Casey Stoney column: Girls should play football with boys for as long as possible at grassroots level

Importance of grassroots Without grassroots football we don’t have football, it's as simple as that. And without people like Sue Thomas at Ware Youth Football Club, people like me wouldn’t be able to get started in the game. Sue has a full-time job but also works 40 hours a week running FA Charter Standard Club Ware Youth FC and its 25 teams. The commitment and dedication she puts into the club is absolutely incredible and is replicated across the country at grassroots clubs. The game needs volunteers like her, who dedicate their time and energy – without receiving or expecting a penny in return – to ensure the game lives on and is available to all who want to play it. You just have to admire people like Sue.

Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown with current Arsenal Ladies centre-back Casey Stoney at Ware Youth Football Club

Former Arsenal defender Martin Keown with current Arsenal Ladies centre-back Casey Stoney at Ware Youth Football Club

Support for grassroots clubs has definitely improved over the years and we’re still working to improve things. Just last week, McDonald’s announced they would be continuing their partnership with The FA to support grassroots football, providing over 250,000 kits for junior clubs in the UK over the next four years. Whilst initiatives such as this are vital to support grassroots football, there is no substitute for the countless hours of commitment and dedication shown by willing volunteers at each club.

Ware Youth FC offer places to players for free, which is fantastic because without that the game would really suffer. I couldn’t afford to pay to play football when I was younger, but I was lucky enough to be part of a club who funded me and a lot of young people are in a similar position today. Football should be available for everyone to play if they want to whether it’s for fun or competitively.

When I was young, I used to play out on the streets with some lads, and parents would often organise games in the park before I eventually joined a club. It was only when I moved from Essex to Morden that I joined a boys’ football club. I wasn’t just the only girl in the team, I was the only girl in our league.

I was nervous when I started there for the first time, but after a while the boys realised I could play and I really enjoyed my time there. It was great playing with and learning from the boys and having a girl in the team worked in our favour a lot of the time, and not just because I was the best player there. Opposing teams used to laugh at us and would leave me unmarked, meaning I was free to stick the ball in the back of the net!

I wanted to continue playing with the boys

I was gutted when I had to leave. It certainly wasn’t my choice, but back then girls and boys were not allowed to play competitively together above the age of 11. I had such a good time and made so many friends – it was hard to leave.

Today, girls and boys can play together competitively until they are 15 which is brilliant. I would definitely have continued playing with the boys had I had the chance at that age.

I don’t like the thought of people being ‘banned’ from playing mixed football. If parents take their children to matches, I like the thought of mums and dads being able to play in a match of their own together and the choice should definitely be available for people to play mixed football recreationally.

Football isn’t like hockey, though, where you can play mixed at the highest level. Men’s and women’s competitive football is separate for a reason.

Technically the games are the same, but men have more speed and strength. A ball over the top of my head and a straight race against a man and I’d end up on my backside, regardless of how technically sound I am as a footballer. That’s just the way it is.

England defender Stoney thinks girls should play football with boys for as long as possible to help their game develop

England defender Stoney thinks girls should play football with boys for as long as possible to help their game develop

Socially though, playing mixed football should definitely be encouraged rather than discouraged. I think girls should play football with boys for as long as they possibly can to pick up the pace and resilience you need to succeed in the game.

I joined a girls’ little league around the corner when I had to leave the boys and, to be honest, the quality just wasn’t the same. Girls’ football wasn’t as popular back then and consequently it wasn’t as much of a challenge; we were winning six, seven or 8-0 every week and we won everything.

I was playing all over the park, taking goal-kicks to chase after and scoring a large amount of our goals. It was playing in this league that I was spotted by Chelsea, who were arguably a grassroots club themselves then – it was still pay to play.

Chelsea signed me when I was 12 and everyone there was at least ten years older than me. It was quite intimidating, especially as I was put straight in the first team. Some exceptional players took me under their wing, though, which enabled me to just get on and play football.

Banter, knocks and giving some back!

Admittedly, I was a bit of a tomboy anyway but I learnt so much from playing with the boys. They taught me how to take the banter, the knocks and, importantly, to give some back!

One of the main things I learnt from the boys was how to take criticism. Guys say it how it is and have a completely different mind-set on the pitch than women do. Women often take things personally, but I have always been of the opinion that being called up on something is more of a compliment than a personal criticism – teammates, colleagues and coaches are trying to help you learn and I respect that.

Communication in women’s football is a real area that can be improved upon, which is surprising given how much some women like to gossip! In all seriousness, though, if you go to a men’s match at any level, they never stop talking.

At my brother’s matches they absolutely slate each other on the pitch. Off the pitch (more accurately, in the pub!) it’s all forgotten. That’s certainly something we can learn from them.

More girls are now playing football than ever and it’s my responsibility alongside my teammates and other professional footballers to keep promoting the game from the grassroots up.

Casey coaching the next generation of female footballers at Ware Youth FC

Casey coaching the next generation of female footballers at Ware Youth FC

I hate talking to the older generation and hearing them say they used to love playing football but had to stop because there were no opportunities – that should never happen. Initiatives like the renewed partnership between The FA and McDonald’s go a long way to making sure the next generation won’t ever feel the same.

McDonald’s will be giving over 7,000 accredited UK clubs with a junior team the opportunity to order a brand new strip every year for the next four seasons with the potential for over 250,000 individual kits to be distributed to clubs across the UK. As part of the new deal all four UK FAs, and their official kit suppliers Nike and Adidas, will be providing all accredited junior clubs in the UK with a new football kit each season for the next four years.For further information on McDonald’s involvement in grassroots football and to apply for kit visit www.mcdonalds.co.uk/betterplay

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1 Comment on Casey Stoney column: Girls should play football with boys for as long as possible at grassroots level

  1. Playing mixed football could go one of two ways. The boys never used to let me play with them, but that never stopped me trying! However, when I tried they never passed to me and when I eventually took the ball off of them and ran at goal they’d call me a ‘ball hogger’. In Y6 I played in a mixed tournament and was the only girl to score, scoring 6 goals if I remember correctly. This still didn’t stop them saying I couldn’t play football though but when in Y7 I gate crashed their playtime game on the Astro and took 5 of them on and curled it into the top corner they soon shut up. So whilst playing with boys can make you physically stronger, it can also make you mentally stronger to try and be better than them and subsequently be so or at least match them. However, some people may have given up after years of being told they were rubbish and couldn’t play with the boys and may feel more comfortable in an all girls team. Mixed teams though would also help GCSE P.E. Me and another girl had to take our football assessment playing with the lads who couldn’t tackle us, how is that fair assessment when we basically had a free run whenever we got the ball?! I vote mixed, but I can see why some people wouldn’t.

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