Photographs by JJ Waller

Anyone who knows me will know that I’m very much an advocate of gender equality: I’ve written children’s books about it, created animations and made t-shirts and I’m not shy to shout about my feminist agenda and how much inequality angers me. So when a member of the Get Hastings team suggested that we do a feature on Hastings United Girls Under 12s, I jumped at the chance.

Like many people up and down the country, our brilliant Lionesses winning the Euros in 2022 evoked an emotion in me that was so very different from how I feel watching the England men’s team do well. Sarina Wiegman and her team obviously played brilliantly and they deserved their win, but it was more than that. It was a lesson in female positivity, leadership, bravery, friendship, kindness, comradery and fun! I cried as I witnessed the absolute pride in their smiles and tears, and I laughed as Chloe Kelly grabbed the mic from the pundit and ran off for a celebratory singalong with her teammates.

“We’ve got to make sure that they are able to play and get the opportunity to do this because it’s going to inspire a lot of people.” Ian Wright said in an emotional speech. “If there’s no legacy after this then what are we doing? Because girls should be able to play, This is the proudest I’ve ever felt of any England side” he added.

Hastings United U12 player

“MEEEE!!” Was the unanimous sound that erupted when I asked the group of girls if any of them had ambitions to play professionally one day. This is the age group that are supposed to be glued to their phone screens, obsessing over how they look, comparing themselves on Instagram whilst feeling miserable and inadequate. Being the mother of a teenage girl myself I have seen so much of that in girls of that age and this bunch made a stark, welcome and healthy contrast.

There was a gear shift that evening of the final. It was time to ramp up Women’s football in the UK… and women’s football starts with girls football.

I was taken to a training session at Hastings Academy. It was getting dark and it was bitterly cold but Hastings United Girls Under 12s were full of the same kind of positive spirits that I’d witnessed watching the England women’s team.

When I chatted with the team, Skye told me that football enhanced her social skills and was good for her mental health.

Hastings United U12 player
Skye going for goal

Nevaeh said “I like everything about it, it helps me make friends and stuff. Sometimes I don’t agree with the referee but you just have to respect their decision and get on with it.”

“And what do you say if one of your teammates messes up?” I asked. The team’s goalie, Alisha jumped in, “I just say to them don’t worry, this is what training is for, we’ll learn from our mistakes and we’ll just get better and better!”

I chatted with Kerry, a mum who was watching her daughter, Marley. She told me how much Marley enjoys playing football. “She’s had such a traumatic time recently but when everything has been going wrong around her, football has been the one thing that has kept her going. She will never miss training no matter what.”

“There was a gear shift that evening of the final. It was time to ramp up Women’s football in the UK… and women’s football starts with girls football.”

“You see the change in their confidence. Agnes was really shy and she’s really come out of her shell” another parent tells me. “She will go out in all weathers now and she wouldn’t have done that before. It’s crazy how they will play whatever the weather, nothing stops them, and for me, it’s much better than watching swimming!”

I chatted with Mark, their coach, who’s daughter Poppy is also on the team. “Women’s football is just different,” he told me. “I get a lot of satisfaction coaching these girls, seeing them off of their computers, out in the fresh air. I think it’s beautiful and I find it very rewarding to see them all looking out for each other.”

Personally, I have only ever been to one football match in my life. It was to see Barnsley play someone else and “It’s just like watching Brazil!” was being chanted around the football ground by men who were eating pies they had bought from a van in the carpark. However, recently I went to watch Hastings Girls play Eastbourne Borough Youth and well… it was just like watching Brazil!

“This is a big game” one of the mums told me. “If we win this do we go to number two in the league?” she asked another parent.

“I have no idea” came the reply, we all agreed that it was a big game though as we hopped up and down to stop our feet from freezing.

“I should have worn my electric socks” mum #1 said.

Hastings United U12 player

As the girls arrived and got out of their parent’s cars, they would hug one another. You could feel the love and the support

that each of them had for their teammates and this became even more apparent during the game. It was obvious to me what they got from playing football. Friendship is obviously a big aspect, the fresh air and exercise is great for their wellbeing, but they are also learning to work as a team, to not hog the ball and steal the limelight.

They are learning to get back up when they fall down and let’s face it, that is a life skill that most of us need in abundance.

Hastings United Girls Under 12s won their big game 3–2, and I got the impression that most of them felt a genuine sadness for their rivals who were going home disappointed.

Hastings United U12 player

I returned home feeling full of positivity and wondering where I could get some electric socks. I was absolutely delighted that our girls had won and I had a load of respect for the heroes of the game: the mums, the dads and the grandparents who selflessly take their daughters and granddaughters to training and to matches in all weathers. And for their coach, Mark, who has a brilliant relationship with his young team but who is frustrated by the severe lack of facilities, “two or three more artificial pitches are vital for Hastings” he expressed.

I’ve never been particularly sporty myself, but I understand now, that team sport is good for the soul and that girls football should be supported with much more funding and given the status that it deserves. Who knows, a member of this squad could be grabbing the mic to go and sing Sweet Caroline with her teammates some day.

Jubilant, following their win
A proud dad encourages his daughter, Skye
Gracie helps Marley following an ankle injury

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