I’m a PE teacher and the Euros is having the effect on women’s football I could only dream of;
Last year, as I handed out Lioness player cards to my year eight PE class, I watched as they read the names and positions of the women few of them had ever heard of. Names like Millie Bright, Rachel Daly and Lucy Bronze.
This Sunday, I’m confident they’ll be shouting those names at the television, because this Euro’s tournament has done the very thing I’ve been trying to do as a player and teacher for so many years – introduce female football role models to our children.
A few nights ago, after England beat Sweden in the semi-final, I had messages from neighbours, friends and students I’m currently on a school trip with who couldn’t wait to talk about it with me in the morning. It was truly a moment I’ll treasure.
I’ve taught in the PE department for 10 years and I’ve probably talked far too much about my footballing career to the students, but I look at it like this: you cannot be what you cannot see, and I want girls to see football as an option.
It’s so easy for boys to follow the path into the game. Most have parents and friends who follow clubs and, let’s face it, men’s football is everywhere. But try to find a women or girls team close to you. Seriously, search for it now, it’s not as easy as you think.
That’s why I have dedicated part of my teaching career to developing girl’s football in Hertfordshire. I have led the U16s girls Hertfordshire county squad for a decade, taking players from grassroots level all the way up to international training camps.
Girls in my school have the opportunity to play football in their PE lessons, in after school clubs and to represent the school. They are actively encouraged to join local teams, attend county trials and participate in competitions. We make it our mission to support them through this process, to give them the confidence to push themselves outside their comfort zones and it works. But we are in a minority – only 44 per cent of secondary schools in England offer the same football lessons to girls as boys.
But there’s only so much we can do – what we’ve been waiting for is a national shift in the way we see female footballers. We need to see them as icons, role models, women to aspire to, not as women playing a predominantly men’s game, but as the team that can bring football home for everyone.
That needs to happen at home with their parents, in the park with their friends and of course in the classroom. Why shouldn’t we be asking our daughters if they’d like to go for a kick about?
Sometimes in school it’s still talked about as a “boy’s game” by the students. It can be really hard to get girls interested at times because it has been drilled into them for years that this is a game for boys. But that moment when a student realises she’s really talented, that she can represent a big team and that she can dribble the ball past any peer – now that’s a very special moment.
Recently I saw first-hand the impact seeing success can have on students. It came in the form of an ad campaign in which one of my girls stood next to Tottenham and England captain Harry Kane for a Tottenham kit launch. The students could not believe their eyes and I think it may have just helped her classmates to see that women’s footballers are getting the respect they deserve – that they too, can have a career in the sport.
Other girls I’ve coached are appearing for first teams in the Women’s Super League and playing in the Vitality Women’s FA Cup. It’s one thing to listen to me talk about football, and another to see a girl your age excel on the pitch and appear in televised games. Interest started to peak from other girls – and I can just feel that this tournament – this team – is going to influence even more.
There’s still a long way to go to give every girl the chance to have a kick around, to be able to find a local team, and see where the game takes her. You only have to look on Twitter to see that misogyny and stereotypes are still hard at work. But now is the time to rise above that kind of negativity.
My dreams of one day becoming a professional footballer are now a reality for young girls. As a teenager I played in hand-me-down men’s kits and travelled hours to training, to the nearest decent girl’s side. I didn’t mind a second of it because it gave me a sense of belonging. I had a space in football and I shared it with other girls. As a teacher I’ve tried to pass that on to students.
I am still playing aged 33 and have to face the embarrassment of playing much younger, faster girls who I’ve coached since they arrived at the school aged 11. I now watch them whizz past me – but I can see their future and their potential on that field, and I know what I’m doing is working.
I am filled with excitement for the future of the women’s game – the boys in school have been coming to talk to me about female players. I never thought we would be in this position. The future of the women’s game is bright and as teachers, parents and coaches it is so important that we use these new female role models as examples in lessons. It is far too easy to default to using male players names and we must actively try to diversify our teaching.
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, women’s football is about to explode. I’m confident that next term, when I bring out those player cards the class won’t be looking at a handful of women they’ve never heard of – they’ll be talking about the team we’re all so very, very proud of.
Hayley Wood-Thompson is a local PE teacher and footballer playing for Cheshunt FC Women