It’s not just the history-making Lionesses who have helped change the game — the ‘missed generation’ have also been busy creating their own space for older women to play. Rachel Roberts attends a training session with Crawley Old Girls (COGs) where she speaks to founder Carol Bates about her ongoing mission to make football accessible for all ages and abilities, and also hears from other unsung heroes who’re hoping the Euros not only leads to increased participation but a societal shift…
On a 3G pitch behind Crawley Town’s Broadfield Stadium, Carol Bates is opening up for the first of the night’s training sessions. Crawley Old Girls (COGs) was founded in 2015 after the then-48-year-old learned she was too old to play at another girl’s session. Training takes place on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, with sessions for all ranges of ability. As the first group of players arrive, the atmosphere is light and friendly.
As it transpires, there are several new faces this week. Many have been thinking about coming for a while, including Natalie. “I heard about COGs quite a while ago,” she said. “My colleague played for a long time and has been recruiting! My friend Rachel wanted to join too, so we both came along together.”
Barely a month after record-breaking audiences watched England’s historic Euro 2022 victory at Wembley, women’s teams are seeing their own spike in attendances. For Carol, part of the ‘missed generation’ who were excluded from playing when they were growing up in the aftermath of the FA ban, the impact of the Euros is undeniable.
“We had six new ‘beginners’ last week, and now we’ve got another three,” she said. “In our other sessions we had another six in the space of a week. A couple of them wanted to do it for a long time and needed a little push. I think the Euros has really pushed people to brave it. You walk in here and it’s a safe space.”
Women’s recreational football is flourishing. Figures from Sport England reveal a steady increase between 2015 and 2019, when the number of women aged 35-54 participating in football was at 137,000. Post-pandemic, these numbers have taken a knock, with reportedly 79,000 women participating between November 2020-21. The FA’s target for 2024 is to have 20,000 more women playing football ‘for fun, fitness and friendship’.
Multiple testimonies speak of the benefits of participating, from having fun to boosting physical and mental health, especially at menopausal age. COGs member Debbie described the impact it’s had on her, saying: “I’m 47, married with two football-playing boys. It was almost like I forgot about myself whilst they were growing up, and needed a reminder that it was OK to do things for me. There was such a positive impact on my mental health — it really has been a life-saving game changer.”
Euro 2022’s legacy will be one of women inspiring each other, but role models have always been essential to encouraging women’s participation in sport. Watching the players warm up, Carol said: “I just love seeing women of all shapes and sizes coming out and enjoying it.”
It’s a point she had previously emphasised, about the need for relatable images of women playing sports. “When I first started playing, there was no one else I could look to who looked like me. The imagery around older women and sports was so limited. I want to normalise the fact that women can just go out and play football for fun.”
If you can see it, you can do it — whether that’s young girls aspiring to be a Lioness, or older women being comfortable to go out and play. COGs is achieving this. On the pitch, there are women of all ages, sizes and abilities, and none of it makes any difference. It’s great to witness and it needs to be normalised, because women exercising and enjoying themselves through sport is empowering.
Jo Treharne was inspired hearing Carol talking about COGs on the TV. Taking her daughter to play football each week made Jo realise she wanted to play too, having never been allowed to when she was a kid.
“I’m 53. I was thinking about it, then Carol popped up on the telly and I thought, ‘I’ll do that!’ I put a message on the local Facebook group asking, ‘If I set this up, would anybody be interested?’ And 120 people got in contact saying they would. It absolutely blew up! So I thought, ‘I have to actually do that now.’” She set up Canterbury Old Bags (COBs) in 2017.
“I got a coaching qualification, because I thought I couldn’t possibly coach without one. I was terrified. There were 15 men on the course and me, and I was really intimidated. I didn’t enjoy it particularly, I came home and cried after the first one because I just thought, ‘I can’t do it!’ Most of the men were really nice, but I was bullied on the course, and there were the random sexist comments as well.”
She then added nonchalantly: “Anyway, park it all, it doesn’t matter. I was FA Coach of the Year last year.”
Likewise, many COGs have gone on to earn coaching qualifications, including 66-year-old Viv, who is now a This Girl Can ambassador. “Things like that are so inspiring for other women,” Carol added. “Encouraging women’s participation then leads to them becoming coaches, running girls’ teams, watching games. When we started we never went to watch any women’s games, but a few of us have just travelled all around England watching the Euros.”
Playing brings community. “’There’s always a Bag’, that’s what we say! If you need anything, someone will be there for you. We all come from such different backgrounds, but everyone’s the same at Bags. We’re a family.”
As part of the FA’s legacy programme for Euro 2022, Sport England awarded £1million of National Lottery funding to specifically increase the number of women playing the game. The legacy focuses work within the tournament’s host cities, with goals targeting equal opportunities, promoting a diverse workforce and cultivating inclusive environments.
In a statement, the FA’s Women’s Development Manager for Diversity and Inclusion Rachel Pavlou said: “We are so proud of the growth in Women’s recreational football over the last few years, and thank all those volunteers and groups that have developed these opportunities. We hope that thousands more women will be inspired this summer, by the success of our Lionesses, to come and play, volunteer or coach in this area of the game.”
Asked what they hoped the Euros’ legacy will be, both Carol and Jo are in agreement about the desperate need for increased resources. “We want all these women to play but we can’t build facilities quickly enough,” Carol explained. “We don’t have our own premises. It’s so difficult to secure facilities but that’s the one thing we need. There are so many stories of women’s teams being chucked off 3G pitches for a new boys’ team.”
Jo identified another area for development – increasing volunteers. “I run an Under-12s team, but I could just stop tomorrow if I wanted, and that would have an impact on 50 people who couldn’t play anymore. If your daughter wants to play you have to be prepared to get stuck in. If you do, it’s the most rewarding thing in the world.”
England’s triumph is the catalyst needed to make necessary societal changes. As 87,192 people packed into Wembley, generations of women and girls, inspired by this summer, could return home with beaming grins knowing there are opportunities available for them to play, irrespective of age.
Jo was among those jubilant fans at the national stadium to witness the seminal moment, as was COGs player Kerry and her nine-year-old daughter. Kerry concluded: “For me, the legacy of this tournament is that women uniting together to play football is the most unbelievable feeling, and every woman and girl should have the opportunity to do it. For my daughter, she’ll grow up in a world where she won’t ever have to fight to make that happen.”
Follow Rachel on Twitter @rachellrobertts