Sent Her Forward exclusive
When you can’t stop winning and no girls’ team can live with you, there’s only one thing to do – play the boys.
Crawley Wasps’ all-conquering youth side have run out of opponents after winning all but one of the 43 league games they’ve played in the past three unbeaten seasons, so they’ve become pioneers, and will begin the new campaign next weekend as one of the country’s first all-girls team to compete in a boys’ league at under-15 level.
After constant FA rule changes, girls have been allowed to play in boys’ matches at certain age groups for several years. Last September, the rule was extended to all youth football, meaning both sexes can now compete in the same games right up to under-18 level.
And while there have been female trailblazers around the country, choosing to play in boys’ teams rather than alongside players of their own sex, Wasps are among the first English teams composed entirely of girls to compete in a boys’ league at their age level – and certainly the first in Sussex.
We can turn up to a game and play really badly and still win 6-1 – Emma Wood, manager, Crawley Wasps Under-15s
With many of their incredible side – who during that remarkable three-year period also won the County Cup and their League Cup three times – already playing in a year group higher than their age, it means girls as young as 13 will be taking on boys nearly two years older than them when they make their bow next week in the Mid Sussex Youth and Minor League.
It’s a daunting prospect, but one that excites the squad and their manager, Emma Wood.
“We tried to go into the boys’ league last season, but we left it a bit late,” she explained. “But Roy (Stannard, her assistant) and I agreed they needed to be pushed; they needed to go into the boys’ league, because if we continued in the girls’ league, it wouldn’t benefit them.
“We can turn up to a game and play really badly and still win 6-1.”
Now she expects to see her squad of many talents blossom – once they’ve got used to the culture shock of facing opponents who are, by and large, bigger, stronger and faster (though by no means necessarily any better) than them.
“The girls will get quicker. They will be playing in a higher standard of football than they would in the Sussex League – and that’s no disrespect to the girls in the Sussex League. I just think the results say it all – we’re better than that now.”
Initially under the tutelage of Stannard, whose twin daughters, Libby and Josie, played for the side until moving to Brighton’s centre of excellence, Wasps became a major force in Sussex youth football, along with their neighbours, Crawley Town.
Since Town pipped them to the Under-11 title in 2012/13, Wasps have won their division in the Sussex County Women and Girls League three times in a row, winning every game bar one in that three-year period – they drew the other one.
In the first of those golden years, they also won the League Cup and reached the semi-finals of the neighbouring Surrey Under-12 Cup.
The following season, they achieved a 100% record in the league and won the League Cup again, rattling in 114 goals in 16 league and cup matches.
Then last term they repeated the achievement, adding the Sussex County Under-14 Cup for good measure, and scoring 120 goals in 20 games.
Their last league defeat was on May 12 2013, when Crawley Town, their big rivals, beat them 2-1 to seal their own league title success.
But now they have had enough of winning, regardless of how they play. And they’re all committed to their new, pioneering challenge against Sussex’s teenage boys.
We will definitely lose more than we will win but as long as they are better players, I’m not bothered – Emma Wood
Stannard, who helped set up the team initially for his daughters, fully backs his successor’s determination to set the girls a new goal. He believes after such a long undefeated run, they need to learn how to lose as part of their development.
“They will lose games, but hopefully they will develop and improve as individuals,” he said.
Despite losing four key players – including his own talented daughters – to Brighton in recent years, Stannard is confident the strong nucleus of players still at the club will benefit from playing in boys’ football.
And he believes that under the 36-year-old coach, the youngsters have a promising time ahead of them.
“Woodie’s an exceptional coach,” he said. “I took them to a certain level… and Woodie’s come on board and she’s taken them to that next stage.
“She has brought discipline and togetherness. They appreciate her perhaps more than she realises. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t enjoy it.”
