Young lionesses at XL@Football get ready to roar ahead of new season
24 Aug 2023


Although the Lionesses fell just short in their quest for World Cup glory, their fantastic achievements mean youngsters at a football club in Kent are looking forward to lacing up their boots for the new season.

Inspired by the likes of Mary Earps, Millie Bright and Lauren James, players at XL@Football, the all-female academy that Kent Reliance has partnered with since 2021, can’t wait to emulate the performance of their heroines.

We caught up with Gabby Buddles-Smith, Eliza Brooks and Neve Connor, all aged 17, to find out what got them into playing football, what’s the best thing about being a member of the academy and the funniest thing that’s ever happened to them while on the pitch.

When did you first became interested in playing football and why?

Gabby: I became interested at a very young age kicking a ball around with my dad while my brother played. When I was four my mum took my brother for his first match and, so that she could watch him play, asked if I wanted to join in with the toddler coaching session. I jumped at the chance! At the age of six I joined a boys’ team where the manager used to call me ‘Gabby Rocket Right Foot’!

Eliza: I was seven when I first wanted to play football. My brother used to play and after seeing how much he enjoyed it I wanted to give it a go.

Neve: I developed an interest in football when I was five thanks to my friends who were mostly boys. I joined a boys’ team at the age of six and have been playing ever since.

Why did you join XL and what’s the best part of playing for the team?

Gabby: I join to play in the under-16s team. The best part of playing is the high standard of football and the opportunities it gives you. Stuart (Stuart Grist, XL@Football’s technical director and founder) nominated me for the England Pathway and last season I made my debut for the XL ladies’ team when I was 16. Everyone in the team gets on which shows when we’re on the pitch; when things aren’t going so well we get behind each other and support one another.

Eliza: XL has given me the opportunity to play high-level football with high-level training which has made me enjoy playing football again like when I first started playing.

Neve: I joined XL as it gave me with the opportunity to play women’s football when I got to 16. XL has continued to help me develop and gain experience from the women’s game.

What does XL mean to you?

Gabby: It’s an amazing club to belong to. Stuart and the other coaches are a great support and have helped build my confidence over the last year. Progressing to the ladies’ team has been excellent and a great experience. It’s brilliant that the club offers a pathway so that players can progress.

Eliza: XL means a lot to me as it’s the first club which has helped me develop and given me so many opportunities.

Neve: It’s a good environment to learn and feel comfortable in, and there’s no need to compete with boys for funding, coaches or pitches as it’s a football club just for female players.

What do you think female players bring to the game that sets them apart from male players?

Gabby: There isn’t as much diving and feigning injury in the women’s game compared to the men’s. This is great as it keeps the game flowing: when a player goes down, you know it’s genuine.

Another thing I’ve noticed recently is that a lot of women have been getting ACL injuries. I read that football boots are designed for men with longer studs and this could be the reason why more women are getting injured.

Eliza: Female players bring a different playing style to the men.

Neve: I think the game flows better as there is less simulation. Also, women rely more on their skills than their physical attributes which makes the game more technical.

Why is it so important to get more women playing football?

Gabby: It’s important because it’s a great team sport which you can play anywhere, at any level and at any age. It’s also good for mental health and fitness.

Eliza: The more women who play football the more aware people will be of women’s football so it will help promote the game.

Neve: For a start, football helps with mental health and brings confidence to people. Also, the more people that play, the better the standard which creates more competition.

If you could meet any footballer, female or male, who would it be and why?

Gabby: Cristiano Ronaldo. His work ethic is inspirational and he’s really looked after himself which means he can still play the game at a very high standard at the age of 38. A lot of his sponsorships relate to health and he’s designed his home around keeping fit and healthy, for example putting in ice baths and a cryochamber to help him recover from training and matches. He’s also helped his new team mates by introducing them to a Spanish nutritionist who flies to Saudi Arabia once a month to help them with their diet.

Eliza: Lionel Messi because I think he’s the greatest player of all time.

Neve: I’d love to meet Declan Rice. I’m a huge West Ham fan and have watched him play and develop over the last six years. He’s a role model to me, not only because we play the same position, but also how he carries himself off the pitch.

What’s the funniest/strangest thing that’s ever happened to you on the football pitch?

Gabby: I was playing in a cup match when the opposition kicked the ball out of play and it was so windy the ball blew back in through a hole in the goal net. The ref didn’t see this and allowed the goal!

Eliza: It sounds disgusting, but I fell in some dog poo when I went in for a sliding tackle and I had to play 20 minutes with it on my top!

Neve: When I was younger playing against boys, I was usually left unmarked as they didn’t see me as a threat due to me being a girl or they didn’t want to stand too close to ‘a girl’. More recently, when I was playing in a women’s game I was asked if I was 12 which I still don’t know whether to take as a compliment or not!

Finally, if you could have an introduction song played as you walk onto the pitch, what would it be?

Gabby: High Hopes by Panic! at the Disco. It’s a motivational song and a catchy one for the crowd to sing along to.

Eliza: Same as Gabby!

Neve: Dancing Queen by Abba. It’s our team song which we love to hear and sing along to before and after a game.

Kent Reliance is proud to sponsor XL@Football and wishes the girls and all of their team mates good luck for the upcoming season.