As the Olympics draw to a close, once more the debate rages about funding for elite sport, and whether we the public get “value for money” from our top athletes.
The money that goes into grassroots gets much less media coverage – but is no less important.
“We want to make sure girls all get the opportunity to play football,” said England and Chelsea striker Fran Kirby.
She spent an evening with Bracknell Town Under-11 girls and helped to deliver a coaching session as part of a programme led by the FA and energy firm SSE.
“If you’ve never played football before, this gives them a chance to do so. The funding that SSE and the FA are putting into women’s football at the moment, you can’t fault it,” she added.
Kirby grew up nearby, in Reading, going on to play for Reading Women and got her first England caps while still at her hometown club, so it was a visit close to her heart.
“I think it’s a massive stepping stone for women’s and girls’ football when you do get those opportunities,” Kirby mused.
“When I was younger there wasn’t many opportunities like this now – you’d go to a centre of excellence or you played in a boys’ team.
“There [weren’t] many girls’ teams around at that time and so you were never really given the opportunity. It’s great that girls now are getting those opportunities to play.
“You can go on to play for a club or do more sessions at school – there’s loads of little things that can encourage [girls] to [play] – especially when they’ve got England players coming down to speak to them, I think that’s really important, and inspiring them to come and watch the game, or go and play a game yourself. It all adds up.”
There are 61 clubs who have signed up to this new Participation Programme, and they get funding to run girls-only coaching sessions. It encompasses clubs at the top of the Women’s Super League, like Arsenal Ladies, and stretches right down to grassroots with clubs like Bracknell.
Kirby was also enthusiastic about the growth in media coverage at the top of the women’s game, explaining that lots of the girls at Bracknell had been watching the Olympic football after enjoying the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Of course, with no Team GB there in the women’s football competition, it was slightly more bittersweet for Kirby to watch – even though she had been cheering on her Chelsea teammate Hedwig Lindahl, goalkeeper for silver medallists Sweden.
“Of course we want to play at every major tournament we can, and obviously not being able to play in the Olympics, it is devastating and it’s a tournament we’re missing out on, as players and as a country, so it is devastating,” she admitted.
“But at the same time, we’re footballers and we’re focused on the Euros next year and how we prepare for them – to be in the best state of physical fitness and mind that we can be.”
Credit: SSE’s Participation Programme is creating opportunities for girls to play football across England. To find out how you can get involved, visit sse.co.uk/girls-united.
*Carrie Dunn is SHOOT’s Women’s Football correspondent. Her book ‘The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England’ is out now – available in all good bookshops.*