This is an article I put together for the When Saturday Comes writers competition for 2017. I wanted to write something about girls and women’s football and how my recent experiences have shown that although there are real grounds for optimism there is still a long way to go and that to progress further we all need to play a part…..
Relatively speaking, in the course of history, the late 1980s were not so long ago, but in many ways they were another world. For myself, at junior school, my prime concern was not worries about paying rent, but the never ending game of football which reconvened every single break time. Played on a concrete playground I kept goal, much to the displeasure of my mother who had to constantly mend trousers torn at the knees. The teams varied in size depending on who wanted to join in. only rarely was it 11 v 11, or 5 v 5 – more often it was 20 v 17, or some other random combination. There was though one constant – it was always just the boys who played.
Back then there was only one girl who ever expressed a desire to play football. She was never allowed to join in. “Girls can’t play football” she was told again and again. It was a given. Football was a game for boys. At school girls didn’t do football in PE, and there was no girl’s football team. On television the only time anyone had ever seen girls play football was an episode of Jossy’s Giants when the girls had utilised distraction to inflict a defeat the boys. The whole comic premise of the episode being that in losing to girls who can’t play football the boys experienced shame, embarrassment and became the objects of ridicule.
All this meant that for my schoolmate – that one brave girl – just to play football meant enduring insults, derision and hostility from other children and even from parents, not to mention marathon car journeys to train with one of the few girls teams in existence.
That was, of course, then and this season my experiences with my daughters U7 girls team – my first ever proper experience of girls football – have highlighted to me just how much has changed from those dark days. In the intervening period we’ve had the influential 2002 film Bend it Like Beckham which did much to challenge negative stereotypes around women’s football and more recently the television coverage and the performance of the Lionesses at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada has acted to boost the prestige of girls and women’s football. Not to mention the cumulative impact of countless pioneers who have worked away from the spotlight to achieve change.
The accumulated impact of all these efforts was evident when receiving their leagues fair-play trophy in a ceremony at our local stadium the girls received the biggest round of applause of the afternoon by far. Numerous interactions over the season have shown me how much genuine goodwill there now exists towards girls playing football. Many people who have approached us and commented how good it is to see girls playing the game and for their part our girls have shown too how well they can compete on the pitch with our centre forward – a football mad girl who boasts an entire collection of match attax cards and practices her skills until the sun goes down – comfortably among the best players in the league.
This season has though also revealed to me just how far there is still to go. There have also been some less positive comments, not least from the opposition coach who after a closely fought game in which his team only just edged stated that he’d told his players to “go easy because they’re girls”, or from the grandparent of an opposition player who remarked that it was “like kiss chase.” Most of all what has really struck me is the sheer absence of girls playing in our U7’s league. Though the league is open to children of both genders there is a notable lack of girls on matchdays, save for those who come along to watch their brothers. We are only the second ever all girls team to have competed in the league and the majority of other teams we have encountered have had no girls at all. There is a girls’ league in the area, but according to our Coach who made enquiries about joining it there were only a handful of teams which meant only one game a month. From the experience of taking my younger daughter, aged 5, to tots football at two different clubs the gender divide seems even more pronounced with no other girls present at any of the sessions we attended.
Statistically this pattern is reproduced nationwide. The Taking Part 2015/16 annual child report, published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, found that just over half of 5-10 year old boys, some 51.1%, reported participating in football in the previous four weeks. For girls in the same 5-10 age group the proportion participating in football is a dramatically lower 12.3% – the highest disparity of any of the top five sports for that age group. In the 11-15 year old age bracket the number for girls does rise to 32.8%, but a significant gap still persists as for boys in that age group the figure rises to 73.5%.
The issue of engaging girls is something which the English games governing bodies are belatedly attempting to address, having acknowledged that compared to nations like the USA and Germany they have been slow to act. Initiatives and strategies have however, not always achieved a favourable reaction and mid-way through this season the FA found itself on the receiving end of criticism from a group of primary school children for a document, produced in 2014, which contained suggestions that girls attending football sessions should be given stamps and prizes, allowed to wear casual clothing, have time to check their phones and be provided with colourful bibs which smell nice. According to one angry 10-year old girl quoted in The Guardian the document treated girls as if they were “brainless baby Barbies”
Another plan, launched in March this year received a wider welcome. Titled The Gameplan for Growth and led by Baroness Sue Campbell the FA’s Head of Women’s Football the strategy sets out an overarching aim of doubling participation by 2020. The plan calls for measures to increase the number of women in coaching, refereeing and administration roles as well as increasing the opportunities for girls to participate in football by creating a national network of programmes for girls to take up and play football – part of this being the ‘wildcats’ branded sessions, run in partnership with corporate sponsor SSE and County FA’s which are targeted at girls aged between five and eleven.
These developments, and others such as Panini’s issuing of a sticker album for the forthcoming Women’s Euro 2017 tournament – which will also be shown on Channel 4 who outbid the BBC for rights – are all positive steps for the women’s game. Girls, like those on our team will be provided with new role models and the deeply entrenched stereotype of football as being a sport just for boys and men will be further eroded.
It is, to be sure, a time for real optimism, but this season has shown me that though things have changed it’s not nearly enough. Soon after the release of the Gameplan for Growth the announcement came that Notts County Women’s side, who were members of the top-flight Women’s Super League One, had folded on what was virtually the eve of the season. In effect the team, which had reached the 2015 FA Cup final and featured several England internationals, was sacrificed as part of cost-cutting measures aimed at safeguarding the men’s team, currently playing in League Two.
Media coverage too of the women’s game also remains relatively poor. Whilst France Football Weekly routinely features the women’s game at international and domestic level it is hard to find any mention of women’s football at all in most mainstream football publications in England. The recent boom in football writing has also largely bypassed the women’s game meaning that the rich seem of stories from the women’s game both past and present do not appear on the shelves of bookstores.
The Gameplan for Growth itself points to the need for a wider change, stating that “it’s not just girls to whom we need to appeal. Crucially it’s their parents, carers and teachers, many of whom may still operate by the stereotypes we need to dispel.” This is the challenge for all of us. As parents and carers we need to allow children to freely participate in sports and activities without this being directed, or influenced by the child’s gender. As teachers, coaches and administrators we need to provide the opportunities for all to play football and as writers we need to write – We need to tell the stories and hidden-histories of women’s football, of its teams, its personalities and its triumphs. Only by working together can we really achieve change.