When Amy Perry put Crawley Wasps Under-15s ahead in their first competitive match against a boys’ team, few could have imagined that seven months – and 17 games – on, the talented, all-conquering girls team who had previously swept all before them would end their trail-blazing season without a win, having conceded 193 goals and scored just five – two of them on that opening day.
They’ve certainly learned how to lose.
While handling defeat was certainly one of the things manager Emma Wood and her assistant, Roy Stannard, hoped the assorted 13-, 14- and (now) 15-year-olds would learn, it wasn’t the over-arching reason behind their decision to take the dramatic gamble and pitch the teenagers into the world of boys’ football.
Wood, a coach at Brighton’s women’s set-up, and Stannard, who set up the team because his talented daughters wanted somewhere to play, wanted to test their charges, extend them to broaden their capabilities after recurring seasons of victory after victory against girls of their own age.
They wanted to harden them for the challenges that await in adult football – and perhaps most importantly, to give them the opportunity to be the very best footballers they could possibly be.
They knew it would be hard; they knew the girls faced a new physical – but also psychological – challenge. And they ran the risk of watching the confidence and self-esteem that had suffused each of the young talents ebb away under morale-sapping defeat after morale-sapping defeat.
Wood told Sent Her Forward as Wasps embarked on their voyage of discovery that they “needed to be pushed”.
“They will lose games, but hopefully they will develop and improve as individuals,” she said.
Watch out, boys – here come the girls
We have to learn to lose
Wasps emerge with dignity and respect from historic encounter
Crawley still making a game of it in a boys’ world
‘You can’t see it in the results, but we’ve got better’ – the players’ verdicts
Last Sunday Wasps sailed back into home territory after some stormy encounters in unfamiliar waters, the girls’ season in a boys’ world finally at an end.
Next season, not entirely willingly, they will be back facing the girls’ teams they used to beat so easily, in the Sussex Under-16 League.
And it’s not even certain that the Wood-Stannard combination will still be at the helm.
So was it worth it?
On Sunday it was back to where it all began as they played their final fixture of a momentous (some might say traumatic) season at Cuckfield Cosmos United, where they had kicked off their adventure last September.
As in their very first fixture, they gave one of the weakest boys’ teams in their division an extremely good match, running them close until superior fitness told in the final quarter, eventually losing 5-1 – only the fourth time they had scored in a game this season.
But the difference last Sunday from their debut in boys’ football – and indeed from their second of three encounters with Cuckfield in November, which I also witnessed – was palpable.
Wasps were superior in many facets of the game – not least their eye-catching, quick passing, which was played with confidence and a sureness of touch, and in the way they attacked purposefully, in numbers, from minute one, when they won the first of their five corners, to minute 80.
Fitness again played a big part in the eventual result, as they faded under the second-half pressure.
But the contrast from that first game was clear: evidently greater fitness levels meant they had no problem in recovering their defensive positions when attacks broke down; nor did they give up on the chance of a goal, even late in the game, when Chanelle Gainsford scored a cracker from an almost identical position to where Perry had scored that historic first on the same ground, against the same goalkeeper, seven months earlier.
This team were no pushovers, although their opponents deserved to win, not necessarily by such a margin.
And they boasted some of the best players on the pitch in left-back Chloe Upton, who was sensational, goalscorer Gainsford, Poppy Nicholls and Perry, as well as their talented young goalkeeper, Lauren Graves, who – judging by the ratio in this match – must have faced 500 shots this season, saving considerably more than she has conceded.
Wood, who now has a more senior role at Brighton and was unable to be at the girls’ final match, is adamant the risk they took in switching to a boys’ league was worthwhile.
“I think so. In terms of making them better, it’s definitely worked,” she said. “It’s given the girls a better standard of football for the entire season and made them better. In terms of their general football ability, it’s definitely worth it.
