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FA Women’s football chief Baroness Sue Campbell on how it’s viral girls start playing at school

It was the day she pitched up as a young teacher at Whalley Range Comprehensive in inner-city Manchester, intent on running netball sessions, which has always stuck in Baroness Sue Campbell’s mind.

She’d been captain of the England Under 21 team, had won the British Universities’ Pentathlon Championship and was convinced, ‘standing there, in my lovely white pumps, tracksuit, with my clipboard, bibs and bag of balls’, that the female pupils would all come flooding in.

None did. ‘It wasn’t for them,’ Campbell relates. ‘It was, “No thank you. Netball breaks your nails. We’re not doing that”.’

Baroness Sue Campbell has talked about how it’s important that girls start playing sport early

Only as the weeks went by did she discover that dance was the way these young women wanted to exercise. So she went with that — discovering, as they developed, how sport can build self-esteem and wellbeing without being a competitive concept. One of them, who’d had a few scrapes with the school authorities, actually became a leader of the sessions.

‘She knew better than I did what they were trying to do,’ Campbell recalls. ‘There’s nothing more powerful than youngsters themselves trying to show others how do it. What I discovered through those women — and I shall always be indebted to them — is that there are people in this world for whom sport is sport and they love it. And there are millions of people for whom sport is not their first love but if you can deliver it in the right way and listen you can help them enrich their lives.’

That experience has proved more invaluable than she could have known. After a successful career in academia and sports governance, Campbell was appointed five years ago as the FA’s Head of Women’s Football, tasked with bringing the game into the lives of millions of girls. 

Baroness Campbell was appointed as the FA’s Head of Women’s Football five years ago 

The challenge hasn’t been easy. Not all schools have been receptive to the idea. Not all girls have wanted the same ultra-competitive ethos that playing the game means for boys.

But four years on from launching the FA’s flagship Gameplan for Growth blueprint, designed to double participation, Campbell is deep into finding ways to make football as appealing to girls as it is accessible.

In primary schools, it’s about making the experience rewarding enough for them to want to continue playing after school. That’s not generally been the case.

‘It’s not just a case of providing what the boys have,’ Campbell says. ‘A little boy will probably have been kicking a ball since goodness knows when. A little girl has probably been picking it up and throwing it. So much of girls’ participation is also linked to confidence. They will tend to feel far more silly than boys by playing. 

Campbell is deep into finding ways to make football as appealing to girls as it is accessible

‘We want to help teachers — training them, without patronising them — to differentiate between boys and girls. To tap into the way some girls think, perhaps making them realise that they can develop literacy skills as well as football skills while playing at lunchtime.’

The FA have involved commercial partners such as Disney, who have developed a lunchtime programme tailored for girls, and Barclays, who have funded the creation of 100 school ‘partnerships’ — clusters of schools working to ensure equal access for girls. A total of 9,500 schools have signed up to the clusters.

At secondary school level, it’s a question of convincing head teachers that introducing football to girls’ PE curricula which have traditionally entailed netball and hockey is worthwhile. By finding a way to show that football lessons can also teach resilience, self-responsibility and decision-making, the FA can get football over the doorstep.

‘We’re working with teachers to help them,’ Campbell says. ‘These secondary teachers know PE well but it’s about helping them think how other lessons might be applied in a session. If you are practising a skill many times, we call that resilience. We’ve never expressed to girls what that’s called, so we pull that out. Improving dribbling skills is the same as improving resilience.’

Getting boys playing football has never been as complicated or strewn with so many challenges, though all the evidence suggests it’s been well worth the effort. There is clearly an overwhelming appetite for football among girls.

Thousands are playing beyond school, at the FA’s network of 1,600 Wildcat clubs targeted at those who still need to develop confidence and physicality and are perhaps self-conscious about playing. There are expected to be 3,400 Wildcat clubs by 2024.

The FA have targeted those who still need confidence and physicality and are self-conscious

The FA have also provided a toolkit and sent trained staff into girl-friendly football clubs, to help make it an environment which appeals to them and which they’ll want to stick with. There are hundreds of clubs where women’s football is thriving. Anchorians, in Kent, has 20 female teams for players aged eight to 18. Sandbach United, in Cheshire, is another of the country’s best for girls’ and women’s provision.

One of the biggest challenges for Campbell has been providing coaches to keep up with this demand. It was because of this that the FA last year launched an app with BT called Playmaker, designed to help prospective coaches to register an interest and complete short courses.

The infrastructure makes it far more likely that the next generation of top female players will have come through the ranks playing women’s football — not putting up with the dubious looks when they pitch up in a boys’ team. 

Some of the top English internationals, from Nikita Parris to Niamh Charles, describe male team-mates being on hand to provide support when there was a negative reaction.

Campbell hopes that the investment at school level will feed through to grassroots clubs and ultimately the professional women’s game. 

Baroness Campbell (left) has set a target for England to win the 2023 World Cup down under

‘School sport is critical for us,’ she says. ‘You can do so much in clubs but you have to get it right in schools if you want a chance of getting the kind of athleticism in youngsters that you want. It’s so important that people realise sporting excellence is built on a rounded athletic ability.’

But though she and the FA have set a target for the England women’s team of winning the 2023 World Cup, staged in Australia and New Zealand, she is driven more than anything by the memory of that Whalley Range group, back in the late 1980s, and recreational activity they enjoyed.

‘It’s about how can you help people to develop not just in sport but through sport,’ she says. ‘How you can change lives for the better. I do want more girls to play football. I do want England to do well. But I would be just as happy if someone said to me, “We’ve changed thousands and thousands of lives for the better”.’

The National Lottery helps fund women’s and girl’s football at a grassroots level, including a £1m contribution to the participation legacy of the UEFA European Women’s Championship in 2022.

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