Women’s football: how girls are moving the goalposts

With young players joining grassroots clubs and England’s Lionesses preparing for their World Cup run, the sport is finally getting the recognition it deserves

‘Izzy, to me, to me,” the cry comes from many voices. Izzy, two brown pigtails flying out behind her, passes the ball to her friend, who turns with it, neatly avoiding the opposition player on her heels. She passes to Holly in the blue boots. But then, as Holly turns and passes, the ball is lost in a tangle of players.

Suddenly the red team have it. It’s down the other end of the pitch in two passes. The midfielder crosses to a player in bright white socks and pink boots who, finding herself with space all around her, turns, aims and effortlessly shoots the ball into the back of the net over the outstretched hand of the keeper. “Yeees!” comes the cry from her teammates, who jog back to the centre of the pitch, pride evident in their faces.

This is fast play, it’s skilled play and it is play from a bouncy and enthusiastic side of 11-year-olds who are among more than 100 girls ranging from under nine through to 15 who play for Preston North End Women’s Junior Football Club.

It is a drizzly, grey Thursday evening and the girls are practising for future league and cup matches – as well as having a pretty good time with their friends. “I like doing skills and passing and stuff,” says nine-year-old Fran, who is practising those skills with her under-10s teammates at the next pitch along. “I especially like doing the scissors,” she says, demonstrating the move.

Preston North End Women’s Junior Football Club is one of thousands of clubs benefiting from a boom in interest and participation in female football. Just last week Liverpool striker Mohamed Salah’s four-year-old daughter, Makka, became an unlikely star for the sport, proving that both age and gender are no object to enthusiastic participation. As her dad’s team was walking off the pitch post-match, she slipped away to the penalty area and dribbled a ball towards the goal, before shooting on target. She received what commentators described as the “biggest cheer of the day” and briefly became an internet sensation.

Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah watches his daughter Makka steal the limelight at Anfield.
Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah watches his daughter Makka steal the limelight at Anfield. Photograph: Dave Thompson/AP

The next few weeks could prove to be pivotal in determining how far and fast women’s and girls’ football in this country can continue to grow. On 6 June the Women’s World Cup will kick off in France – and the England team, ranked third in the world, are among the favourites. A win would not only be of huge significance to the Lionesses but also to the future of the sport in England at every level – from grassroots to the professional game.

It would also almost certainly raise further the aspirations of the FA, which is half way through its ambitious four-year Gameplan For Growth for the women’s game. At the core of this is one central aim: to double the number of women and girls taking part in football in England by July 2020. But how far can the FA, supporters and enthusiasts of the women’s game really expect it to go? Are there insurmountable barriers to our acceptance of the female game – and should we even care?

To help start answering those questions, a bit of history from Preston may help.

The Lancashire city was once home to Dick, Kerr Ladies (1917-1965), a football team formed at a munitions factory during the first world war to raise funds for wounded soldiers from the western front who were being treated at the town’s military hospital. The team’s sporting achievements are phenomenal – they are often cited as the most successful women’s team ever and they raised the equivalent of millions of pounds in today’s money for the soldiers.

Their profile rapidly grew to the point where, on Boxing Day 1920, they hit a peak with a crowd of more than 53,000 filing into Everton’s Goodison Park and a further estimated 14,000 outside, unable to get in. To put this into perspective, a typical game in the Women’s Super League today commands a crowd of just over 900.

Yet months after this, the FA effectively put an end to the rise of Dick, Kerr and in doing so changed the course of women’s football for ever. Possibly fearing that the women’s game was taking some of the shine off the men’s game, it banned women from playing on FA affiliated pitches, with minutes from the meeting at which this decision was made stating “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”.

That decision caused shockwaves that still resonate today. “The ban is the biggest sporting injustice of the last century, if not ever,” says Gail Newsham, local historian and author of In A League Of Their Own: The Dick, Kerr Ladies 1917-1965. “To say that you are not allowed to play football when women had done all that work during the war keeping the country going … it was a travesty.”

Two weeks after my trip to Preston and 220 miles further south, the injustices of history are very much not in evidence at Wembley stadium. It is the final of the Women’s FA Cup between Manchester City and West Ham United and the atmosphere is electric. Thousands of fans (43,264 as it turned out) – many, if not most of them, children – flood through the gates of the stadium. There is giggling, excited chatter, lots of running up and down the steps of the stands and lots and lots of girls in football kits.

The 1920-21 Dick, Kerr Ladies team, who played before a crowd of 53,000 at Everton’s Goodison Park.
The 1920-21 Dick, Kerr Ladies team, who played before a crowd of 53,000 at Everton’s Goodison Park. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

I am there with my eight-year-old daughter, Orla, and her football club, Meninas. The club has grown from 14 players to 120 since last May, and its super-enthusiastic founder Tom Carr hopes to start next season with 135 players. There are more than 120 of us – players and parents – at the Wembley game.

“It’s lovely seeing all the girls in their training tops with the club names on the back,” says Carr. “It is a pride I feel as the founder but also I get the sense that every player and every parent is quite proud to be involved. That’s something you don’t always get with boys’ football, where there are so many clubs and so boys can and often do switch around. I think the girls feel a bit more loyalty.”

And here we are now at Wembley, with our daughters, adrenaline pumping as the players walk on to the pitch. As the match kicks off Orla’s enthusiasm for the game is infectious until we are both – fruitlessly as it turns out – standing and shouting encouragement to the West Ham players. The match ends 3-0 to Manchester City.

Two hours before the game, in an office at the stadium tucked away out of sight and sounds of the crowds, I met Baroness Sue Campbell, the director of Women’s Football at the FA. Campbell launched the Gameplan for Growth in 2017 and has had some significant successes with it. I ask her why getting more girls and women to play football matters.