“The girls have got better. If you look at Chanelle and Eleanor [Keegan, the captain], for example, they’re much better players than they were 12 months ago. Eleanor’s a good player anyway, but she’s really come on in the boys’ game. Her physicality has improved, her quickness on the ball.
“You would never know that Chanelle is a year younger [than most of the players in the league]. She’s a school year younger.
“It has just taken us that season to get used to the pace of the game. If the girls were able to stay in that league again next year, I think we would have got even better. But the girls have decided that they don’t want to do that.”
Evidence of the progress that Wood and Stannard promised the girls has come in their all-too-rare friendlies against top girls’ sides from a higher year group.
Wasps’ under-15s have played the two standout sides from the Sussex County Under-16 league – joint-leaders Chichester City (whom they beat 7-1) and Ferring Divas, with whom they drew.
“So it’s worked,” said Wood. “The likes of Chanelle are beating teams with girls who are two school years older than them, so it is working.
Wood regrets not having been able to arrange more friendlies against girls’ sides to give her players regular reminders of how far they have come and to reassure them that the heavy defeats have been worth it.
“That just wasn’t possible because of the fixtures. Trying to play teams on a Sunday wasn’t viable because they had games, or we had games. And not many people are able to play midweek fixtures.”
Wood believes the constant hammerings – in terms of the scorelines, if not always performances – had no lasting impact on the girls, who, she believes, could largely see the bigger picture – at least by the latter part of the season.
“One or two of the parents have said, ‘The girls say they don’t want to play today’. But when they’ve got [to the games] they’ve been fine,” she said.
“It’s being as positive as possible with them, to get them to understand, like we said at the beginning, it’s a journey. It’s going to be tough; we’re going to get beaten. Just keep playing and eventually it will happen.
“One of the things we said to them was don’t worry about the score. We don’t care about the score. Just go and play. Even when they came off at half-time, they never, ever, spoke about what the score was.”
Wood added: “It’s been a good learning curve for the kids. I think they’ve come together more as a team because they’re the underdog before they’ve even started.”
But it’s not all been plain sailing, as Wood, Stannard and most of the girls realised it wouldn’t be.
“The way the girls have been received in the boys’ league, I think, has been pretty poor,” the manager added. “It’s been a bit rubbish.”
Wood said: “The league has been brilliant. I think a lot of it is the boys and their attitude towards girls. But I suppose it’s not really their fault because they’ve never had that situation put on them before.
“I coach the under-12s at Brighton (Regional Training Club, formerly centre of excellence), in a boys’ league, and they’re not as bad because they’re younger and they see it as just playing girls, whereas at that [under-15] age group, not being brought up with that, I think they’ve found it a bit hard.”
The girls’ treatment by some of the boys’ teams is a concern echoed by some of the players and their parents.
Dawn Keegan, mother of captain Eleanor, and Wasps’ child welfare officer, said while many teams had been supportive, some had chosen to channel their aggression into teaching the girls a lesson.
“We had the odd feisty match. We had one which ended up in a couple of yellows and a red card. And they’ve had a few of the boys giving it big every now and then. But they give as good as they get now. They’re not scared.”
Respect and encouragement
It’s true that in Sunday’s match, the boys of Cuckfield did not seem to be taking things very seriously – something their disappointed manager, Gordon Smibert, acknowledged to me after the match.
But it’s worth adding that on the previous two times I’ve seen his team take on Wasps, their behaviour has been pretty much exemplary – something apparently not replicated by some other teams – and Smibert himself has shown immense respect, support and encouragement towards the girls, even offering after Sunday’s match to play them in a friendly in the future.
He said: “The girls played some good football. I wish my boys had some of the attitude that they did.
“I guess it’s been a hard experience for them, going from winning every game to losing every game. But I hope they’ll continue to play because it’s great to see so many girls getting into football these days.
“Here at Cosmos we’ve got three girls’ squads and it’s brilliant to have them.”
