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Treated as Second-Class Players: Women’s Football Teams Speak Up After Success of Lionesses

Carrie Dunn explores the problems that have been plaguing the women’s game for years, which are now finally starting to receive attention

Victory celebrations for the 2022 Women’s Euros win in London’s Trafalgar Square. Photo: Michael Melia/Alamy

Treated as Second-Class PlayersWomen’s Football Teams Speak Up After Success of Lionesses

Carrie Dunn explores the problems that have been plaguing the women’s game for years, which are now finally starting to receive attention

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In the aftermath of their UEFA Women’s Euro triumph, England’s victorious Lionesses called on the Conservative leadership candidates to support girls’ football and female coaches in schools.

It was admirable – and important. The next generation of players need to be developed, and those who are never going to be professional footballers but love the game anyway deserve the right to play – just as men and boys always have – whether that’s a five-a-side league with their mates or on a Sunday morning in the park.

But there is already a crisis when it comes to grassroots facilities – and it’s women’s teams who are bearing the brunt.

Women were banned on playing on FA-affiliated pitches at all up until 1971, and it continues to be a struggle for girls and women to get coaching and find teams.

Even England striker Ellen White was forbidden from playing in her local league as a child. After the Euro win, a 1988 front page of local newspaper The Bucks Herald circulated on Twitter, describing the “soccer girl’s” struggles to compete.

The infrastructure for boys and men is long-standing and well-established; women and girls have been trying to take up their own space and are still finding it tricky.

“There are issues across football around pitches and access and that isn’t unique to women’s football,” says Jo Butler, the club secretary for London Seaward FC. “But there are additional barriers, like the fact that it’s a legacy booking system [so the long-term clients have block-booked for years in advance] or women’s clubs don’t own grounds – of course, because of that ban on women’s football, remember; not much use owning a ground if you can’t play.”

London Seaward is a player-owned team and competes in the fourth tier of women’s football, the FA Women’s National League South-East Division 1. After the Lionesses’ Euro success, it wanted to use social media to raise the team’s profile, gain more sponsorship, but also to draw attention to the challenges that women’s teams face.

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“One reason we want to be vocal on Twitter and elsewhere is because it’s an opportunity to reach people who are not already involved in the women’s game,” says Butler. “We’ve realised that to be the club we want to be, we need to be proud and hopeful, and speak honestly about the issues we face to those outside the game, and hopefully, by doing so, we can make them want to be part of our journey – and the women’s game’s journey – too.”

The team asked female players and women’s clubs to reply to their tweet, listing the worst and most shocking reasons they had been kicked off their home ground’s pitch.

The responses flooded in: the teams who have their matches postponed in wet weather so they don’t “cut up the pitch” before a men’s match; the team who had a home fixture and had to ask to play it at the away team’s ground, because their men’s side had secured promotion and were throwing a party on the pitch; the team who had to cancel a match after both sides had arrived because the pitch had been given to a holiday club to use.

Chelmsford City FC Women now shares a local authority stadium with the men’s side. It’s very grateful for that, but it does still have some pitfalls – the ground’s primary use is as an athletics track, so if there is a meet on, understandably the football match will get bumped elsewhere. 

“The problems I’ve witnessed over my 20-odd years are poor standards of facilities, and lack of facilities – we’re a partner club for our 3G and can only have two hours on a Wednesday night for over 60 junior and 40 senior players,” says first-team manager Simon Horne. “Space is at a premium and the costs are astronomical – it all comes back on the players and their families as we don’t get much financial support at our level and the poor kids have it worse.”

With increased demand for facilities, local authorities are having to reappraise what they have on offer. That’s particularly the case in cities, where green spaces are limited, and often considered for development rather than football pitches. Councils that spoke to Byline Times mentioned the investment that needed to be made, both to permit increased use of and wear and tear on existing pitches and to create new sporting venues.

The Football Foundation – the charity established by the government, the FA and the Premier League – has the aim of raising the quality of grassroots facilities and provide more sporting opportunities in the community. Although nobody at the Foundation was available for comment, it seems evident that it acknowledges there needs to be more done to help women and girls play football.

One of the strands that needs to be considered on applying for the funding it has on offer is the provision the facility makes for women and girls. After the Women’s Euros, the Foundation launched a hashtag #LetGirlsPlay – asking facility operators to offer free slots for women and girls’ teams.

But getting on the pitch is just the first step. Girls and women face many other obstacles in the football infrastructure.

One of the hot topics has been the design of appropriate kit – from the growing concern that white shorts might not make female players feel comfortable when on their period, to the cut of a shirt. Female players of the past wore men’s kits and had no other choice; female players now have a few more options but still face problems.

Several teams have opted to wear the men’s fit rather than the version aimed at women’s teams. One coach said that his players thought the women’s fit kits were “terrible”, coming up too tight and “looking like they’d been sprayed on”.

The Lionesses took their opportunity to call for girls to be able to play football at school, just as boys do, and for female PE teachers to be able to qualify as football coaches. Butler thinks it was a brave and correct stance.

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“I remember clearly begging, pleading and arguing every single PE lesson with my teachers about this,” she says. “The school’s and education system’s attitude meant that the phrase thrown about by my male peers that ‘girls can’t play football’ was quite literally true – we weren’t allowed.

“For me, this move isn’t just about more opportunities to play, it’s about a cultural change. It’s fundamental to ensure that girls aren’t excluded by male peers during lunchtime, after school, and that they have friends, male or female, to play with. Every second that girls aren’t invited into that space is a training opportunity lost.”

And Horne has a word of warning for local authorities, organisations and brands attempting to jump on the Lionesses’ bandwagon.

“People need to understand that life below the Women’s Super League is dire for many sides,” he says. “We want to develop but the lower level [leagues] and grassroots is run by volunteers – we can’t give the time needed to make the developments [the football governing bodies] want to see. 

“I’m worried that some people with money will see a club, invest and rush to ‘improve’ on the back of the Euros and then pull out – we’ve seen it locally before.”

As a primary school PE teacher in his day job, he already coaches football with both boys and girls, and thinks that the call for a minimum of two hours of sport a week in school will do little to fix problems quickly. The current curriculum is all about teaching physical literacy and transferable skills – not specific sports, which tend to be extra-curricular activities.

“Young girls absolutely love football,” he says. “Yes, they need taking away from boys’ sessions as the boys dominate, even with the best class management. But take the pressure of that off and they come back week after week – it’s an environmental change and shift in culture that’s needed.”

It seems that’s the case from top to bottom when it comes to the women’s game.

Carrie Dunn is the author of ‘Unsuitable For Females: The Rise Of The Lionesses And Women’s Football In England

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