My passion for “the beautiful game”

Words by:
Kate Chapman
Featured in:
September 2023

Kate Chapman meets Lincoln City defender Rachael Howes.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Lincoln City defender Rachael Howes when she was selected to help hand out the medals following the Vitality Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium.

Rachael had the privilege of taking the medals up to the Royal Box to be distributed by HRH The Prince of Wales back in May, as part of her involvement with the Royal Air Force’s women’s team.

A crowd of more than 75,000 football fans watched the final in which Chelsea triumphed over Manchester United, following a second-half strike from Sam Kerr. As well as watching the game, Rachael was able to meet some of the players and get an exclusive look behind the scenes.

“It was a huge privilege to be able to take the winners’ medals to the Royal Box and place them for HRH The Prince of Wales and Debbie Hewitt, chairwoman of the Football Association, to present to the Chelsea players,” says Rachael, a corporal in the RAF and vice-captain of the RAF Women’s Representative Team.

“My main thought was just to not trip over while carrying the huge tray of medals. I also didn’t think I’d be shown on TV and given a full introduction from the BBC commentator, which was lovely. We were escorted from our seats midway through the second half to get changed into our military uniforms, there was a TV in the changing room and we noticed we’d missed the goal! It’s always the way when you leave the room!

“I also took my parents, who were proud to see me in the Royal Box, and wife Toni along so she got to high-five all the players as they went up the steps for post-match presentations. I had a few photos with players, including Millie Bright and Mary Earps.

“Seeing behind the scenes of such a huge game was an absolute pleasure – a whole team of people were sorting out medals, trophy ribbons, Champagne and anything else you could think of. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Working on the frontline
Rachael, who grew up in Norwich, joined the RAF when she was 26. As a survival equipment technician, Rachael is based at RAF Coningsby where she works on a frontline Typhoon squadron, making sure that everything the pilots wear, including their helmets, oxygen masks and anti-G jackets, are in working order.

She says the role is quite diverse and she can also be called upon to ensure equipment such as night-vision goggles and parachutes are functioning properly.

“I was quite late joining up, my grandad and uncle were in the army, but we had no members of the RAF in the family,” she explains.

“When I left school I did some bar work at an RAF base in Norfolk, and in my naïvety I just assumed that everyone in the RAF flew. I didn’t want to do that, but I found out that in reality only a very small percentage of members actually fly, the rest help them to do so.

“I ended up doing quite a few different jobs, everything from retail to car manufacturing and in a call centre but then I decided that if I was going to join the RAF, I needed to get on with it.

“That was 10-and-a-half years ago, I’m still here, still enjoying it. It’s provided me with some great opportunities including travel and sport, which both really appeal to me.

“The RAF has taken me to some amazing places including skiing in Bavaria, I’ve been to Sweden, Dubai and Cyprus, as well as numerous other places.”

Team player
Rachael has always loved football. Her passion for kicking a ball around began when she played with her three older brothers.

“I have loved the game ever since I could walk, my whole family loves football, so I didn’t have much choice but as it so happened, I love it too!” she says.

“I used to play with my brothers, but back in the 1990s there weren’t really many girls’ teams about, so I had to join the boys’ ones and was often the only girl playing.

I don’t think it did me any harm though, I had to keep up with them and put in more effort, but it’s amazing to see how things are growing and improving at the moment.”

Rachael played for teams in Norwich and Boston United Ladies before moving to Lincoln City three seasons ago. The team plays in the fourth tier, two leagues below those playing full-time. Rachael has also played for her RAF local unit in a seven-a-side league and the RAF Women’s Representative Team since joining up.

“The representative team gets together every month for three days’ training and plays games against tier three and four sides,” says Rachael.

“The season ends in March, and we also play inter-services matches against the Royal Navy and Army – these are the ones everyone wants to win, there is a lot at stake!

“The first time I won this was in 2017, and since then I’ve won it another three times and now I’m looking to secure a fifth trophy!”

Pre-season preparations
Rachael loves everything about the game, from watching to playing, and is currently undertaking some coaching qualifications with a view to moving into management when she’s finished playing.

She’s currently preparing for pre-season training and is looking ahead to the next year on the pitch, playing alongside her wife Toni McHamilton, Lincoln City’s top goal scorer last season.

“Last year we were not up there challenging for promotion quite as we had hoped, but at the same time we weren’t struggling at the bottom either. So, this year we are looking ahead to a good season on the pitch. To see women’s football continue to grow and the opportunities that are now out there for young girls is fantastic.

“I’m really looking forward to the women’s World Cup this summer. I was at the Euros final at Wembley last summer so got to see the Lionesses win that, so I’m excited to see them play on the world stage.”

“Women are built differently to men, we’re not so fast or strong physically, so the game is different – it’s slower and often more end to end, but it’s just as worthy.

“I love everything about the game. If there’s a good match on, I’ll watch it, so it was a real honour to be a very small part of a very big day during the FA Cup.”

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Photographs: courtesy of Rachael Howes/Lincoln City Football Club

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