Crawley Wasps’ all-conquering girls’ team have switched to a boys’ league to experience a new challenge and to continue their football educations, which they believe have stalled because of their superiority over all their female rivals.
They know it’s a radical move, but the players – as well as coaches Emma Wood and Roy Stannard – are all determined to better themselves and maintain their meteoric development.
Chatting to some of their players, past and present, it’s easy to see, from their enthusiasm and evident commitment, why they have been so successful, while their hunger for new challenges and continual improvement is a refreshing indication of the health of female football.
Eleanor Keegan – ‘The girls don’t even celebrate the goals’
Wasps’ 14-year-old captain and cultured central defender was one of the originals at the club some seven years ago.
“When I first started, there were probably about five of us. Now so many more girls have joined, and they keep joining. They hear about us and say, ‘I want to play football. I want to play for a good team’.
“Everyone that joins has heard about us, and especially with Woodie coaching. If you’re not training right, she’ll tell you. She doesn’t have to be here and put in all these hours.
“Even though she’s pushing us, she still makes it fun, making us better. So we want to keep coming.
“It’s making her sound like a really bad person, but she shouts at us all the time. She wants us to be better. She’s not shouting at us in a horrible way. She just wants us to get better and listen.
‘We need competition’
“About three years ago, us and Crawley Town were head-to-head all the time. But when we all decided we wanted to become better players… we put in harder work, training more.
“I think we need to lose. Playing the same girls’ teams, with us winning… it will be, like, 14-0 and the girls don’t even celebrate the goals. It’s like it’s normal.
“So I think we need to have some competition, and I’m actually excited to play the boys because I don’t really get any competition.
“We played a boys’ team in a friendly. Because we’re a passing team, we move the ball all around the pitch, so I do get it sometimes. But it’s never full-on, I need to defend. But when we played the boys it was totally different.
“I think playing the boys is going to get us so much better. Because the boys are obviously so much bigger than us, we’re going to get stronger and quicker. So if we did go back into the girls’ league – some of us might go up to playing women’s (football) – we’d be so much more ready for it.
“I don’t mind losing against the boys because I know it’s for our benefit – it’s still getting us quicker, stronger.
“I’m not concerned about getting hurt. Anything can happen, but that’s the thrill of it. The girls don’t mind a rough challenge.
“When we play boys, we come on to the pitch and they’re laughing because we’re girls, but we do give them a good run for their money. They don’t expect us to be passing as quick and getting it in their half as much.
“Boys will laugh and joke about it, but they’ll be, like, ‘I can’t have a bad game today. I can’t be losing against girls’.”
Poppy Nicholls – ‘You’ve got to lose to win’
At 13, the central midfielder is the team’s youngest player and in contrast to some of her team-mates, made the move from Brighton’s centre of excellence to the grassroots club
“We all treat each other as the same age. I’m the youngest but I’ve played football for the longest. This is my ninth year in football.
“I joined Crawley at the beginning of last season. When I was at Brighton I didn’t really like it. When I got into the Under-13s (at the centre of excellence) it started to change a little bit and I didn’t really like it.
“It’s very hard to come from that kind of standard into grassroots but actually have the same level of football. I knew [a player] here who used to be at Brighton with me, and she said [Wasps] had a really good reputation.
“But it wouldn’t really have mattered… As long as they could play football. That’s all I really wanted.
“When I first came down here I was surprised that girls who weren’t in the centre of excellence were this good. It was a kind of pressure because you had to make sure you didn’t upset the team in a way, you didn’t affect the way they played. As we played more games, the pressure went down because you started to feel, this is my team now.
“I felt welcome. As soon as I came, Eleanor (Keegan, the captain) came over and made sure I was all right. I was welcome probably more than I had been anywhere.
“I already knew Woodie, from Brighton, which was another reason why I came here because it meant I was still getting the same level of football. She was basically taking what she was doing at Brighton and bringing it to us lot.
