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What football asks of young women
Away from the glory of Wembley, things aren't easy for the female players trying to make it to the top of the beautiful game
By Mollie Simpson
Amy sits with her knees close to her chest watching a football pitch in a town on the outskirts of Ashton. Her Curzon Ashton L.F.C. home kit — blue with white stripes — is pristine.
Out on the pitch, a tall athletic girl with brunette hair takes possession of a loose ball. She deftly switches it through a messy crowd of defenders and runs into space. Even when she’s not in possession, she looks poised; threatening.
“That’s Liz,” Amy tells me. “If anyone is getting recruited this season, it’s likely going to be her.”
Curzon Ashton L.F.C. is a women’s football club that began its life in Oldham in the late 1980s and now plays in the North West Women’s Regional League Premier Division, just a couple of rungs below the Women’s Super League. The team is affiliated with the men’s club, Curzon Ashton F.C., known by fans as “The Nash” because they used to play at a ground called National Park. So the women’s team are called “The Nashettes”.
The club has a lot of exceptional women’s talent moving through its ranks, and players are often picked off by the big professional teams. It hosts the Greater Manchester Girls Centre of Excellence, a talent development programme designed to root out the best players in the Tameside area.
Women’s football is enjoying an extraordinary moment in the spotlight. After England’s victory over Germany to win the European Championships last Sunday, in front of a record crowd of 87,192 fans, suddenly, it feels like the sport has lift-off. Millions of people (as well as a whole host of sponsors) seem to be realising that compelling football doesn’t have to play out against an audio backdrop of men screaming out the week’s stress in dreadful verbal abuse against their own players because they can’t bring themselves to see a therapist. That, shockingly, the country’s most popular sport might actually be improved by being opened up to participation by the other half of the population.
But the ecstatic, wonderful scenes we saw at Wembley were spine-tingling partly because they were so novel. Most women’s football matches are watched by a fraction of the crowd at that game, and even brilliant players — women who are a few great performances away from playing at the very highest level — are paying to play rather than getting paid.
As someone who has been following the game for a few years now, I went to meet the the Nashettes of Curzon Ashton at their training session on Wednesday night because I wanted to understand what things are really like for young women trying to make it. This is a high-flying club in the women’s firmament, and one where players pay £5 to play matches and have to fight to get sponsorship for their away kits.
Curzon Ashton’s head coach, Dean O’Brien, buoyed by the newfound attention on women’s football, is determined for his team to find new sponsors to cover the costs of games. “You need to get onto anyone who you think might wanna sponsor you,” he tells them after training. Clubs at this level rely on ticket sales and sponsorships to break even, and none of their players earn anything from playing. Professional players in the Women’s Super League, where most of the Lionesses play, get an average salary of £47,000, well below the average pay in the fourth tier of men’s professional football (the confusingly named League Two, which contains teams like Rochdale and Stockport County).
When I was 20 and new to this city, I went to watch Manchester United play a match in the Women’s Super League. That meant travelling way out of Manchester to Leigh Sports Village, a journey of three buses there and three buses back which felt like some kind of metaphor for the state of the women’s game and the sacrifices it expects from its players and fans.
The match itself was thrilling. This was 2018, and women’s football clearly contained the talent and skill to be every bit as watchable and consuming as men’s football, but the stands were almost empty. How was it, a friend asked when I was back? “Did you know Leigh is the biggest town in the North West without a train station?” I replied.
When my editor came into the office on Monday morning and asked me about my experiences watching women’s football, the three-bus (actually, let’s call it six bus) day was the first thing that came to mind. The other thing I thought about was the strange double life that so many young women face when they are trying to make it in football — of being seen as stars by their coaches and fellow players but not enjoying any of the trappings or support normally associated with being a star. It turned out that I would hear more about that in Ashton.
‘It was a bit of a stab in the heart’
Liz, the brunette player who caught my attention at training, grew up in Bury and spent her childhood playing football in local parks. Her dad is a warehouse forklift truck driver, and her brother works as a prison officer.
After training on Wednesday, she left quickly, slinging a backpack over one shoulder and heading home. When we spoke on the phone the next day, she told me her story — one that seems to illustrate the way in which football can draw women in and then push them away.
Liz was just 13 when she became captain of the England U15s, representing the country in Germany. “I was amazed by that,” she says. “But I felt like I earned it. It was a special feeling.” She went on to play for the junior teams of Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers and England several more times, eventually making it as a professional player for Liverpool Ladies.
In 2013 and 2014, Liverpool Ladies had two winning seasons in the Women’s Super League and Liz felt like she was starting to make it, but there was always an underlying feeling of stress. The money — £200 per match, £150 if she was on the bench — was never quite enough to make her feel secure.
Then, Liverpool Ladies signed the midfielder Fara Williams and suddenly Liz was on the bench a lot. She says she had a better pre-season than Williams but accepts that “it is what it is”. The change in team dynamics knocked her confidence. “I am in every aspect of my life self-critical,” she says. “It’s got worse as I've got older.”
Without much support around her, she made a rushed decision, telling her manager and coach she wanted to go and leaving weeks later. She went to university, got a job as a prison officer and left football behind.
Liz has played alongside Alex Greenwood, Nikita Parris, Beth Mead and Millie Bright, so when she was watching the Euros final at home with her girlfriend in Bury, the ending felt bittersweet. “I see all the players now and I played with them,” she says. “It was a bit of a stab in the heart.” She still wonders if things could have worked out differently, and admits she regrets leaving, but then she adds: “Nobody really talked me round to say: we’ll sort it out.”
