Here come the girls: women’s football is a huge hit for local clubs

Sevenoaks Sport & Wellbeing’s Features Editor, Lorraine Rowley, talks to club officials from Ide Hill & Sundridge FC and Sevenoaks Town FC, about how the teams, and indeed the clubs themselves, have progressed with women’s football in a very short space of time. Additional editorial provided by Katie Le Sbirel.

Women’s football has seen a dramatic surge in popularity in recent years, becoming the top participated sport for women and girls in England. With the success of the Women’s National team and the FA’s Womens Super League becoming a fully professional competition in 2018, the game has grown exponentially at all levels. Kent itself boasts the largest girls football league in the country with almost 300 teams competing from U7’s-U18’s in the Kent Girl’s and Ladies League.

Within the Sevenoaks District girls football is represented through the numerous local teams and their junior set ups, with girls able to play in girls only teams or play mixed football, where they are now able to play alongside boys up to the age of 18. It personally excites me that in my son’s own U7’s squad, there are just as many girls as there are boys! A true sign that access to football for girls and participation is and continues to be on a positive and upward trend.

Next season, Ide Hill Football Club will start their celebrations of a huge milestone, 100 years of football from the picturesque Sevenoaks District village. Since 2012, the club have been growing its junior set up, offering the opportunity for both girls and boys to play football, whilst at the same time expanding and developing their adult men’s teams. But for the first time in the club’s long history, this season (2021-22) Ide Hill FC introduced their very first women’s side, naming the team Ide Hill & Sundridge FC, to also reflect their new collaboration with its parish counterpart.

Ide Hill club secretary Keith McGinn commented on what is truly an historical moment in the club’s history: “After 38 years with Ide Hill I would never have imagined that the club would ever have 230 members signed on. Neither would I have believed that we would now have four adult men’s teams in both the Sevenoaks & District Football League and the Kent County Football League. The development of the club has been massive in the last ten years. Having just secured a ten-year lease at Sundridge recreational field it has enabled us to finally achieve a long ambition to become one community club within our parish of Ide hill and Sundridge”.

“The icing on the cake also transpired this year with the club finally securing the numbers to start a women’s team. Perfect timing to change the club to Ide hill and Sundridge juniors and women’s football club. The men will follow suit at the start of the 2023-24 season after their centenary year next season”.

“The women’s side have impressed me immensely with two thirds of the team having never played the game before. Despite the score they always walk off the pitch very proud and with a smile on their faces. The sum of the whole ethos of Ide Hill’s motto ‘playing is winning‘. The women have improved so much in their first nine games and now compete equally whether it’s against bottom or top of their league“.

“Many thanks also go out to Hedley Clark at Credence for their generous sponsorship of two of our teams including the ‘Gills‘ as they have become affectionately known. The club can still develop further both on and off the field but the future looks very bright indeed.”

Developing a plan
With both Ide Hill & Sundridge FC and Sevenoaks Town women’s, the Sevenoaks District now boasts representation at tier 7 of the women’s football league pyramid with two clubs. Sevenoaks Town ply their trade in Division 1 West of the South East Counties Womens Football league with Ide Hill & Sundridge, competing just one division below in Division 2 West.

Sevenoaks Town adult women’s side themselves were only formed in 2017, which reiterates how the women’s game has surged in relative recent years. The club itself however began in 1883 and can boast being one of the largest Charter Standard clubs in Kent. With over 60 teams from U7s girls and boys, through to the successful first team, multiple disability and vets’ teams to walking football.

In respect of the women and girls, the club have developed a 3-year plan with the aim to move from tier 7 to tier 4. An ambitious jump, but one of which the club are confident they can achieve.

As part of that plan Sevenoaks Town appointed Paul McDonagh at the start of this season to oversee the women and girls’ section and is supported by Maddie Smith and Dan Thomas.

Paul told Sevenoaks Sport & Wellbeing: “I’m pleased to be transferring over to the women and girls’ section after a few years working with the club with the boy’s section as technical director. As I did with the boys section, I will be helping with the girls’ teams eventually. My first priority is to focus on the women’s team development. Firstly, we are looking to secure sponsors, which in turn will enable us to compete at a higher level going forward.”

Paul also spoke about Sevenoaks Town’s strategy over the next few years. He explained: “Promotion through the leagues is what we are hoping to achieve over the next 3/5 years. Eventually we would like to compete at a good level of semi-pro women’s football. There are so many positive steps coming from the chairman and board, the club are continuing to move forward and this focus on the women and girls section continues the club’s progression”.

Maddie Smith, assisting Paul McDonagh, has been a part of the women and girls set up since it began. Maddie told us: “I have seen Sevenoaks’ women and girls section improve its participation and standards extraordinarily over the last ten years”.

Upward trajectory
As a female footballer myself, a manager of a woman’s team and parent of a female footballer, the direction the women’s game is heading delights me. That said, there is and will always be more that can be done, particularly the struggle for parity with the men’s game for our professionals. But the current trajectory, with its continuous growth and popularity, means the future of the women’s game is looking bright.

Inspiring positive change
As recent as last year, the FA launched a new four-year strategy, titled Inspiring Positive Change, pledging to create a sustainable future for women’s and girls’ football in England.

The strategy will see football embedded for girls in schools, as part of the PE curriculum and in after-school sessions, setting the target that 90 per cent of schools in England to become part of the FA Girls’ Football School Partnerships network. Away from school, it pledges to provide every girl with a Wildcats programme within easy travelling distance of their home.

Baroness Sue Campbell, the FA’s director of women’s football said: “Football has the power to change lives for the better. It can contribute to physical and mental wellbeing, it can provide opportunities to compete and collaborate with others, and it can help to shape the place of girls and women in wider society.”

“We want to ensure there is access and opportunity for every girl and woman to play, coach, spectate, officiate, manage or administer if they so wish, and the game to be truly representative of our society across all characteristics and social backgrounds.”