To the Lionesses

Thursday, 25 November 2021

The Lionesses are inspiring the next generation, but what about the rest of us? Here is my letter of thanks for all they have done for me.

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Women's Football Weekend at The Hive.

Often, in the women’s game, we hear the phrase “these players are inspiring the next generation”. Absolutely, they are. But I cannot help arguing the limitations of these words, the affectations of women’s football and its players resound through the ages. The influence of women’s football, on a personal level, is not something I’ve been able to readily articulate. But as I tuned into a WSL game recently, a segment featuring Foudys and Manchester Laces founder, Helen Hardy, gave me the perfect starting point, “I don’t think the Lionesses realise the impact they have on people like me.” Hearing Helen’s words forced me into an overdue conscious moment of reflection. Casting back to just over two years ago as England fell at the last hurdle at the World Cup, I note the resurgence of that long-buried gut feeling, I recognise the animated version of myself that only feelings of elation and despair of innate belief can draw, I face the stark bearing this tournament has had on me. How football, the game that, for a long time, barely formed a thought has become a means I live and breathe. As a child, I cannot tell you how many “England” themed Birthday parties I had. Complete with kits, flags, bunting, cake - the lot. It was established from a fairly young age that football was my “thing”. Not that I was a good football player by any means. Quite a terrible one as it turns out. After being shoved in goal when playing with the neighbours, and only ever being used as a last-minute field sub for the primary school team, it became quite clear that I probably wasn’t going to become the next David Beckham. I use David Beckham as an example here because, at the time, men’s football was all I knew. Women’s football was not easily accessible and certainly not visible. In fact, the only exposure I had to women’s football was a family friend who, then, played for Charlton. Being a painfully shy child, I never pushed to go and see Charlton play, nor did I ever approach said family friend. In fact, it was only a few weeks ago (some fifteen years later) that I mustered the courage to initiate the very first conversation with her. It sounds ridiculous, I know, that a grown woman should have to “muster” anything to merely speak to someone she has known of for over half of her life. But when you have been ‘in awe’ of somebody an arm’s length away, and their sheer talent, for such a long time, you fall victim to habitual feelings of inadequacy. How can I even think about asking her about her career when I haven’t even kicked a ball for years? Who am I to bother her? What will she think if I run out of things to say? As is usually the case, our talk was incredibly enjoyable and she, rather remarkably, was pleasantly surprised to find out I had been to see her compete in her latest FA Cup round. This is where twinges of slight regret surface. Regret that I had never felt the confidence to speak to her before, regret that somewhere between the dawning teenage years and early adulthood football took a backseat, regret that I gave up.
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An iconic England Birthday party.

I identify that 2019 World Cup semi-final between England and the USA as a turning point. There I was, watching a group of women I essentially had no knowledge of kick a ball around field, but all at once, in those wildly stressful 90 minutes, it almost felt as if the world depended on it. There, right there. Perhaps my love of football was never really lost. Perhaps I had just never found the right football for me. Going from that point to where I am now has felt like a natural progression. I knew then women’s football was going to be a part of my life, from the moment that final whistle blew, it was never a question. The conundrum was how. Harbouring a childhood anxiety that has never really shaken, only morphed, finding a local team to play for was a no go. The Lionesses only played every so often so that wasn’t going to suffice, and I had absolutely no idea about the domestic leagues or how to find out anything about them. It wasn’t until a few months later, in early January 2020, when I had done my research and subsequently discovered the FA Player that things clicked. Realising a large contingent of the Lionesses then played for Manchester City, I began to watch their games regularly. Quickly, I picked up on an issue that commentators kept raising regarding Keira Walsh. Walsh had been the bearer of a heavy load of criticism for her performance at the World Cup. But, for some reason, this didn’t sit well with me. To this day I cannot tell you why I felt the urge to do so, but I knew I had to write about it. That’s exactly what I did. Opened up a word document and wrote a piece unpicking the reasons why this criticism of Walsh felt harsh. Why, for me, it was unjust. Not really knowing what to do with the finished article, I dusted off my dormant Twitter account, screenshotted the word document and posted it online to my 45 followers. Miraculously, a relative of Walsh’s found it and forwarded it on to her. Via the relative I received a message of thanks and a thumbs up. To say I was stunned is an understatement. It is the same heart in your mouth, swelling of gratitude I still get now with any player engagement. That thumbs up gave me the little surge of confidence to carry on. That thumbs up that Walsh likely never thought about again, as horrendously clichéd as it sounds, changed my life. I then began regularly writing about players and posting them to Twitter in the same manner I did with the first. I began to follow inspiring women’s football accounts such as Girls on the Ball, SheKicks, FAWSL Full-Time, Her Football Hub, followed supporter’s clubs, journalists and independent creators to learn as much as I could. I started to tag platforms, players and clubs in my posts. After a few months I was invited to write for The Women’s Football Magazine and Since 71 Blog and I perpetually thank the editors at both for believing in me and my work enough to publish it. Again, I cannot give you a concrete reason as to why I felt the need to continue writing. But I imagine, similarly to others, it is something to do with that stubborn resolve to draw attention to those who deserve it most. The players and the sport that, in my mind, deserve the same amount of coverage as its male counterpart does, perhaps even more so.
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Meeting writer Josh Bunting at Meadow Park.

