As the Lionesses roar, why women's football is the fastest growing sport

It’s a historic time for women’s football in the UK.

Nearly 70,000 people were at Old Trafford to watch England’s UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 opener against Austria last week – a record for the Women’s European Championships – while over 4 million tuned in to watch the Lionesses’ 1-0 win.

Now, as the England Women reach the quarter finals of the Euros – shattering another tournament record with an 8-0 win over Norway and overcoming fellow Home Nation Northern Ireland – it’s almost unfathomable to believe that just over 100 years ago the sport was actually banned by the FA.

Back then in 1921, the committee declared that it was ‘unsuitable for females and should not be encouraged’.

However, fast forward to 2022 and women’s football has kicked back to become the fastest rising sport in the UK.

With big brands and media companies finally throwing their support behind the Women’s Super League and Arsenal’s Kelly Smith being named as one of the 50 most influential footballers of all time, alongside the likes of Pele and Messi by football magazine FourFourTwo earlier this year, it’s clear that the narrative surrounding women’s football is finally changing.

But it’s not just on the pro-side. For women and girls across the UK it’s providing opportunity and, as dramatic it might sound, really changing lives.

Teenager Isabelle Traore tells Metro.co.uk that she was at risk of exclusion when she started playing. The 15-year-old from Sidcup in Kent was loud and disruptive at school and often in trouble for speaking back to teachers. She spent a lot of time in detention. 

‘I got told off a lot but I never realised I was the one causing the problems,’ she explains. ‘I always thought everyone was against me. Football calmed me down.’

Everything changed for Isabelle when Football Beyond Borders, a charity that works with young people who have become disengaged from education, visited her school in year seven. 

As soon as she joined in a game with coaches from the charity, Isabelle says she felt a weight lift from her shoulders. 

‘As I played, everything cleared from my mind,’ she recalls. ‘I wasn’t great at it at the beginning, but I got better.’ 

Isabelle began playing whenever she could and started looking for clubs. She played for Girls United FA and Fulham and tried out for Watford, although she didn’t make the team.

Working with trusted coaches, her need to challenge authority dissipated and she started to focus instead on fitness and stamina. The game kept her on the right track, she says, after witnessing friends get involved in drink and drugs. 

‘I started being more productive and doing after school clubs,’ she explains. ‘All my friends would go off with other people, and they would be influenced, but I would be doing my own thing. 

‘I tried to get them involved with what I was doing. Some of them joined in, but others went down the wrong path and got into a bad crowd. But because of football, I didn’t.’

Isabelle, who lives with her aunt as her mother has been seriously ill, says the game also saved her mental health: ‘I would go see Mum before going to play, and I would feel quite down. But when I play, it takes my mind off everything.

 ‘Keeping myself fit and in good shape, makes me feel better. It lifts my mood.

‘When you get a goal, everyone is proud of you. Everyone comes running after you. It feels so good – they are all praising you. It makes you really happy and you feel it for the whole week. It really helps your confidence.’ 

Football can also open your eyes to new experiences and cultures, according to nine-year-old Rayanne Doe, who has just finished her first season playing as a defender for Actonians in West London.

As a Muslim, the game has enabled her to play with children from other communities and challenge stereotypes, her dad, James, tells Metro.co.uk.

Her team at Actonians includes girls from English, Irish, Egyptian, Italian, Polish and Serbian backgrounds and during Ramadan they worked around her fasting ‘which was a learning experience for all involved’, he adds.

‘Football is a good way to find new friends from all backgrounds,’ says schoolgirl Rayanne. ‘It teaches me teamwork and helps build my confidence. It has helped improve my fitness and it shows we can do whatever boys do.’

Sadly, 64% of girls quit playing sport by the time they are 16, according to BOXPARK, who have set up the #WomxnWhoPlay campaign to get women back into sport.

However, Isabelle urges everyone to give it a try. If you get involved, you’ll never know how good you can be or where it may take you,’ she says. ‘You may just get involved for fitness or fun, but you may end up a professional.’

This is what happened to Chloe Morgan, who works as a lawyer by day and is a pro goalkeeper for Crystal Palace by night. 

 She says the game keeps her sane and helps her deal with her worries in a healthy way. 

The 32-year-old from Greenwich, London, works until 6pm doing a stressful and challenging job at a busy law firm. Then four days a week she travels across the capital to the training ground where she works on her skills until nine or 10 at night. 

‘It is a difficult juggle, and I miss out on a lot of time with family and friends,’ she admits. ‘But I love it. Football is like a form of zen. 

‘People tell me: “Well you just get onto the pitch and have balls kicked at you at 70mph and you’re throwing yourself all over the floor.” But in that moment, all I am thinking about is that ball coming towards me. I’m not thinking about my deadline the next day.

‘I love knowing that if you’ve had a bad day at work or whatever, you can get out to the training pitch and see the girls, just focus on football and get out of your mind.’ 

It’s vital therapy for Chloe, who spends her days dealing with personal injury in clinical negligence cases.

‘My clients have been through very traumatic, upsetting and distressing experiences,’ she says. ‘It’s quite easy to kind of empathise and sympathise with your clients and football has been really key in taking me away from that.’

And she’s seen real success. As well as playing at grassroots and at Leyton Orient Academy, she has played for Arsenal and Spurs.

Chloe remembers that as a kid all her football heroes were male; Ryan Giggs, Eric Cantona and  Peter Schmeichel. 

