It was never my intention to set up a football club for girls. It actually happened by accident. And now looking back over the past two years of running Hackney Laces, I’m both proud and perplexed by how something that literally started from nothing turned into something quite extraordinary.
The London Borough of Hackney isn’t the most glamourous of places. Home of ‘murder mile’ in the early 2000's, Hackney has a reputation of being one of the most crime-ridden area of London. Although crime rates have decreased in recent years, it still faces a host of social inequality issues, not limited to poor health, high teenage pregnancy rates, and a large portion of the borough’s residents living in temporary housing.
I live in Hackney and I used to spend my spare time kicking a football around in the park near my house. Sometimes on my own and sometimes with friends. One day a girl came up to me and asked if I knew of a team she could play with. I told her I didn’t but I’d look and get back to her. After many phone calls and emails to local parks, clubs, charities and the council I was reduced to defeat — I couldn’t find a place for her to play. So instead, each week I told her to meet me in the park and we would have a kick about. One girl soon turned into ten and I started feeling nervous that I knew nothing about them should someone get hurt. This is when I decided to set up a football club for girls in my local area. I asked lots of talented women I knew — both good footballers and positive role models if they’d help me coach. I applied for some funding, found us a pitch and we started Hackney Laces, the borough’s first club for teenage girls.
According to Sport England the highest drop off rate for girls in any sport is between the ages of 13-17. Research suggests that this is due to various factors not limited to apathy, too much on at school, childcare and family responsibilities and a growing attraction to the opposite sex. Bearing this in mind I knew it would be hard to engage and maintain numbers every week at our club.
I also know that football is an incredibly male dominated sport in the UK so we faced all kinds of barriers with regards to access to space, funding and social stigmas. With this knowledge I knew we had to be creative in our ways if we really wanted to create something special — something positive, good for the girls and good for the wider community. Many things have contributed to the overwhelming number of young women we work with (currently 157) but I believe the following factors were paramount in making Hackney Laces what it is now.
1. Young people — boys and girls — are always being told what to do. They are rarely involved in the decision-making process or asked their opinions about things. At Laces the players make the rules and they get to tell us how the club should be run.
2. It’s free. Whenever we get an email or a phone call from someone wishing to join us, the first question is always where do you train, shortly followed by a second question of how much does it cost. Cost is a barrier and we strongly believe that a sport like football should be accessible and available to all.
3. When many of our players told us they couldn’t train because they have to look after their little brother/sister/niece/nephew/cousin we always thought it was an excuse not to come, when in fact it was a legitimate and recurring problem. Seeing as all the coaches are CRB checked and trained to work with young people we started telling our players to bring whoever they’re looking after along. So all the little ones go with one coach and then the girls get to play football. It’s like a football creche and everyone gets to play.
4. We don’t hold trials and we don’t cut any of our players. Everyone is welcome regardless of ability or experience. If a player misses a week it’s ok. They know there is always a place for them in the club. It’s a place they belong.
5. The atmosphere is always fun. We don’t take ourselves too seriously and we make sure the girls don’t either. It’s about being able to be yourself.
6. Positive female role models. Many of our players idolise the coaches. Some want to be able to do as many kick ups as Jenny; some want to be able to run the wing like Jess, or be able to shout as loud as Lottie. Others want to be inside Sarah’s brain to download all of the football knowledge she has from a lifetime of watching Manchester United and England play. Everyone wants to be like Keisha who grew up in Hackney but had to travel around neighbouring boroughs so she could play football as a kid. Female coaches add a level of aspiration and inspiration which is a powerful force in attracting teenage girls who have not much to do and aspire to be like reality TV stars.
We went from one girl in the park to the army we now have, simply because there was a need and we saw a way we could fix it. We strongly encourage anyone working with young people, young women in particular, to challenge yourself to do things differently. Write your own rules. For us this what has made the project a success.
A few weeks back a man who has lived in Hackney his whole life brought along his 14 year-old daughter and he looked at all the girls running around, squealing. He said, ‘where did you find all these girls?’ To which I replied, ‘we don’t find the girls, the girls find us.’