Why all-conquering Wasps are buzzing:
- Last lost a league game on May 12, 2013, v U11 champions Crawley Town
- Won the U12 title in 2013/14, the U13 title in 2014/15 and the U14 title last season
- During that period they have played 43 league games, winning 42 and drawing one
- In the past two league campaigns they have scored 164 goals and conceded 10
- They won the Sussex FA County U14 Cup last season with wins of 12-0, 12-0 and 6-1
- They retained the League Cup without conceding a goal
- They also won the U13 League Cup the previous season and the U12 League Cup the year before
- The only cup game they have lost in that three-year period was against Croydon Borough in the semi-final of the Surrey U12 Cup
Wood, a former Brighton and Charlton Athletic full-back who also coaches at Brighton’s regional talent club (the successors to centres of excellence), where girls now play boys as a matter of routine, is phlegmatic about the inevitable impending end to the team’s incredible unbeaten run, insisting there is much more at stake.
“I can’t say how many we are going to win or how many we are going to lose, but I have told them – and Roy and I have discussed it – we will definitely lose more than we will win. But as long as they are better players [as a result], I’m not bothered.”
Wood believes the philosophy she has instilled in the girls, that results don’t matter anywhere near as much as performance, will help them overcome any potential loss of confidence if they suddenly find themselves losing a few matches after years of sweeping all before them.
She told Sent Her Forward: “If we have that outlook, I think people will respect us a bit more in that league. We might be seen at the beginning as a bit of a joke, but if Roy and I manage the girls properly, it should be fine.”
The other benefit, of becoming stronger, fitter athletes as well as even better footballers, she believes, is that it will stand them all in good stead when they look to make the transition to adult football, which often comes as a bit of a shock to teenagers stepping up from youth leagues.
“There is an element of, if you play up (an age level) you become physically stronger because otherwise, you’ll be pushed off the ball,” Wood argues, pointing to the achievements of the younger members of her current squad who are already playing above their peers’ level.
She concedes there is a risk of physical injury from opponents who are naturally, by and large, stronger and heavier. But she believes their style of play will help them avoid the worst of it.
“The way we play will try and limit that,” she says. “I’ve told them not to send the ball long because we’re never going to win a challenge in the air. That’s where you could encounter issues, and I thought we’d try to combat that in the way we play.
“They are going to get clouted. There are going to be tackles flying in. But you’ve just got to get on with it.”
My impression, from talking to some of the players, is that they will relish the physical encounters and the opportunity to let brain overcome brawn.
It’s not as though they don’t already face physical attempts at intimidation from female opponents – particularly those who might feel humiliated by Wasps’ superior skill.
“If they’re hurt, I don’t automatically run on to the pitch. I just leave them and tell them, ‘Get up, get on with it’, because nine times out of 10 they’re not hurt,” says Wood. “You can tell when a kid’s hurt. You can see when they’re really hurt. Then you go on and you sort that out.”
The coach does not believe for one moment that every boys’ team will try to kick them off the pitch. She feels teams’ approaches will reflect the philosophies of their managers.
“My mentality is different to other people’s in terms of it’s not about the result; it’s about playing. But obviously they are in a league. People might see that differently, so that will be one thing that me and Roy will have to manage.”
But Wood promised: “If we think that the girls are in any physical danger, or are going to come to any harm, we’ll say, ‘You need to sort this out’.”
In her book on being the only girl in a boys’ team, Niamh McKevitt, who played regularly for Premier League Huddersfield Town’s reserve side last season, made reference to the verbal abuse she received from male opponents.
Wood is not unduly worried about this prospect. “Because it’s an all-girls’ team, it may be easier to cope with rather than one or two girls playing with all the boys,” she points out. “And they are a really close-knit group.
“They often come off and say, ‘She said this’, and I say you’ve just got to deal with it. [People say] ‘You always win; it’s not fair’, or ‘You’re not as good as you think you are.’
“We get that already, and I say, ‘Look, they’re only saying it because they’re worried’. So it’s just how me and Roy manage it. They know they can come to us and say this is happening.”
Of course, it’s not just the girls who will be undergoing a radically new experience.
The Mid Sussex Youth and Minor League is taking a step into the unknown after approving Wasps’ application to join.
