Ceylon Hickman discusses the FA’s failure to provide an adequate pathway for women into the elite echelons of the game.
When I was 8 years old, I made an oncoming striker cry with a crunching slide tackle. My Dad was refereeing the game and waved on the St John’s Ambulance volunteers to assess the damage to the small boy’s leg. Obviously, he was fine and I watched as the paramedics had a good giggle to themselves as the news travelled around the tournament that the frizzy-haired girl in the blue and white strip had made one of the boys cry. At that moment, I became acutely aware of the fact that I was a novelty: a girl in a guy’s game.
According to the FA, there aren’t enough young girls playing football. A spokesman for the Football Association announced recently that they are ‘committed to doubling female football participation by 2020 and to growing the women’s game at all levels, from elite to grassroots.’ The latest idea for expanding at grassroots level hit the headlines. ‘Nice-smelling bibs’ and ‘pink whistles’ were the way to get more girls in the game. Unsurprisingly, female footballers across the country condemned the initiatives and begged the FA to get real. The nice-smelling bibs, however, weren’t the worst of the patronising, paternalistic sexism found in the document. It was also suggested that beginners might be put off playing football at the thought of being hit with a heavy ball so coaches should consider using smaller ones. Girls should also be allowed to play music during training sessions and their games should be played indoors in the winter so as to avoid the cold.
I was once one of those girls that the FA wanted to reach. At 4 years old, I began playing with the boys. My dad was the coach at my local primary school. Despite ordering me to leave training and sit under a tree whenever I gave him a bit of cheek, he got me hooked on football: an obsession that remains to this day. Surprisingly enough, when it came to the end of my footballing career with the boys, it wasn’t nice-smelling bibs or pink whistles that attracted me to undertake trials at Luton Town Centre of Excellence. Rather, it was the hope that one day I could make a living out of playing the sport that I loved.
At 11 years old, I signed my first contract with Luton. That illegible squiggle on the dotted line signified the beginning of something special: I was about to start playing for a professional club. My training was upped to twice a week, comprising skills sessions, gym work, fitness testing and tactical analyses in the classroom. Each Saturday, my Dad would wake up at the crack of dawn and bundle me, half-asleep, into the car to drive me across the country so I could play against the giants of English football. It was not always as glamourous as it sounds. One weekend, Dad and I – Liverpool fans – drove all the way to the North West to lose 10-0 to Manchester United. As you can imagine, the journey home felt a lot longer.
I still remember my first game for Luton. We’d driven two hours to arrive at a rainy car-park in Colchester. I got my kit-bag from the car and went to head towards the changing rooms. My parents gave me a kiss good luck. And then I remembered. We were two hours away from home, it was my first match for a professional club, and my beloved Copa Mundials were 86 miles away down the M11. I still remember the horror on my Dad’s face, as I shuffled, tail between legs, up to the Centre Director to confess that I’d forgotten my boots. Luckily, as an 11-year-old with freakishly large feet, the physio’s boots were a perfect fit and I managed to make my debut in front of my proud – if somewhat embarrassed – parents.
The Centre was an incredible institution. We were a group of 50 girls, aged from 9 to 16, playing at the top of our game, led by coaches with UEFA licences and treated by professional physios. We toured Scandinavia competing in (and winning) a number of international tournaments. We had sessions led by Hope Powell, Rachel Yankee, Kelly Smith: real-life professionals who had started out just like us. We believed, with the help of Luton Town, we could do it too.
Progressing through the Centre, I went on to captain sides against Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea Ladies. As a member of the Under 16 squad, I started coaching the Under 10s. Like many other girls at Luton, I believed I would enjoy a career in football. I’d been provided with the most professional system of development that football had to offer and so the possibility of a career within the game never seemed out of reach. Then, at 16 – a time when things actually began to seem like they mattered – it all came to an end.
It wasn’t because I wasn’t good enough. Despite bordering on the ‘maybe’ mark at each contract review due to my tendency to duck out of fitness testing, it wasn’t my footballing ability that prevented me from embarking on a career in the game. It was something much more simple, yet in many ways more irreversible than a failed bleep test: I was a woman in a man’s game.
In 2011, the Football Association closed down 22 of the 52 Girls Centre of Excellences across the country. Luton Town lost its £34,000 of FA funding along with its Centre of Excellence licence. No boys Centres were cut. I, along with thousands of other girls, were forced out of elite football and back to grassroots. There were to be no more physios, matchday tracksuits, diet plans, urine tests, 4G pitches – instead, it was back to a sloped patch of grass, netless goal posts and cigarettes after the final whistle. Thousands of talented young girls across the country were forced to commute to one of the existing Centres, or drop out altogether. I chose the latter. When Luton lost its license, the nearest Centre to me was over an hour away – an unrealistic commute for my working parents to undertake three times a week for training. The world-class footballing set-up on my doorstep had been taken away from me. My footballing career was halted before it even had a chance to get going.
My experience isn’t a one-off. Despite the FA’s rhetoric of inclusivity and accessibility, they seem to do their best to make elite women’s football unattainable for talented young girls. In April 2016, strict new FA requirements about playing standards, facilities and staffing demanded that clubs reapply for their licences to deliver top-class football to young girls across the country. These requirements led to clubs like Watford and Fulham being unable to apply. The FA seems relentless in its task to diminish the numbers of clubs able to offer professional development to young footballers.
Research by the Women’s Sports Foundation identified that by age 14, ‘girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys.’ To someone who has been actively pushed away from a club as access to their sport has been blocked, this isn’t surprising. The FA aren’t taking the development of young female footballers seriously. As is often the case with policy drafting, these are quick-fix solutions that momentarily placate the dissenting voices.
If the FA are serious about investing in the women’s game, they need to invest in structures that work for women across the board. We need frameworks of progression which allow talented female footballers to move into the adult game, rather than the current policy of hanging us out to dry at 16. By contrast, the men’s game is saturated with footballing avenues for young boys into the upper echelons of professional football: development squads, county teams, FA Youth programmes. Yet for the girls, it’s all or nothing. Whilst the FA have pushed for the recruitment of women at the earliest stages of the game, they have been simultaneously axing the most beneficial resources at the elite end of the women’s game. Nice-smelling bibs and pink whistles won’t bring back thousands of talented young footballers to the game. And the sad thing is, the FA don’t seem too bothered.
Ceylon is in her final year as a politics student at King’s College, Cambridge. During her time at Cambridge, she has been a stalwart of the university’s first XI. She is also a regular contributor to the podcast, A Team of John O’Sheas. She tweets @ceylonandi.