WHEN I was young I had a dream. Like most people who support Liverpool FC I dreamed of pulling on the red jersey and running out onto the hallowed Anfield turf as You’ll Never Walk Alone is being belted out by the sell-out crowd, writes PHILIPPA SMALLWOOD.
I have always been big on sport. When I was four or five years old I remember going to our local swimming baths, and while my mum’s back was turned blowing up my armbands, I proceeded to jump in the pool without any knowledge of how to swim. My sister jumped in and saved my life, and I then went on to compete as a swimmer and used to train eight times a week up until I decided I was never going to make it, and retiring at the grand old age of 15.
My mum and dad owned a pub up until I was about 12, and me and my sister Samantha would be out in the beer garden playing football whenever we weren’t swimming or at school. We loved it. One of us in goal and one of us battering them into the back of the makeshift net.
When I was at primary school, at every opportunity you would see me out playing football with the lads. They saw me as a poacher. To be honest I think they used to shove me up there out of the way. We didn’t bother with the offside rules as I’m sure most don’t at that age, and I used to bag loads of goals.
Then, when I went to high school my PE teacher was the England Rugby Union captain and World Cup winner Gill Burns. She was fantastic. She used to give us exposure to all different sports. During her time at the school I played rugby, football, hockey, netball, volleyball, basketball, and then in the summer you would get to do athletics, cricket and tennis. She sometimes used to let us vote on what sport we wanted to do, and then whatever sport got the most votes was what we played.
Unfortunately Gill Burns left the school, and when I asked my new male PE teacher if I could play football he told me, “Girls don’t play football. You will play hockey and netball like the other girls.” So, that was that. How, at the age of 13, can you demand that a teacher allows you to play a sport you love?
Back then there were not many female football teams around, and already being a swimmer I didn’t really have time to look into it properly. The internet wasn’t what it is now over 20 years ago, so finding out where you could go and play was a lot more difficult. The dream died.
The only football you would see on TV back then was of the male variety. I had this ridiculous notion of playing for Liverpool and lining up alongside my heroes. Sadly, being a girl, the dream I had when I was growing up was never going to become a reality.
When I think back now, the female form of the game has come a very long way over the past 20 years. We now have the Women’s Super League. At the moment in two divisions, but the FA have just announced that from next season the Women’s Super League will consist of just one tier. It will consist of clubs who have a professional women’s teams. This means they have to go full time with a minimum of 16 hours a week coaching available to the players.
On the face of it, it is another step forward, but it is only a step forward if teams who cannot afford to pay for this are given support by the FA. Yeovil Town Ladies are just one team who need to raise £350,000 to be able to turn professional and remain in the WSL1 next year. Yeovil Town are unable to afford to financially support them, so they are at risk of losing their status in WSL1 which they have currently achieved through hard work and dedication. Imagine now trying to play through what was already going to be a very difficult season with the threat that all they have achieved is now in real danger of being taken away from them.
The FA want an all singing all dancing league and to show the rest of the world they are serious about the women’s game. Unless they give current clubs the financial support they need, it seems that we will just end up with a Premier League version of the Women’s Super League.
What will really tip me over the edge is if Manchester United apply to have a team and are allowed straight into the top division. After the Glazer’s took control in 2005 they scrapped an arrangement the club had agreed in 2000 with the long-standing women’s team Corinthians. They described it as “not being part of the core business” and so many girls and women’s dreams of playing for Manchester United were crushed. In essence, women didn’t matter so if they change their stance and are granted a place in the WSL without having to work their way up through the ranks, then the FA will lose the last little shred of respect I have for them.
On a much more positive note, during the Spring Series I went to watch the Liverpool Ladies team play for the first time in years. Last time I went to watch, most ladies teams played on pitches not much better than school ones. It was difficult for players to get any sort of rhythm as they waded through the boggy pitch, and you just stood at the side with your feet freezing into the mud.
Now, the ladies play in Widnes and while it’s not ideal due to the distance from Liverpool, the quality of the ground is miles better than what it was years ago. For one thing you can actually sit down, get a drink or something to eat and there is even a roof to cover you as you watch. They even have a toilet!
But what surprised me more than anything was the quality of the football being played. Goals are being scored that would grace any form of the game. The ferocity of the tackles is enough to make me glad that I never went on to play the game. It just goes to show that with more training and better coaching that girls can play football. This is only going to get better as more girls play, and more coaches look to get involved in the women’s game.
The biggest thing for me though is the TV coverage of the women’s game. Last week saw Everton Ladies v Liverpool Ladies live on BT Sport. Tomorrow the live match on BT Sport is Man City Women v Arsenal (the first team to drop the word Ladies or Women from their name), and then next Saturday it is Chelsea v Liverpool at 12.30pm again on BT Sport. The BBC have the Women’s Football Show showing the highlights from the games and discussing the major incidents. The BBC have also been showing games on the red button, or online.
Last season when Liverpool Ladies played Sunderland in Widnes it was filmed live on Facebook and over 300,000 people watched the coverage.
This may not seem important to you, but to me and many other women and girls who love football it is massive. Now young girls who love football are seeing female players playing for their favourite teams. They are being exposed to players who they could actually grow up to emulate and strive to be better than, and not have a pipe dream like mine that they can become Phil Coutinho or Sadio Mane. Instead they can become a midfielder like Caroline Weir, or a defender like Gemma Bonner, or a striker like Natasha Harding, or a goalkeeper like Siobhan Chamberlain.
And if you go to watch the games you can even meet your hero as they come over to engage with the fans after the final whistle. The players really appreciate the fans who make the effort to go to the games, and boy do the Liverpool fans make the effort. Following the team both home and away with a song/chant for every player. I am yet to learn most of them, but I will get there.
Tonight Liverpool Ladies play Reading FC Women in Widnes in their first home game of the season, and hopefully they can pick up three points before going away to one of the favourites for the title, Chelsea next week. At just £6 on the gate (or free if you are an official Liverpool member) I doubt you can watch live sport being played at the highest level for any better value.
I just want to see more people give it a chance and not be sexist or negative about it not being “proper football”. The ladies team is just an extension of our beloved Reds and I just hope that one day the game will be respected enough that 11 girls who have a dream like me of playing at Anfield, will see it turn into a reality.
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