Rachel Yankey, Rachel Unitt and Emily Westwood on this evening's match against the Czechs.
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England v Czech Republic
Bescot Stadium, Walsall FC
26 May 2005
England’s meeting with the Czech Republic at Walsall FC this evening will literally be a home match for several West Midlands based players, none more so than left back Rachel Unitt - who lives just two miles from Bescot Stadium.
Unitt these days plays for Everton but still lives in Bentley, just outside Walsall, where family and friends will meet on Thursday for the short journey to Bescot and the chance to see the ex-Wolves and Fulham player turn out for her country.
"It’s going to be very special, playing just down the road from home," said the 22 year-old defender.
"I played for England in a game at Birmingham City about three years ago and that was great, but this is going to be even better.
"All my family and lots of friends are going to be at the game. I’ve got 50 to 60 tickets organised so it’s going to be a fantastic experience for me, but it will be for all the other local based girls as well."
One of those local based girls is Birmingham winger Rachel Yankey, who with 53 caps is the most experienced member of the England squad which, 10 days after facing the Czechs, will kick off The UEFA Women’s European Championship finals.
Yankey has played a key role in England’s recent run of eight wins in nine matches, a run that she and her colleagues will want to extend ahead of their opening Euro group fixture against Finland at the City of Manchester Stadium.
Deferring to the other Rachel as the Thursday evening home-girl, however, Yankey quipped: "I think Walsall have re-named one of the stands The Unitt Stand, so she’d better put in a good performance!
"We’ll all be aiming to do that, though - this is a very important game for us, the last one before Women’s Euro 2005 and we want to keep our great run going so we can head into the tournament on a high.
"The run we’ve had has obviously boosted morale, the team has got stronger and the spirit in the camp is tremendous. Everybody gets on together, we’re all helping each other and that’s why we’re gelling so well as a squad."
There are four Birmingham players in addition to Yankey in the 20-player squad, which includes another Midlander in Wolves’ Emily Westwood, the only squad member from outside the top flight of the FA Nationwide Women’s Premier League.
Having made her senior England debut just three months ago the midfielder is one of the least experienced internationals in the squad. That’s of less consequence to the youngster, however, than the fact that she has made the final cut for the Euros.
As she prepares to win what will be her seventh cap if selected on Thursday, Westwood is delighted if somewhat astounded to be a senior international barely 18 months after recovering from a career threatening cruciate ligament injury.
The 21-year-old Wolves captain said: "I was out of action for a long time and it was a long road back to playing club football, let alone getting into the England squad - two years ago I never imagined this could be happening to me.
"This is my first full season back in action and when Hope Powell involved me in England training camps around Christmas it was a massive bonus for me. But to be here now, playing games for my country, is unbelievable."
By contrast to Westwood, Unitt - even at 22 - is a comparative veteran with 44 caps. "It sounds mad to be one of the most experienced players in the squad at 22," she said, "but the average age has come down a lot in the last few months.
"The confidence in the squad is really high after our recent run and we’ll be aiming to come up with another good performance and result against the Czech Republic, hopefully in front of a big crowd at Bescot Stadium.
"It’s important that we keep things going right the way into the Euro finals, so hopefully we can show local football fans all the qualities that are now part and parcel of the women’s game in this country."