Wasps’ playing record 2016/17
|Best result:||1-1 v Lindfield Jun (h)||Scorers:||Chanelle Gainsford||2|
|Biggest defeats:||0-21 v Hassocks Jun Hawks (h)||0-17 v Withdean Youth (a)||Ellie Livingstone||1|
|0-20 v Horley T Youth (h)||0-17 v Preston Panthers Youth (a)||Poppy Nicholls||1|
|1-18 v Withdean Youth (h)||Amy Perry||1|
Smibert does not believe Wasps’ presence has lowered the standing of the league, despite the damning statistics.
“Our division is not great at the moment, and there are a bunch of teams that are way ahead of the others and there are others, down at the bottom that are more competitive,” he said.
“It was great to see the girls get a draw against Lindfield (their only point of the season). They gave a good account of themselves when they played us and Lindfield – which should be the sort of teams they should be up against, not the ones in the upper half.”
Smibert said he would recommend playing in boys’ leagues to other girls’ teams, but he cautioned: “They need to maybe look wider afield at other divisions. We’re now looking at the Sussex Sunday League because they’ve got four divisions.
“We’ve only had two divisions because we’ve only had 14 teams in Mid Sussex at this age group, and it doesn’t really spread the teams out fairly. Our scorelines have been double-figures against us, as well.”
Like Wood, her assistant, Stannard, also thinks there have been more benefits than setbacks from a season well and truly outside their comfort zone.
“We’ve had some heavy scores, but they’ve never let them get them down. They’ve stuck to their beliefs that Woodie’s instilled in them, to try and play football. And even when we’ve lost [by] big scores, we’ve had some really good comments from managers to say they love the way we play football, which is nice, isn’t it?”
He added: “As the season’s gone on, whereas we were camped in our own half, learning how to defend as a unit, we then started to progress into their half and we started to expect more from games.
“Whether it’s getting a few shots off or putting their defence under pressure, as the season has gone on, that’s what we have got out of the games. Maybe the results haven’t shown that, but we’ve seen it.”
But next season threatens to stall all the progress the team have made in this difficult year.
The club were told earlier this year to make a decision on where they would play next season, and the rushed vote of the majority of the players was to move away from the boys’ league, where the prospect of girls still as young as 14 playing lads who would by then be little short of grown men was unappealing to many of those already facing weekly batterings on the pitch.
The girls could not move up an age group in the female league because the minimum qualifying age is 16.
Wood would have preferred for the girls to have remained in the Under-15 division of the Mid Sussex Youth and Minor League, where they played this season, even though some of the squad would technically be too old.
Many of the girls are now understood to have had second thoughts about switching back to the girls’ league, but the deadline for receiving special FA dispensation to stay down a year in the boys’ competition has now expired.
They were also thwarted in their efforts to move to the Surrey girls under-16 league, which features stronger teams, with the likes of Crystal Palace and AFC Wimbledon, because Wasps come under the jurisdiction of the Sussex FA, which already provides a league for their age group.
So instead they will return to the Sussex County Women and Girls Football League, playing in the Under-16 Division, where they will face the sort of sides they were already hammering two years ago, even before the improvements that playing in a boys’ league have produced.
But will Wood and Stannard still be at the helm?
Wood, who is now part of the coaching team with Super League Brighton’s development squad, said: “[Brighton] have to take priority, which is why I’ve missed a couple of [Wasps] games.
“I have told the girls that what happens at Brighton will determine whether I can coach them next year.”
And Stannard, who stuck with Wasps even when his own daughters moved from Crawley to Brighton several seasons ago, is still unsure what the future holds for him and the team he helped build.
“My daughters don’t play here any more. The fact that they want to go back to girls’ football is less of a challenge for me, less of a challenge for Woodie, so we’re in a bit of a quandary at the moment.
“It was the girls’ decision but I honestly think if you went back to them now, a few of them would change their minds if they go back to winning convincingly and having no challenge.”
So what do the girls make of their make-or-break season?
‘You can’t see it but we’ve got better’ – the views of players, parents and officials.