At 35 Schillaci signed her first professional deal, at 36 she's retiring

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It was a sunny day at Stamford Bridge when Jenna Schillaci captained Tottenham to their first FA Women's Super League (WSL) game in front of over 24,000 fans. Taking those few steps from the tunnel to the pitch, Schillaci, 35, made her professional debut and Spurs history.

"I remember just being in the tunnel waiting to go out and you hear the crowd and the hairs stood up on my arm," Schillaci told ESPN.

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"It was a real pinch myself moment because I had a throwback to playing in a field and to be stepping out at Stamford Bridge and such a big crowd it was incredible."

At an age when most sportspeople would be retiring, Schillaci was breaking records and cementing her status as a Spurs legend. She has been at the forefront of taking the club from regional football to a professional outfit playing in front of some of the biggest crowds the WSL has to offer -- mostly doing so while competing as an amateur footballer.

As routes to professionalism go, Schillaci's has been far from straightforward. She first joined Spurs when she was 16 and they were playing in hand-me-down jerseys from the men's side on an astro turf in a Tottenham estate. She left the club briefly for stints at Queen's Park Rangers and Enfield Town but returned to the North London club in 2009 and spent 11 consecutive seasons with the club.

During that time, she has captained the team to eight trophies, three promotion winning-campaigns and their first ever FA Cup quarterfinal. The centre-back has over 200 appearances and 10 goals to her name.

In 2019, at 35, she was one of 11 players to be handed a professional contract ahead of the club's first season in the WSL. Schillaci, who dreamed of being a professional footballer when she was a child, said even up to three years ago she never expected to make it to professional status.

"My journey has been quite unique in that I've done it from grassroots all the way to the professional levels so I've seen the game and learnt so much. I have a lot to give back," she added.

The playing part of her journey came to an end on Friday when she announced that her spell at the club was over and she was hanging up her boots after 20 years of service to the game.

"I used to joke with my teammates over the season," she said. "They would be like 'are you coming back next year?' and I'd be like 'yeah one more, one more year.' I've been saying that for about 10 years probably.

"It doesn't feel like 12 years. It feels like I started yesterday. I've just loved it and I've loved everything about Tottenham.

"For me, I was improving as a player. Even this year at 36 years old, I've probably learned the most I've ever learned playing in the WSL and in terms of a player I've grown into the last while as well. I was always being pushed and trying to improve myself and it was the right fit for me.

"There's a lot of talented players coming through, like the young players, and it just feels like the right time to step away and just support the team now. I think I've done my bit."

The affection from the Spurs dressing room for their captain was clear after her announcement. Players flooded Twitter with well wishes for Schillaci and in a video organised by the club her teammates described a funny, kind and passionate leader who had given her all to the Spurs cause.

Spurs chairman Daniel Levy attributed her with "playing a significant role in the progress and evolution of Spurs Women" in a statement while coach Karen Hills said Schillaci had "not only led the team to glory and dreams, but also during the difficult times, when we really needed the team to step up and show character and commitment."

The cancellation of the 2019-20 WSL season means Schillaci, like many others, won't get a swansong. Instead, her last game came on a rainy Monday night against Coventry in February.

"It is quite a sad way to end," she said. "I wish it could have been different. But obviously sometimes there are bigger things in football right now. It was always in my mind and my feelings didn't change even though the league was ending early."

As someone who has seen leagues at various levels struggle throughout her career, Schillaci isn't convinced the financial implications of the pandemic will spell trouble for the WSL.

"I think when the league was in the balance about whether it was going to restart or not, I think the decision came from a place of protecting the game for the future," she said.

"I can't see this affecting it massively, no. From the season we've had, the records that have been broken and the quality in the WSL and the players coming over now. It is one of the best leagues in the world. I can only see it getting bigger."

While she may be retiring, Schillaci isn't ruling out making a return to Spurs in another capacity.

"I've always enjoyed going in speaking to the young girls and getting involved with the younger teams and I want to keep inspiring the next generation," she added.

"I'd love to stick around in some capacity with the club. At the moment it is uncertain but hopefully. If anything, I'll be a fan cheering them all on."