With a TV audience of 17.5m and a crowd of 87,000 having watched the England women’s team take home the trophy at Wembley on 31 July, this has no doubt inspired many young female players, showing them anything is possible.
We’ve certainly come a long way - just 100 years ago the Football Association didn’t allow women to play in club grounds, and grassroots clubs are being “inundated” with requests for women to join1.
One such grassroots club is XL@Football - Kent Reliance is the proud sponsor of the senior, youth and coaching teams and we had the opportunity to attend a recent training session, meet some of the players and have a chat to some of their parents.
A key theme that emerged from the session, as well as how hard the girls and their coaches work, was how much football is helping them off the pitch as well as on, especially in terms of their mental wellbeing.
One such player is Lacey Campbell. Lacey is an under-18s goalkeeper at XL@Football, having begun her journey in the under-14s team. She has ADHD, as well as ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and was facing the challenges of her condition, as well as struggling to find somewhere she felt she belonged.
Joining the team at XL@Football became her sanctuary as well as her inspiration. She has a great relationship with the coaches (who have “great banter”) and enjoys coming to the sessions, due to how varied they are.
Lacey said: “XL@Football is a really positive and supportive place which feels like a family. XL provided me with real opportunities when others didn’t as I didn’t have any formal qualifications but that’s never been a stumbling block. I’m developing my skills on and off the pitch with Football College.”
Lacey has a very promising career in front of her thanks to the environment and support offered by XL@Football CEO Stuart Grist and the coaches. Earlier this year Lacey attended the England Talent Pathway Camp where she was observed by England Talent Scouts and is now being monitored throughout this season.
Not everyone is academically minded, and football provides a different way to progress and an incredible opportunity to do something they love.
Lacey’s Mum Natalie Campbell said the progression Lacey has made is amazing since being with the team, she feels completely comfortable, and the fact the club feels like a family means this brings out the best in her. She said: “In a school environment, Lacey really struggles, but put her on a football pitch and this is where she’s comfortable and happy. Football is such a big thing for her.”
She hopes that Lacey can continue her career with football, perhaps moving into coaching as she is so brilliant with children.
COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns had a huge effect on the mental health of many children who couldn’t go to school, couldn’t play sports and experienced a huge lack of socialisation. It was a difficult time for everyone, but for those children who are already struggling with their mental health it really set them back, but it also highlighted what benefits the team was bringing to them, both on and off the pitch.
Stuart is looking to expand the profile of the club, and the support from Kent Reliance has been fundamental to that, allowing them to take on more players, buy more kits and equipment, but he still believes women’s teams are still struggling to get everything they need.
He said: “We’re seeing greater crowds coming to stadiums and more investment at the top of the game, which trickles down to the grassroots game, and many younger players are now seeing opportunities where they didn’t before.”
England’s victory has certainly already had a far-reaching impact and prompted a change in mentality – women’s football is serious business, and those previously sceptical are sitting up and taking notice.
Lacey said: “Watching the lionesses play and bring home the win has been a huge inspiration to me and all of the girls. Seeing England goalie Mary Earps in action, especially in the final, was incredible and made me think ‘could that be me one day?’”.
Let’s hope that a sporting world that celebrates diversity and encourages everyone to achieve their full potential, no matter their background, ability or gender, isn’t too far away.
Read our interview with XL@Football player and referee Freya McKenzie where she discusses the challenges of breaking into a typically male role.