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Opinion: the legacy of Lionesses’ Euro 2022 win

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By Holly Hughes

I write this after our Lionesses’ won England’s first major tournament in 56 years, on a day when players’ faces continue to cover the front of newspapers and appear across social media.

Murals have been erected in towns and cities dedicated to their local heroes, who continue to be celebrated across the country. These women truly are champions.

So much has changed. Female footballers are household names, an increasing number of parents are seeking teams for their young daughters to join, season ticket sales at WSL (Women’s Super League, England’s top division) clubs are at an all-time high, and their ticket sales are through the roof. 

Yet many of us, who have been involved with the women’s game a long time, could only have imagined these circumstances when we started playing as kids. I joined my first team, Dursley Town Girls, a couple of months before my 7th birthday in 2006. I consider myself lucky that I could join an all-girls team; many people I played with later in my teens initially had to join boys’ teams.

IMG 1695 | Opinion: the legacy of Lionesses' Euro 2022 win
Holly Hughes

However, I was at least two years younger than the rest of the team meaning that I couldn’t participate in competitive fixtures until we formed a team for my age group. I played at the club until the age of 13, during which time they added a further three age groups. Today they have seven teams, including two teams for U10s and U12s, and have over 130 girls signed on.

Nevertheless, Dursley are still just one of four girls’ only teams within 30 minutes of where I grew up. What’s more, Dursley are the only team with a pathway from U8s through to women’s football. For example, Wotton Rovers – who have an incredible boys set up – have just two girls’ teams.

Given this, it’s not surprising to see that the biggest hope for many from the success of England’s Euro 2022 campaign is that we see a greater investment into grassroots football.

To get more girls playing by investing in developing coaches and facilities so that clubs have the means to set up, grow and evolve.

As part of their Euro 2022 Legacy plan, the FA plans to support this: develop 5400 female coaches nationwide and ensure 75% of grassroots teams have at least one girls side. However, much of this investment – to reach these targets – will be given to host cities, places where it will likely already be easier for girls to access football.

Out here in rural Gloucestershire, with some places up to an hour from the centre of Bristol, we are yet to know whether this investment will go on to have an impact on our local teams and leagues.

We have also seen calls from celebrated footballers, such as former Arsenal players Ian Wright and Alex Scott, to increase access for girls to play football at school.

However, just days after lifting our first major trophy since 1966, the government refused to commit to equal access to football in schools. Currently, just 63% of girls have access to football at school, that’s over one-third of girls not able to play football at school. I’m sure many of us remember having regular access to games like netball and rounders, but how often were we provided the opportunity to play football or rugby? I was lucky (again) that my secondary school, Katharine Lady Berkeley’s school, provided us with football as part of our PE rotation every term. However, and I’m sure my teachers would admit this themselves, none were very equipped to teach football. They understood sports like netball, hockey and athletics on a deep level, but not football. 

Over the last decade, a lot has changed to the national curriculum which has meant girls don’t have the same access to male-dominated sports like football and rugby as boys at school. Politicians could be seen lining the stands at the final, celebrating Chloe Kelly’s winning goal, but was that just keeping up appearances? Will they actually turn that passion into positive change? Truss and Sunak, who are currently vying for leadership of the Conservative Party, have offered meaningless words of support: the former saying she’s committed to “investigating” why girls don’t always have access to the minimum two hours of PE every week and the later claiming he’ll “tighten accountability”. Doesn’t seem like much given the heartfelt open letter written to the Torie duo by the England squad not long after their ground-breaking win at Wembley.

Political attitudes reflect that we need to see a change in societal attitudes so that we may ensure investment and legislative improvements can be made. We cannot deny that there has already been change thanks to Euro 2022. Over 50% of ticket sales at the tournament were men and boys, players have received an increasing amount of positive support on social media, and the team were front and back page news for days after the final. Yet, this is not enough and it cannot just be a phase. 

Over 2 in 5 girls stop playing football as teens. Why? For fear of being judged. After the final I took to my own social media to talk of the teasing I’d get for taking football in PE lessons “too seriously” or being a “try hard”. These taunts came from other girls in my class, maybe the last people you’d expect to be the source of verbal abuse in football. I was fairly thick-skinned and had been playing for so long that it wouldn’t stop me playing.

If I was new to the sport, or lacked confidence, maybe I would’ve listened to what they’d said and just given up. I’m sure that many other girls across the country faced the same issues and shows that we need to change the attitudes of everyone, not just men, towards women’s football (and other male-dominated sports).

I believe it is happening, and will continue to happen. I’ve never seen the sheer number of people resharing posts about women’s football teams, not just the Lionesses, like I am right now. People are heading out to watch their first women’s games, buying season tickets for their local WSL or Championship sides, and speaking out against abuse.

This isn’t to say that age-old attitudes don’t still exist: Lauren Smith, Bristol City head coach, was the victim of sexist abuse at their men’s first home game of the season against Sunderland.

The Robin’s have since condemned this behaviour, but is this really enough? Many argue that bans should be applied – both online (for social media abuse) and at stadiums – and maybe we could start to outlaw this sort of verbal abuse once and for all. 

What we have to celebrate is that more progress is happening now, we are getting there, our women’s teams are getting more attention and investment is rising. The Lionesses brought football home, finally, and the national response has been incredible.

The legacy now needs to be more investment, greater accessibility at grassroots level, and most importantly, a shift in attitudes towards women and sport to ensure equality can be achieved. In the words of Gabby Logan, “You think it’s all over? It’s only just begun”.

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Want to watch your local women’s team? Cheltenham Town will be playing their first season in the Women’s National League Southern Premier division, whilst Forest Green Rovers are hoping to improve on last year’s 5th place finish and challenge for promotion from the South West Premier division. Dursley Town Ladies also welcome supporters and will be looking to improve on last seasons’ success of their two cup finals. 

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