four players to captain England to a major final, the others being Sir Bobby Moore, Faye White and Harry Kane.

Off the pitch, the keen hill-walker – who in retirement has trekked across the Andes and Himalayas – was a true pioneer, promoting womens’ football when it was a little-known entity.

6) Gillian Coultard

Before the sport turned professional, Coultard would work long hours on a production line in a Castleford factory then turn out for Doncaster Belles each weekend, a superstar of the fledging game.

Considered by former England boss Hope Powell to be a ‘genuinely world class player’ the highly respected box-to-box midfielder was the first female to reach the landmark of 100 caps for England, at a time in the late-nineties when the feat was rare and exceptional.

Indeed, the only other players to do this back then were Billy Wright, Bobby Charlton, Bobby Moore and Peter Shilton. That’s fine company to be in for sure.

5) Jill Scott

Straight-of-back and patrolling every square inch of the pitch, the midfielder nicknamed ‘Crouchy’ by her team-mates for her tall frame has lifted a trio of League Cups and FA Cups apiece with Manchester City while scoring 27 goals in an incredible 161 appearances for England.

A competitive long-distance runner in her youth, Scott used her stamina to good effect for Everton before switching to the ‘mini-Etihad’ in 2014 whereupon her levels and reputation rose even higher.

She has unquestionably been one of the finest all-action talents in women’s football this past decade.

4) Casey Stoney

In May 2021, Stoney surprisingly stepped down as Manchester United manager, taking her coaching credentials to San Diego on America’s west coast.

It was as a player however, where the Basildon-born defender really made her name, a stalwart of the Arsenal side from the turn of the Millenium that has to go down as one of the best women’s football teams in recent times.

With the Gunners, Stoney won back-to-back Premier League National Division titles, surrounded by half of the England set-up.

Away from the action, the former national skipper received overwhelming support in 2014 when she publicly came out. Stoney and her long-term partner have three children, the eldest twins.

3) Marieanne Spacey

The attacking midfielder was a generational talent who helped bring silverware in abundance to Arsenal and Fulham Ladies throughout the Nineties and early 2000s.

Spells in Italy and Finland broadened her repertoire of skills, all of which greatly aided England as they embarked on their first World Cup campaign in 1995. Naturally, Spacey ran the show and scored in the opening game.

Her propensity to fire home long-range efforts may have Spacey forever pegged as a spectacular player and she undoubtedly was that.

But really, her most substantial gift was her footballing intelligence which made everything she did appear off-the-cuff and natural.

2) Fara Williams

Williams was just 17 when she won her first England cap. An astounding 176 subsequent appearances followed for her country.

This incredible haul doesn’t solely explain why the midfielder is regarded as a bona fide legend of women’s football, a player widely known as ‘Queen Fara’.

Nor do the league titles with Liverpool, or the two International Player of the Year awards in her medal’s drawer. Not even her sublime touch and unerring vision fully shines a light on why the 40-year-old is so hugely respected.

It's because when the likeable Londoner was 17, and gaining international recognition, she was homeless, and remained so for six years.

To overcome such obstacles and reach the very top makes her story a remarkable one. Almost as remarkable as Queen Fara.

1) Kelly Smith

If the former Arsenal forward was still playing today, she would be a real favourite of those who like to partake in in play betting.

At any given moment, in any give game, Smith could produce a moment of magic, usually taking the form of a lethally struck shot – from either foot – that would have the keeper flailing.

Across three spells with the Gunners, the Watford-born hit-woman won every major trophy several times over while on the international stage her prolificacy was phenomenal, bagging 46 goals in 117 outings.

There were also successful stints in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Boston as England shared its finest ever talent with the world.

*Credit for the photos in this article belongs to Alamy*

Stephen Tudor is a freelance football writer and sports enthusiast who only knows slightly less about the beautiful game than you do.

A contributor to FourFourTwo and Forbes, he is a Manchester City fan who was taken to Maine Road as a child because his grandad predicted they would one day be good.