“We’ve played [Brighton] and we lost, but.. tactically, we’re not any worse. It was purely because of fitness. They train three times a week and we train once a week. So it’s not necessarily that they can play better than us. They can actually last longer than us.
“When I first started at Brighton I thought I want to be a footballer. And then you realise that you can’t just be a footballer for girls. It’s like, I want to play football but I’ve got to have another job. But with boys, if you are a professional footballer, that’s it, you’ll be a professional footballer. You get your money from that.
“I suppose the best thing about coming here is that they’ve got a first team, so even if I don’t play professionally, I can still come into women’s football, just not, maybe, at the highest level.
“I don’t think [winning] gets boring, because I still go on the pitch thinking I’ve still got to play my best to win this game. When you’re winning so much you have to set different goals.
“I’ve only ever seen the girls win. It will be interesting to see what the girls act like when we lose. It will be good because the girls need to learn that to play football, you’ve got to lose to win.
“If you keep winning, you lose your mindset of playing football. You just go out thinking, I’m going to win. If we lose, we’ve all got to stick together, which I think will be good.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how the boys play against us. They might back out a little bit, which you don’t want. You want the boys to play you a game of football. Otherwise, there’s no point in playing them.
“We’ll definitely pick up some injuries. When you play girls, well, we’ve hardly picked up any injuries. But I don’t think we won’t be able to have a good tackle against them.
“When you’re in girls’ football they don’t [usually] have changing rooms. We have a pretty good facility [at Wasps]. Some of them just have a field with two goals in them. The boys have more facilities than girls, but we’re not going to worry about that. I’m not expecting them to build a girls’ changing room to play us twice a year.
“If we lose all our matches, we’ve had a go. We can always go back into the girls’ league.”
Chanelle Gainsford – ‘If someone’s trying to wind me up I just say well played and leave it’
Like Poppy, the 13-year-old is playing above her age group, having made the switch from Wasps’ big rivals, Crawley Town
“Last season was my first season here. Before that I was at Crawley Town. I’ve been playing football about four years.
“It was better-quality training [at Wasps], and Woodie really pushes us. [The main differences were] the tempo and how hard she pushes us, because she does want us to get better.
“Technically, I think it’s a lot different. We weren’t winning every week [at Crawley Town]. We haven’t lost since I’ve been here.
“It does put more pressure on when you win every game, to keep that tally up. But we have to learn to lose.
“I don’t know how we’re going to do [against the boys’ teams], but there is going to be the possibility that we will lose because the boys are a lot stronger and better than us, and we need to get fitter, as well.
“I think we will be disappointed [to lose], but I think we can also take it away, then work on it, as well.
“We have played friendlies [against boys]. We lost. But it was a good game. We’ve just got on to 11-a-side. We haven’t really practised 11-a-side, so it will be harder.
“To be fitter and stronger I think we’ll have to work on it, and we’ll have to put a lot of time into it, but I think it will come.
“I don’t think I’m really bothered about [the physical aspect]. Some of the girls [are apprehensive], but I’m fine with it, really. Boys like to be a little bit cocky and think they’re a bigger team… They think they’re going to win against us every time, but that doesn’t really bother me.
‘Wind us up’
“They can be a bit intimidating, but I won’t let it bother me and will just get on with my game.
“I think [other girls’ teams] try to raise their game. We’re kind of a threat. Sometimes it can be a tough game, but that’s when Woodie gets us on the right track and shouts at us. But it all fits into place, so it’s worth it.
“They do try to wind us up… but we just get on with it. If someone’s trying to wind me up I just turn my back and get on with the game. Then after, I just say, ‘well played’, and leave it.
“I’m quite a competitive person. I like to win. Boys don’t really like losing, do they, against girls. So that would be quite funny.
“I’m looking to get a lot fitter and a lot better at football. Boys are competitive but I think they might back off a little bit. And once they see how strong we are, I think they might go, ‘woah’!”
Interviews with the kind permission of Crawley Wasps and the players’ parents