Never has women’s football been so popular. The FA Women’s Super League continues to go from strength to strength, England’s women are putting the men to shame on the internationals stage and the stars of the women’s game – Karen Carney, Toni Duggan, Ellen White, Fara Williams etc – are increasingly high profile.
As a dad to a football-loving daughter, this is fantastic. For far too long, football has been regarded as a male sport, so it’s great to see those stupid stereotypes being broken down. Like most things, work still needs to be done to get to a point where everyone is seen as equal, but I think the growth in women’s football and increasing number of girls playing, shows promise. After all, kids – and adults for that matter – should get the same opportunity regardless of gender.
As I’ve written about plenty of times before, Toddler L is a very active nearly three-year old. She loves anything which involves the likes of running, climbing, jumping and exploring. As such, I’ve naturally found myself following her interests and taking her to toddler classes designed to meet her needs – regardless of ‘perceived gender’. One of the ones we did last year was Little Kickers toddler football classes, which she enjoyed thoroughly – albeit she was the only girl. Since then, we’ll often have a kickabout in the garden and she enjoyed a few footy sessions on a recent trip to Butlins.
I try hard to not only ensure Toddler L doesn’t experience barriers ‘because she’s a girl’, but also to raise awareness of those initiatives close to my heart which are doing their bit to fight that fight. One of these is energy company SSE’s commitment to women’s football. Having worked with SSE last year on their Dads and Daughters campaign – see here, here and here – I’m well aware of the fantastic work they are doing to increase participation in girls’ football.
As the self-proclaimed energy behind women’s football, SSE is making a difference at all levels of the game – from sponsoring The SSE Women’s FA Cup on a professional level, down to providing opportunities for girls to play football at the grassroots level. In fact, SSE has already given thousands of girls across the country the opportunity to take part in their first football match and engage in a sport they might not have had access to before. The other day, we got to experience one of these new initiatives for ourselves – the SSE Wildcats girls’ football team.
This one had loads of footy fun with SSE Wildcats girls’ football club in Watford earlier today. The clubs, which are all over the country, provide girls with regular opportunities to play footy. The bib might be a bit big, it was a million degrees and she was on the younger side, but she cracked on valiantly! Future baller! #SSEWildcats #ad
SSE Wildcats was launched earlier in 2017 as a collaboration between the energy providers and the FA. Aimed at girls between the ages of five and 11 all over the country, the SSE Wildcats offer regular opportunities to take part in organised, fun and engaging footy sessions as a way of increasing the number of girls playing the game.
With a motto of “have fun, make friends, play football”, it’s clear that this is all about giving girls the opportunity to engage with the sport, develop fundamental skills and learn something new in an enjoyable way. Each SSE Wilcats club is run in conjuction with local County FAs, are led by qualified coaches and make use of local facilities.
We were invited down to our nearest SSE Wildcats session, which happened to be in Watford. This particular session took place from 5pm to 6pm on a Friday and was held on a 3G footy pitch. We arrived a bit early, so had a chat with Laura, who was coaching the session and is the Girls and Women’s Football Development Officer at Watford FC Community Sports & Education Trust. As such, she does a lot of stuff in the community to get girls playing football, including SSE Wildcats which started a few months ago in the area..
As we waited for the other girls and their parents to arrive, Toddler L had a bit of a kickabout. I usually play 6-a-side football on a Monday night and she’s always disappointed that she can’t come with me and has to go to bed, so it was good to see her make her first 3G pitch debut. This also meant that she’d at least kicked a ball – as the session is aimed at girls of 5+, I fully anticipated that she’d not be able to join in.
However, a combination of the really humid weather and a few of the regular girls being away meant that this particular session only had three players. Laura had told me earlier that the numbers fluctuate a bit each week depending on different factors like tiredness after school, whether the parents can leave work early etc. It was a shame that there wasn’t a bigger turnout, but what it did mean was that Toddler L could join in. Toddler meltdown averted.
