This Girl Can: Women’s recreational football at Nantwich a triumph

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It is a frosty December evening at Nantwich Town Football Club’s Weaver Stadium, and members of the newly formed recreational women’s team filter in for training. Men’s first team coach Dave Cooke heads for the exit but is stopped by Community Development Manager Lyndon Wain, “these are the ones I’ve been telling you about”, he says.

It has been an exciting period at the elite end of women’s football in England recently. Catalysed by the national side’s semi-final berth at last summer’s World Cup, the same team sold out Wembley stadium for the first time for a friendly against Germany in November. A few weeks later, the inaugural FA Women’s Football Weekend was a roaring success.

But in Cheshire, it is at the grassroots end of the spectrum where a women’s football revolution has begun.

Wain has gained cult status over his 13 years with The Dabbers, but the latest venture for the new coach of the women’s recreational side has been as successful as any.

He explains enthusiastically: “We’re trying to get that connection with all the members of the family.

“We’ve got a 74-year-old and a 2-year-old at this football club, we want to make sure everyone feels included.”

The team has 14 registered members, mainly mothers of children who play in Nantwich’s youth sections, and was established in September with the aim of providing an opportunity for those who may have missed out in the past.

Little did these women expect to be entering Cheshire FA’s aptly named “Inspire League” two short months later, which would see them play in recreational 6-a-side tournaments against teams from the Wirral to Chester and everywhere in between.

But the scheme is providing a welcome escape from everyday life for many of the players.

Central midfielder Ellen Johnstone is, like her team mates, extremely passionate about the project: “The minute I leave the house, until the minute I come home, I don’t think about anything else.”

And the enjoyment is clear for anyone to see in the session that lasts one hour. The women appear light hearted as they warm into the session, but there is a seriousness in their desire to improve in the game that they had only been able to watch before.

Richard Embley, assisting with the session, encourages the women to talk tactics and begin a small sided game in preparation for their forthcoming tournament at Northwich before coming over to introduce himself.

Embley, whose daughter is on a football scholarship at College in America, expresses the ‘one club’ mentality so ingrained in Wain’s philosophy, “They’re not Nantwich Town ladies – they are Nantwich Town footballers”, he tells me.

It’s an important distinction for Embley, who yearns for the FA to invest more heavily in infrastructure and support within the women’s game.

“We, as a society, create barriers against women, but there are different types of ladies here – those who have seen their kids play, those who want to get fit, those who enjoy the social side.”

He also explains how women’s football is still seen as secondary, despite England’s recent successes.

“Lucy Bronze has just come second in the Ballon d’Or. She has fed off scraps her entire career. Many coaches see the women’s game as a stepping stone [for their own progression]”

He concedes that Bronze was, at least, fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to take up the game, given that there were generations who have missed out on playing in the past – a fact that makes this group all the more inspiring.

Wain, who also runs the Club’s Wildcats sessions for five to eleven-year-old girls, admits there is still room for growth in the women’s game, but is steadfast in his commitment to provide opportunities for women in sport.

As for the women at the centre of the programme, they continue to make history of their own and, like their elite colleagues, are an inspiration to many.

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