She’s now 27 and playing with Curzon Ashton after a friend encouraged her to join the team. Something I realised while talking to Liz was that never making any decent money is a real double whammy for young women to face when they are also under the expectation of being considered the Next Big Things in the game. For her, it created a sense that the pressure wasn’t worth it — that the stress wasn’t getting her anywhere.
A player called Liv, 26, said similar. She’s the team’s vice captain and she’s confident and assertive on the pitch but shy off it. She asks me not to record her when we meet after training and her teammate, a striker named Simi, teases her for it. (At one point, Simi kicks a ball hard, it careens past the goalpost and smashes into a two-litre plastic bottle of water, which shatters into three jagged pieces.)
Liv was a star player for Manchester City in her early teenage years, but instead of talking proudly about wearing her blue shirt and playing in top league matches, she comes across as slightly anxious. She describes relying on lifts from people to make it to training and a sense that if she missed a session or didn’t appear committed enough, they might drop her at any minute. Diet brands associated with the club would advise female players what they could and couldn’t eat.
At school, she found herself hiding what she did from her peers. She admits she felt embarrassed and didn’t want to stand out. “I was at that age in my life,” she says. “I was worried they would think I wasn’t girly.”
The state of play
“We have changed society,” said Lionesses coach Sarina Weigman at a press conference after the Euros final last week. The match was watched by 17.4 million people on TV, including me in a tiny pub in the city centre with a group of friends and a rowdy hen-do. After the game, as we walked to find a beer garden to get sunburned in, we passed a gaggle of young men with bucket hats and chain necklaces, wearing England shirts and singing ‘90s football songs. The image struck me. Suddenly, women playing football was accepted — in fact, it was cool.
In the beer garden, my friends and I spoke mostly about how girls are pushed towards hockey and netball at school. In an open letter to the candidates for the Conservative leadership this week, the Lionesses wrote: “We ask you and your government to ensure that all girls have access to a minimum of 2 hours a week PE. Not only should we be offering football to all girls, we also need to invest in and support female PE teachers too.”
Amy feels that while London clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and Fulham invested heavily into their women’s teams, the North has been slower. “They seem to be a bit more proactive down south,” she says. “We’re a bit more reactive.” When the Women’s Super League was created in 2010, 16 clubs put in bids for eight places in the inaugural season. The winning clubs were Arsenal, Birmingham City, Bristol Academy, Chelsea, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Everton, Lincoln Ladies and Liverpool.
Manchester City didn’t make the league until 2014 and Manchester United were even later. The original United team disbanded in 2005, with the club saying it was not their “intention to become involved in women’s football at a high level” because it was not part of their “core business”, a phrase that has dogged them since.
Since they formed a senior team again in 2018, the club has been playing catch-up, with plenty of bumps along the way. Last year saw player unrest over substandard training facilities and meagre allowances for accommodation. “They’d go from a pitch session to a gym session, unable to shower, and lingering about in portacabins,” one source told The Athletic. “Take the badge away and very few players would be left at United.”
Ella Toone, whose brilliant chip gave England the lead against Germany, had to leave United to play for Blackburn Rovers and City as a teenager, only returning when the club re-launched its senior team. And if fans want to watch her play when the Super League season starts next month, they will need to venture to Leigh Sports Village.
The next generation
When Pete’s first son was born, his friends told him: “You’ve got your footballer, now.” Pete is a father to three kids: Madison, Layla and Coby. They live in Sholver in Oldham. When Coby went to a football-themed playgroup as a toddler, Layla was four. Something clicked. She thought “I want to do that”.
One day, Layla was having a kick-about with a family friend, a girl called Phoebe who had signed a contract with Manchester United U16s. Phoebe told Layla to keep playing with boys as long as possible. If you can match their physicality, and be tackled by them, and hold your own, it’ll toughen you up, she told her.
This strategy worked, and it’s one that’s still being used by Manchester United’s young female players. Layla is now 11 and the wingback for United’s U12s, and divides her time between playing academy games against Liverpool, Everton and Aston Villa and playing against the boys to test herself. When she makes it to the U14s, she will play just against girls. Last season, the Manchester United U12s girls team almost beat Sale United Boys in the final of the Salford & Districts Football League Under 12's Division 1.
Remembering what Amy, Liv and Liz told me about the stress associated with playing for a big team, I ask Pete about the level of support the girls receive. “I’m not a Manchester United fan, but I can’t say enough about the club,” he says.
He tells me about the on-site physiotherapy and medical team, nutrition courses, welfare advice and workshops on how to navigate puberty and how to deal with people telling them girls shouldn’t play football. “Layla has never had to experience anybody saying ‘you’re a girl, you can’t do that,’” he says. “She’s very lucky, she’s had nothing but positive experiences. She’s gone through grassroots football and she’s ended up at Manchester United.”
The family are hopeful Layla has what it takes, and that maybe by the time she’s 18, the women’s game will be paying a decent salary to women outside the top flight. “When you hear of men earning so many thousand a week, that’s what ladies are earning for a year,” Pete says. “We just tell her whatever happens, you’ve got the shirt, you’ve got the memories. How many girls can say they play for Manchester United?”
Toone, one of the standout stars in the Euros, went through the same academy as Layla, and she’s encouraged to think of herself as part of the future of women’s football. “You kind of hear with the Women’s Euros, how they had to battle and fight,” Pete says. “And then when we see them do what they do, go on and win it, it is inspirational, innit?”
With additional reporting by Anna Shepherd