League secretary John Edwards can see nothing but positives in the move. He told Sent Her Forward: “We are quite honoured that we have come to this milestone. It’s a great impetus for us to try to encourage other girls’ teams to join – albeit that we don’t wish to take girls away from established girls’ leagues.”
He said the panel of officers who considered the request had no qualms about allowing them to join Division Two of the league’s Under-15s section.
“The only reservations may come from their opponents, who aren’t quite sure what they’re up against,” he added. “I’ve seen the girls’ team in action already. They’re very competitive and just want to play stronger competition.
“But all our member clubs accepted Crawley Wasps at the agm, so they had no problem, either.”
However Edwards acknowledges it is a voyage into the unknown for all concerned.
“We do have some girls playing in our league already, but not all-female teams,” he said. “I’m eager to see how they get on, and we want better things to come from it. More to the point, we want them to enjoy it.”
Edwards feels there’s plenty that the boys can pick up from the new mixed-gender arrangement. “Obviously, it’s going to be tough because I don’t think they have played an all-female team before.
“But there could be benefits on both sides. Girls could play [in] a different way from what the boys do and vice-versa. They could pick up different techniques. I’m sure it’s going to benefit both sides.”
Lot of fun
News of Wasps’ move has delighted the FA’s national women’s football participation manager, Rachel Pavlou, who has been the driving force behind the gradual rise in the number of age groups open to mixed-gender football.
Pavlou, who works closely with Brunel University researchers on safety assessments before changes to the permitted age levels are implemented, told Sent Her Forward: “I really hope that they enjoy it. That’s the most important thing because we want them to have that opportunity.
“They’ve won a lot, so it will be really interesting to see how they fare against teams at the same level. Fun is such an important part of our game, so we want to make sure these girls go in there, give it their all and have a lot of fun playing.
“If they have been winning all the time, it will be really interesting to see how the girls react to harder games.”
The FA does not currently have detailed information on the number of girls playing in boys’ football, but Pavlou said girls’ sides were already competing in boys’ leagues.
She is awaiting the completion of a player database, to be supplied by county FAs, for a detailed breakdown. “It isn’t a surprise to me (that Wasps have joined in),” she said. “I have seen it up to under-16s, though not at under-17 or under-18 yet.”
‘It’s a choice’
Neighbouring Kent FA, which, like every other county organisation in the country, is currently carrying out an audit of female participation, says the only girls’ teams playing in boys’ leagues in its jurisdiction are Gillingham’s 10- and 12-year-olds from their own regional talent club (all RTCs have to play in mixed leagues), although 38 females are currently playing for boys’ teams, mainly in rural areas.
Pavlou added: “The thing for me is, it’s a choice. If they want to go and give it a go and it doesn’t work out for them, they can go back to a girls’ league. Giving it a chance and seeing what they think is really good.”
She added: “It’s not just about the good effect it’s having on the girls. it’s actually also the boys having respect for the girls and realising that girls can actually play and give them a good game.”
Sussex FA’s football development officer, Clare Nichols, believes Wasps’ pioneering work will benefit women’s and girls’ football in the county.
She told Sent Her Forward: “Crawley Wasps Under-15s are certainly the first grassroots girls-only team [in the county] to play in youth football – as opposed to mini-soccer. There are some girls playing in boys’ leagues in Sussex but to my knowledge not a significant number. We are currently trying to collect data from leagues on the numbers playing in Under-12 upwards.”
She said her priority, as the county FA officer with a brief to develop women’s and girls’ football, was to build a sustainable model of girls’ football in Sussex.
But she added: “Ultimately, I want girls to be playing football and enjoying themselves – which includes being challenged – so when Crawley Wasps raised the question of what alternative options they had to be challenged, I suggested they looked into youth leagues.”
Nichols said the Mid Sussex Youth and Minor League had been “very accommodating”. “And now the club have made the decision to enter, it will be very interesting to see how they get on.
“As well as challenging the players, it will also, I believe, raise awareness to a wider audience that girls can – and do – play football to a good standard.”
My thanks to Crawley Wasps for their co-operation with this article and especially the club officers and parents who willingly granted me permission to speak to some of the players, who, I might add, are a credit to the club