Knowing my endlessly racing mind would expect more, there came a point when I decided that it was time that I branched out a little further on my own. I created ‘On Her Side’ during lockdown when time was abundant. Having just about figured out Twitter, building a website proved to be a bit of a challenge, but eventually a passable webspace was formed. On Her Side was launched last September, and I have to say, I was genuinely overwhelmed by the response. With On Her Side, the focus was professional women’s football in England. That is where my interest lies and it is where my knowledge exists, so that was the logical inception. I wanted to create a space that offered people who are interested in the game the very basics of these leagues, clubs and players. Enough information for the unfamiliar to be able to begin to enjoy the game without feeling lost. A strong stance on the national team was also always a given. The Lionesses are my team, they always will be. In time, the goal was, and still is, to extend On Her Side to the National leagues and to incorporate content across the whole women’s pyramid. But further than this, just as my intent is to feature players, it is also to celebrate other independent content creators, writers, artists, photographers and sellers. To offer them a platform in the same respect that one was offered to me. Going back to full-time work after lockdown, and knowing my writing time would be severely cut-back, I still wanted to ensure that On Her Side highlighted every club from the WSL and Championship. Gradually I enlisted the assistance of a few wonderful graphic designers and we now present Wallpaper Wednesdays across social media channels. This has allowed me to not only provide information on players, but to showcase these incredible artists’ work too. As you may have guessed, the guilt of offloading graphics to other people wasn’t going to be something I dealt with well, so out came the photoshop tutorials. However, I do not feel I am anywhere near achieving any of these goals in the slightest. There is a constant nagging figure lurking in the peripheral telling me there is so much more to be done. A relentless battle that runs rife between what is wanted and what is realistic. Everything I produce is done so voluntary and unfortunately, I cannot always spare the time or the expenses to cover the game as I would really like to, as well as the game deserves to be covered. It is during these times of frustration that I begin to question my place to be attempting coverage in the first place. I am nothing more than a glorified fan. To clubs and players, nothing more than a mild irritant; to my fellow writers and creators, a ham-fisted intruder, and to those who have the misfortune to now know me, an unorganised and haphazard communicator. Stemming, I guess, from a fear of letting people down, I struggle to ask for help. My head tells me that if I don’t open up On Her Side to other people, then they cannot be disappointed. If I do not ask questions in press conferences, then I cannot make a fool of myself. If I keep everything close and it crashes and burns, the only person it will affect is me. Rationally I know these thoughts are stunting everything I am trying achieve. Rationally I know all too well that the only person who stands in my way is myself. But to have even got to the point in which I might consider asking a question in a press conference is an individual win. And this is what women’s football has given me. Without women’s football I would still be lurking on the edge of family events, desperately wanting to ask the friend about her career, held back only by crippling self-doubt.
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Photograph with Pernille Harder and the wonderful people of The CFCW Social.

Women’s football has introduced me to new people from all around the world, allowed me to learn from them, to discuss opinions with them and to forge real connections based on a mutual interest. These are people whom I now consider to be friends, even if the opportunity to meet them face-to-face hasn’t yet arisen. Women’s football has given me confidence, focus, a solid ice breaker in new situations. It has given me opportunities I never imagined I would ever be fortunate enough to have. To have my work viewed by professional outlets, to contribute to a book, to become a part of a larger community. It has made me feel again, and I know that I would be in a far worse place without it. Aside from group photographs with Pernille Harder and Niamh Charles, and aside from one who graciously tolerates me every now and again in her DM’s (and accepts my eccentric gift giving habits), I have never met a player, never spoken to one face-to-face. But I hope that one day I will, and I hope on that day I have the nerve to say thank you. Women’s football is not perfect, and it is always not the all singing-all dancing family experience it is often marketed to be. But it is special. It has helped me in ways I will not ever be able to fully express. I am thankful to those who have plugged away off their own back for so long, and to the players and staff of years previous, that have gotten the game to where it is now. I tip my hat to each and every one of them. It is because of them that girls I have taught in my day job now have the chance to play properly. That they come and find me years after they have left, beaming with excitement, to tell me that they’ve made the school football team or that they are training with a local club. To me, that is special. My own hope is that any contribution I give can go some way to helping the game on its way. I will continue to try to be objective, to be fair and to celebrate all clubs with equal enthusiasm. But to be open enough to acknowledge to myself that I will falter, I will get it wrong and that I will, sometimes, have preferences, I am human after all. I want to learn as much as possible, to produce my very best and to earn my place in the community. To refocus and endeavour to loosen my grip in opening up On Her Side to anyone who wishes to exhibit their own work, as was initially intended. A semi-final and a thumbs up, that’s where this started. And whether this journey leads to something more or if this is all it will ever be, I realise that actually, it doesn’t really matter. For I owe women’s football, and the Lionesses in particular, a great debt. They have given me purpose, and for that I will be forever grateful.

England, Lionesses, Barclays WSL, Women's Football