“What matters is making sure that all young girls have the opportunity to play if they want to,” she says. “At the moment it’s a bit of a postcode lottery whether you can access football as a little girl at school or whether there is a club down the road. I would like to see us work towards a situation where every girl and woman, if they want to, can access the game, somewhere to play.”

This issue was something I had seen evidence of in Preston when I visited the North End Juniors. Fourteen-year-old Sophie and her parents were undertaking a 90-minute trip to get her to the club each Thursday and then again to games every weekend. This commitment, Sophie’s mum Lisa had told me, was a necessity because there aren’t any local girls’ clubs.

It’s an issue Campbell is familiar with and working to address. But what she sees as one of the biggest barriers to the growth of the girls’ game is something I hear about from almost everyone I talk to.

“The biggest challenge for us in participation terms is getting girls’ football into schools,” says Campbell. “If you go to schools, both primary and secondary, most girls will be experiencing netball and hockey.”

This was the situation when I grew up in the 1980s. I naively thought things had moved on.

“It is getting better but it is nowhere near where we want it to be,” says Campbell. “The challenge in primary schools is that PE is often taught by a class teacher and that teacher is doing maths and English and everything else. They don’t get a lot of time in teacher training and because this generation of teachers probably got netball and hockey [at school] it’s teaching something they are confident with rather than necessarily what the girls might want.”

Reporter Lisa Bachelor’s eight-year-old daughter Orla, centre, with her teammates from Meninas FC.
Reporter Lisa Bachelor’s eight-year-old daughter Orla, centre, with her teammates from Meninas FC. Photograph: to come

The much-publicised money that Barclays is ploughing into the game may prove pivotal to this change. In March, the bank was announced as the first sponsor of the newly professional Women’s Super League in what has been described as a groundbreaking multimillion-pound deal. Some of this cash is being used at the grassroots level. From September, 100 Barclays football school partnerships will be rolled out in roughly 6,000 schools in England, the majority of which will be primaries.

“What we want to do with the Barclays money is to really support teachers to offer football in a meaningful way in curriculum time and then build out of that into after-school opportunity,” says Campbell.

The government, meanwhile, is working on a cross-departmental initiative called the School Sport Action plan, due to be unveiled later this year. The stated aim is to increase opportunities for physical activity in schools at a time when this is being eroded from the curriculum.

Alison Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sports Trust, a charity that works with the FA to deliver football in schools and is involved with talks on the School Sport Action plan, says there is an urgent need for something to be done. “There is a silent disappearance of physical education in schools at a time when we need it most,” she says. “Our research shows that 38% of secondary schools have cut curriculum time for PE since the 2012 London Olympics.”

One of the other big stumbling blocks on the road to growing the game is continued poor attendance at league matches. The average attendance has hovered around the 1,000 mark for the past couple of years. Earlier this year Phil Neville, the Lionesses’ manager, suggested that Premier League clubs should open up their stadiums to the women’s clubs. However, Campbell is not sure the game is ready for that. “When you talk to the players they want to play somewhere with atmosphere,” she says. “And if you’ve got an audience of 5,000 in a 70,000 seater stadium it feels a bit barren.”

However, she does think the idea of “double headers”, a women’s match playing immediately after a men’s in the same stadium, is worth trying. At the same time, she also wants to improve existing grounds – having just completed an audit of all of them “which doesn’t make great reading”.

This is something I have recently become familiar with.

At about the same time that fans of Tottenham Hotspur (men’s team) were enjoying craft beer and jackfruit burgers at the newly opened stadium, we went as a family to see the women’s team play Manchester United at their home ground in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire. We were turned away from the car park as the crowd of 1,600 exceeded parking capacity, and when we got in we had to queue for 20 minutes for the one burger van and then stand in the rain to watch the game.

“If you want to attract people to watch a game you need an attractive place to come to, particularly if you want to bring families in,” says Campbell. “But over the next year we will try to put some of those things right.”

Lucy Staniforth and Beth Mead of England celebrate after her goal during the SheBelieves Cup match against Japan.
Lucy Staniforth and Beth Mead of England celebrate after her goal during the SheBelieves Cup victory against Japan. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Although the FA, as well as an army of enthused teachers, parents, coaches and volunteers up and down the country, is doing its level best to raise the profile of the game, there is still a long way to go.

This is surely inevitable when one of the biggest barriers to progress is a deeply entrenched attitude many still share – even if they don’t say it out loud. And that is that football is a boy’s game.

It is a problem that still exists 100 years after the FA made that damning decision following the rise of Dick, Kerr Ladies. It could be seen last year, for example, when seven-year-old Darcy Yarnold was thrust into the spotlight after her mum posted on Facebook how her daughter was having to put up with cruel comments from players on other teams and their parents because Darcy’s detractors did not like having a girl play.

And there it was again, last month, when sports presenter Jacqui Oatley was reported as “livid” after her seven-year-old daughter was told by her football coach to go and play with a hula hoop because the boys in her club would pass only to each other and not to her.

Campbell acknowledges that normalisation of the game is a major challenge. But, she says, she firmly believes things are changing.

“I came to this job, one, because I like football, but two, because I believe football is the most powerful brand we have to effect change in society. That is because it is something that is talked about in virtually every home,” she says.

“I think the more girls who grow up saying ‘I like football and I’m going to play it and I’m good at it’, the more things will change. If those opportunities to play are then there, why shouldn’t women and girls do anything they want to do? I genuinely believe with football we have the opportunity to shift societal norms.”

With the game about to face its most high-profile test for years, I sincerely hope she’s right.


Lisa Bachelor

The GuardianTramp

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