‘Growing up, I didn’t see any women’s football on telly or in magazines or newspapers,’ she recalls. ‘All I had was, was men’s football, and I never at any point felt I would be able to play at a professional level or make a career out of it. 

‘So now when young girls are looking in the papers and across social media, and seeing the likes of Lauren Hemp and Ella Toone and all these incredible youngsters coming up through the England setup, they can start to imagine that will be them in the future. 

‘It’s really powerful to have that ambition.’ 

While footballer Marcus Rashford tops the list as the most influential role model in the UK, according to research from LinkedIn, women like Laura Whiteman are working hard to represent females in football.

From next season, Lauren will begin refereeing on the Women’s National League and will be able to act as an assistant ref on the Women’s Championship. 

She recalls how her love of football often caused her a tough time at school, as she was regularly made fun of – and now, when she mainly referees men’s games, she can encounter abuse on the pitch. 

She says: ‘I’ve not had anything too bad, you do get little comments from players who are never happy with the decisions, and who argue with everything you do. And I’ve had comments from spectators like “Get back to the kitchen” or “go and do the washing up”. 

‘In the men’s game, you either get guys who are really protective if other blokes have a go, or those that cannot stand a woman telling them what to do.’ 

The 28-year-old sports coach from Derby adds that, ‘Growing up, being a female footballer in school wasn’t easy; it wasn’t seen as desirable to be a girl who was good at sport, especially football.’

But being a ref is the ‘best job in the world’, Laura says, adding that now is a great time to get involved in women’s football, in any capacity.

‘It can be tough to deal with the mental impact after a bad game, or games where players have questioned numerous decisions you have made,’ she explains. ‘On those occasions, I’ll go home thinking “why do I do this?”

‘But I would say to anyone wanting to give refereeing a go, to try it. As much as, at times, I have found it tough, it has also provided me with opportunities that nothing else could. It’s given me a chance to build my confidence, my resilience and to find a new side to me.’

Lauren played football from the age of five, but many players say being a female footballer going through school just wasn’t accepted. For lots of girls, it’s easier to be accepted in netball and rounders.

This is why St Dunstan’s College in London has introduced a gender-neutral approach to sport, to smash the stigma and make all games open to everyone. The school invites both boys and girls to join in with whichever team they choose, be it football, cricket, or rugby union.

‘Would we accept any other subject being split by gender in a co-educational environment with contrasting opportunities for boys and girls?,’ asks the school’s Deputy Head Danny Gower. ‘The reason girls football remains a minority sport in many schools is because of this stigma and gendered view.’

Thanks to this year’s Euros, however, 10.5 million women in the UK are now thinking about joining local teams, according to Just Eat, whose recent research has revealed that a fifth of women aged 16-65 want to get involved in the sport but do not know where to start. In light of this findings, the delivery service has even put together a guide on how to set up your own local team.

Andrea Thornton, from Leeds, is a mother of three boys, but she has been instrumental in setting up grassroots teams in her area to give local girls the same opportunities.

The 48-year-old photographer has seen popularity of the sport explode in recent years.

 The support for women’s football can be felt in the matches, which can have a different feel to men’s games, Andrea says. 

She cheered the Lionesses at Old Trafford earlier this month and says, ‘It was an absolutely incredible England game; the amount of support and the atmosphere and a spirit among the fans was just fabulous.

‘The game didn’t have that edge; that aggression. There was no do-or-die. It was just real celebration and enjoyment.’ 

When Andrea first stepped in to play with her local team, Clifford Juniors, her son was astounded.

‘It was an end of season dads vs lads game at a training session about eight years ago. I went on to play and my son asked if I was actually allowed. I told him, of course I was. But it just wasn’t seen in those days.’ 

Andrea – the lone woman in a houseful of men – is used to standing out; she is often the only woman at club meetings, the only female player, the only female coach. To make football more inclusive, she helped set up Clifford Girls five years ago. 

 ‘A friend of mine had a daughter who was playing with the boys, so we started a girls’ team,’ she explains. So we had a handful of girls, then suddenly we had 20 girls and it was just lovely to see how much they got out of it and how friendships were being formed and how they’re improving with their skills. And now we have got eight girls’ teams. I still coach them; it’s really important to me for that to be there.’

The West Riding FA has watched this organic growth and set up a new league to facilitate women in their 30s and 40s who want to get involved. Thanks to women like Andrea, the Women’s Beginners’ League was born last year. There were eight teams playing, including Clifford Women’s, but from September there will be 16.

‘There’s life lessons to be learnt on a football pitch,’ she adds. ‘You’re learning together. You’re supporting each other. You win together and you lose together and have experiences that really promote those strong connections and those tight friendships that last. 

 ‘Grassroots is where it starts; it’s the beginning of the adventure’.

 As well as coaching, Andrea regularly competes with Clifford Women, established in 2019. Though now when she plays, she says she feels ‘every one of those 48 years’.

 She adds: ‘Being part of a team, whatever age you are, just makes exercise a lot easier and a lot more fun. And the lessons that you learn, and the confidence, you can take into whatever your workplace is, or your boardroom. 

‘I think it  is just a really positive thing to do. The older you get, obviously the more aches and pains you have. I can’t run the length of the pitch and get back as quickly as I could when I was in my twenties, but the benefits are still huge.’

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing Claie.Wilson@metro.co.uk 

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