The session started with a group team talk where Laura explained the three key things that were going to be focused on. She then explained that the session was going to be pirate themed – Toddler L was ecstatic as she loves pirates – and that they were going to work on their passing accuracy, awareness and having fun. The latter point being the most important, hence the purposeful exclamation mark on the whiteboard. The session started with a mighty, piratey “Aha”!
The first drill involved each of the girls having their own football and dribbling around the different cones that had been put out on the pitch. The idea being that the ball was actually a pirate ship, which they steered around the various obstacles with their feet. This helped to teach dribbling with the ball, close control and being aware of the cones and other players.
As the girls hydrated, 12 tennis balls were hidden around the pitch under cones as preparation for the next drill – a kind of treasure hunt. The idea was for the girls to sail their pirate ship to an island – i.e. dribble the ball to a cone – then pick up the cone to see if there was a tennis ball – i.e. treasure – underneath. They’d then collect all of the tennis balls and bring them back to the start until all 12 were found.
Again, this taught dribbling, control and awareness. However, it went one step further – the girls could only find 11 of the tennis balls, so were sent back ‘into the sea’ to find the last remaining one and double check they’d searched every cone. After looking again, the exasperated players questioned whether 12 balls had even been put out – that was until one eagle-eyed girl spotted Laura balancing the ball under her chin, which led to them all chasing her to get their last piece of pirate booty.
The next two activities were about dribbling, passing, teamwork and speed. The first part saw the girls dribble to the upright cones, then try to knock them over by kicking the ball at them – all whist Laura ran around standing them back up.
The second part saw the players split into two teams. Team 1 was tasked with knocking down the cones with their ball and Team 2 was responsible for trying to stop them and making sure all cones were upright. I felt slightly sorry for the girl who was on Toddler L’s team – despite her best efforts she was obviously slightly handicapped by being paired with a two-year old!
After another water break, debrief and coordinated “Aha!”, it was time for a 2-vs-2 match using half the pitch. Toddler L came to join me on the sidelines, although she would have loved to have continued. I had to explain that she needs to prove herself in the youth team before getting the opportunity to make the first team squad.
As there were only three girls, Laura stepped in to make the fourth player. In a fast-paced game of blues against reds, the players were able to showcase their skills and do their talking on the pitch. We saw some heroic goalkeeping, sublime passing, expert finishing and even one or two dirty challenges straight from the school of Vinnie Jones.
It was great to see the girls running around looking so enthused. They played with a smile on their face and obviously relished the opportunity to put their new found skills into action. As is so important at this age, it was all about having fun and enjoying a kickabout. There was no pressure to win. There was no criticism if someone misplaced a pass. There was plenty of celebration when someone scored.
The game lasted for around 15 minutes, by which time everyone was pretty knackered. Before the session ended, there was a penalty shootout. The girls had been asking about whether they could have a penalty shootout like last week, so it obviously was one of the highlights for them.
The session ended with a final team talk where Laura asked the girls if they could remember what they did, what they’d learnt and what the three key points were at the start of the session. This was a nice way of reinforcing what the class had been about for the girls, plus giving them a reminder for when their parents ask the question!
It had been a really good session to watch and it would definitely be something I’d want to introduce Toddler L to in the future. However, having said that, she did a pretty awesome job for a nearly three-year old among kids double her age – so much so that she was even given a mini football as she was crowned ‘player of the day’. There may have been a slight age bias in the decision.
The main thing I liked about the SSE Wildcats session was that it was just a bunch of kids having fun playing football. The fact that they were girls and had a female coach made no difference whatsoever – as I said at the start, football can be for everyone and shouldn’t be seen as a ‘boys sport’. The girls were enthused, they learnt some new skills, they were getting exercise and they were having fun.
Finally, let me leave you with a quote from Laura who sees first-hand how initiatives like this can help each and every week:
“It’s great to see the FA supporting the future of women’s football. The SSE Wildcats programme allows many clubs to grow their current participation levels and give girls within the local area a chance to play football with no worries or fears of competition. It’s great to see that the FA has targeted the young age group as there aren’t many opportunities out there for young girls to play football.”
For anyone looking to get their daughter into football, then you should definitely check out your nearest SSE Wildcats session – you can find your nearest girls’ football club here.