The charity’s free courses and pay-what-you-can system stop young people being priced out of football – and more girls are joining than ever before, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
On a balmy summer evening in North London, a group of girls are excitedly warming up on the astro-turf pitch of a secondary school. A couple of coaches mill around, letting the girls continue to play for a bit before beginning to try and herd them into groups for the start of drills. This is the under-12s session of Bloomsbury Football, a charity set up in 2018 to provide high quality, accessible football coaching.
“We started with literally four kids coming to the first session in Camden Town,” says founder Charlie Hyman. “I thought, ‘how are we ever going to get more kids along?’, but the next week, there was six. Then a couple of younger brothers joined. And it honestly just built out from there.”
Charlie first started coaching football at university in Nottingham where he noticed how expensive playing football was. “The price of playing football for a team – the membership fees, the subs for matches, kits, boots, all of that stuff – is really high. It prices a lot of young people out of participating.”
His vision in setting up Bloomsbury was to bring kids from different backgrounds together to play football, where there were no barriers to entry. They use a variety of different models to achieve this, from running free, open access programmes through grants and sponsorship, or using a sliding financial scale to allow families to pay what they can afford. There is no means-testing for this scale; they simply trust that people will be honest.
“At the moment, just over half of attendees are subsidised to some degree. Of the people who are subsidised, it is mostly a full bursary. There seems to be either people who can afford it or those who really can’t. However, I also know people who are really proud and don’t want to ask for financial assistance, and pay more than they probably should.”
Bloomsbury began running girls-only sessions after they found that their mixed-gender sessions were not properly serving the girls who attended.
“In a group of 16, we would maybe get two or three girls coming along. Often they were ones who were really confident because they had played already – which is great! – but we found if they weren’t really [confident] they quickly dropped off. They didn’t feel part of it, they didn’t see other girls to have as role models, to look up to.”
“So we quickly realised that the best thing to do was start girls-only sessions. And the success has been amazing.”
“I knew there were a lot of girls who wanted to play, but the demand we’ve seen has far exceeded what I thought was out there. It’s our fastest growing programme at the moment.”
From September, Bloomsbury will have a girls’ team in every age group from 8 up to 15, having been running girls-only sessions for just a year. The growth is double what they saw with their boys’ programme.
Coach Emma Thackwray believes it is the social side of football which sparks this enthusiasm. “[The girls] come because their friends are there, but then they start to enjoy the game. Initially it’s more of a social thing, getting active, but they end up staying because they enjoy it, and they want to do well.”
Most of the attendees are very much focused on the playing side. “They don’t [follow football]. A couple of weeks ago, we did a football quiz, and it was Ronaldo and Messi’s faces, and they didn’t know who they were.”
Sasha Lewin, another coach at Bloomsbury, agrees. “All my life, I was told ‘You’re a girl, you can’t play football’ – things like that. So [it’s great] to have the opportunity for girls to try out if they have been too scared to do it maybe in school – being able to socialise with other girls who like what they do, who will give them a bit more confidence to try it out, because it will give them more time to think ‘maybe I do want to do this full-time, get a bit further.’”
Sasha is in some ways another beneficiary of Bloomsbury’s programme, having moved into coaching after previously attending Tottenham’s academy as a teenager. Bloomsbury discovered her after she set up her own coaching camps on local estates.
“Two summers ago, my neighbour helped me set up a little project just going to different estates, doing different football camps,” she explained. “I got some help from Bloomsbury, and they took me on from there. I’m still quite young, so I’m just trying to get experience.”
The very quick growth for Bloomsbury has led Charlie and the rest of his team to now focus on how to scale up the project further.
“We know which programmes work, we know how to run them to good quality, we know what sort of things we want to do,” he says.
“It’s now a case of like ‘How do we run this girls’ programme so that it works in 10 sites across the area?’ Which is a very different challenge.”
“We want to offer more opportunities to more young people to participate in our programme. And then it’s just a case of it all growing organically in terms of age group. The oldest kids at the moment are 15. So we want to add 16, 17, 18, continuing to offer, so that we have a full pathway all the way through.”
For more information on Bloomsbury Football, see https://bloomsburyfootball.com/.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph