Plenty has been said about the opportunity for young girls to play football, as part of the legacy of UEFA Women’s EURO 2022, and that’s an absolutely necessary step for the future of women’s and girls’ football. We must make sure that girls have safe spaces, coaches, female leaders and PE lessons that include football, which will make it ‘normal’ for them to kick a ball in the playground, after school and beyond.
In addition, we also need that same legacy to continue creating opportunities for those who are of the ‘missed generation’ of women, who didn’t get the chance to play when they were younger.
I grew up in the 1970s. My sister and I followed our dad every weekend around the Isthmian League while he played. That’s where my love of the game began, and with it a journey of football-related activities which carried me through my teenage years and beyond. Washing the kit, making the football club dinners, running a men’s team in the 1990s, being secretary for a local junior grassroots club for 10 years, coaching a girls’ team as well as watching professional men’s football. It enveloped my life on a continual basis.
But it was always a case of being in and around football – and never getting the chance to actually play the game. I was a part of that ‘missed generation’ and throughout those years just accepted that that was how it was. I’d kick a ball around with my boys while they played as youngsters and the closest I got to playing was the parents vs kids game to mark the end of the season’s training!
In early 2015 I came across a tweet from the Crawley Town Community Foundation, encouraging women and girls aged 14 and over to participate in an EFL Trust Female Football Development programme. I wanted to join in and replied to ask about the maximum age. I was told it was 25. At the age of 48 I thought it may not happen for me.
However, I wasn’t going to give up. I suggested that maybe I could set up a session for some friends of my own age. Amy Fazackerley, who was working at Crawley Town Community Foundation at the time, agreed to see if we could get some funding and a coach. After some long conversations, it was agreed that the EFL Trust would fund 10 weeks of sessions. This was a completely new programme to them. I suggested that mini-soccer coaching would be fine. Little did we know what positive impact this would have on the women who came – and how far it would go.
I knew there were many women like me, who didn’t go to the gym, or it wasn’t ‘their thing’ to go to a dance or zumba class. Co-ordination is not something I was blessed with. But I could see myself kicking a ball around for fun and enjoyment. Just imagine the thought of being able to do this when you’ve not had this opportunity before. It was really exciting! More than that, at 48 it was going to be life-changing.
On 16 April 2015, Crawley Old Girls (COGS) was born. From that day ‘older’ women came along, with no pressure to be anything they weren’t. Whatever their shape, size, ability or fitness level, there was a safe, non-judgemental place for any woman to join us.
Over the years the number of sessions increased from one to five. Any woman can come and join in with walking football, beginners, intermediate or advanced sessions at their own convenience. We’ve gone from 10 friends on that first night to over 240 women registered, who come along when they want to. There is no pressure to turn up every week, as we run throughout the year and there are now many groups offering the same nationally.
From our inception in 2015, we have continuously worked with the FA and their women’s development manager Rachel Pavlou to help engage more ‘older’ women (as well as those who are now under 30). Recently we were asked to contribute to the WEURO 2022 legacy programme for women’s recreational football.
With Sport England and the FA investing £1million to grow the recreational game, seven Women’s Recreational Football Officers were recruited to cover the host cities and surrounding areas leading up to and throughout the tournament. Many new opportunities have been created for women to play and the exciting news is that the legacy funding has now been extended. (You can find out more about the Legacy Programme at the FA’s website.)
‘Inspiring Positive Change’ is the programme’s message, along with aims to engage more women and girls, not just in recreational football but with more female coaches, officials and leaders in the game. As part of the legacy we organised #COGSEUROFEST22, a football festival for women aged 30+ to participate in some fun games with other like-minded women. The 12 referees were all female, with some from the legacy programme, and teams travelled from around the country to play.
The camaraderie, fun and enjoyment the day brought was an incredible showcase for women’s recreational football. Locally, as part of the Brighton and Hove host city legacy programme, we also helped with the legacy launch, as well as the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 Roadshow and a panel event to help promote women’s recreational football. One of the aims is to provide new footballing opportunities to engage 20,000 more women to play for fun, fitness and friendship.
With England now European champions, we must make sure we continue the legacy. This is where the work really starts! We need to make sure it becomes ‘normal’ for any woman to have the opportunity to play if she wants to. How many women of any age could benefit from getting active with a football? Tens if not hundreds of thousands! It’s not just about playing competitively: there are so many women who enjoy playing for fun through the different recreational forms of the game, including walking football, Soccercise, futsal and small-sided sessions and games. Especially in the last five years, we have seen so many inspirational stories from women who have come into the game.
Women in their fifties who always wanted to play but never had the chance, women who didn’t like football but came to get active, made new friends and loved it. Women in their sixties proving it’s never too late to start playing and that you’re never too old, when you see them holding their own on the pitch against much younger players. Women who have very little spare time but want to spend it on the pitch for just an hour to improve their mental health. Women who have written poems about how it’s made them feel now being able to play.
Women who have started playing in their later years and who are now coaches, inspiring the younger generation. And, of course, those women who didn’t know anything about football or who weren’t fit, who bravely turned up on their own and never left. Not to mention those women going through the menopause who have found that football has really helped them get through it.
Create the right environment, make women feel comfortable (it may sound silly but make sure you have bibs to fit everyone from XS to 4XL), embrace all females to come into the game, and your group will be the richer for it. If you don’t have anywhere to play and would like to get involved, your local county FA will have all the information and will be able to advise you. We can also help with any questions or support with setting up new sessions.
Finally, if you have a small child or young person who goes to training at a local grassroots football club, you will often see mums, nans, aunts, sisters or female friends and family watching them train or sitting in the car while they’re training. Why not get a ball and have a kickabout on the other side of the white line? All it takes is for one person to start the ball rolling (literally!) and you could be starting up another opportunity for females in that club.
The FA has an online Playmaker course which will start your journey into coaching and you will be given support to continue that journey by regional coach development officers who will mentor you and help when you need it. The course is online, it’s free, and you can do it in your own time, in one evening.
Now, what’s stopping you stepping over the sidelines to get involved and create more opportunities? Don’t leave it any longer – your health and well-being will be rewarded in no time!
For more information on the Crawley Old Girls (COGS) check out the club website or email firstname.lastname@example.org.