Lee Walshaw is halfway through a 12 hour shift at the Steelphalt Academy when, over the first of umpteen coffees, we begin discussing Sheffield United Ladies football team.
The demands on his time and fact our meeting is taking place inside the club’s state-of-the-art training complex confirms that, after years of battling stereotypes and prejudice, the women’s game is now a serious business. Particularly, after being officially brought under the United banner, at Bramall Lane.
“I was speaking to someone about this not so long ago,” Walshaw, carefully pouring milk into his red and white mug, says. “I told him ‘These aren’t lady footballers. They are footballers who happen to be ladies.’ They deserve respect and, with how they approach their work, they demand it too.”
Last season was a remarkable success story for United who, after spending six years languishing in League One, blazed a trail back into the second-tier. Then, several weeks later, their under-18’s prevailed in the PDL play-offs. But as Walshaw, SUFC Ladies’ general manager points out, the titles did not end there. The women, under the guidance of coach Dan O’Hearne, were crowned East Midlands Premier League champions while their reserves also finished the campaign in style to complete a memorable quartet.
“The first team, the academy under-18’s, the ladies and the ladies’ reserves all won their respective competitions,” Walshaw continues. “The ladies reserves went unbeaten through the entire thing. The whole club, there was a buzz all the way through it. And being the ladies’ first year in the club proper, they were riding on the back of it.”
United’s decision to formally adopt the Ladies - “It used to be more of an association,” Walshaw explains - has brought other tangible benefits too.
“Now the club has taken us on board totally rather than providing bits of assistance, we train twice a week, on the astro, at the training ground,” he reveals. “Straight away, the whole thing has got more of a professional image. Which is good because it’s becoming, women’s football, really big news.
“Everybody, right from the under-10 girls to the first team, is going to be dressed the same as the men. There’s a synergy throughout the whole club. It says ‘We are Sheffield United.’
“Before, they didn’t train here. Now we do and that’s a big selling point. It’s not just a gesture, we’ve come on board to make it work. It’s come from Kevin McCabe so everybody has taken it on.”
McCabe, United’s co-owner, demonstrated his own commitment to raising the profile of United Ladies by appointing Walshaw on a full-time basis six months ago. Previously the academy’s international coach, he also oversees a dedicated FA regional training, again located at Shirecliffe, which works with ‘elite level’ girls.
“I’m here, in a full-time role, and that’s unheard of at many other clubs. We’ve got a part-time welfare officer. It’s pretty unusual for someone like me to be full-time. It’s a split role whereby I look at the first team, the grassroots and also our RTC. They are run by the FA and we are one of only 32 clubs to be given a licence.
“The under-10’s and 12’s train twice a week for two hours and play in the local boys league on a Saturday and Sunday. The ‘14’s and 16’s train three hours a week and play against other RTC’s. It’s proper football.
“The commitment these girls show is phenomenal. We’ve got girls coming over from places like Bradford and Hull. But they want to be footballers.
“Some of our girls from the old centre of excellence have gone on to play for England. But, before, they left because there wasn’t a pathway through. Now, hopefully, that doesn’t have to happen.”
McCabe, Walshaw admits, has got big plans for United Ladies. The men, it transpires, are not the only squad he wants to see competing at top-flight level over the coming years.
“He’s said ‘this isn’t going away, it’s going to work’,” Walshaw says. “He’s set us a target of being in the Women’s Super League in five years time so that’s another two promotions. We’ve bought ourselves a bit of time by getting the first of three in the first season. It’s going to be tough but I think it’s achievable.”
The exploits of O’Hearne’s players have attracted attention beyond the boardroom too.
“We had a table at the end of season presentation and our player of the year was presented with her award on stage. For us to be a part of the evening, it just showed, to the full extent, how far things have come.
“The first team players here have taken a real interest. Billy (Sharp) always asks, he’s Sheffield United through and through, and at the dinner, Simon Moore came over and asked to speak to our ‘keeper. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there. It’s really good though that he wanted to do that. It shows that we are recognised as being a real part of the club.”
To further cement their position at the heart of United, Walshaw is busy working on a series of pioneering projects; one loosely based on the academy’s ‘Futures’ programme and another, he admits, inspired by a former Arsenal and England centre-forward.
“I’m looking at trying to ‘buddy’ the players up. So the skipper or the centre-forward buddies up with Billy and so on. A few years ago, I met up with Leanne Sanderson and she told me she was Thierry Henry’s ‘buddy’. She went to quite a few events with him. So it raised the profile of the womens’ team and helped with the connectivity. We’ve spoken about putting that in place.”
“We’re looking at trying to get an education programme for girls only,” Walshaw adds. “So, when they leave school at 16, they came come here. We’ve got a classroom so they can do their learning and education. And they can also train at a professional club. It’s a little bit like the Futures’ programme. They can play for us in midweek and also our development team on a Sunday, If they are good enough, they’ll play for the first team.
“We’re trying to mirror what happens with the mens’ team. The new development team will play here on a Sunday so, every weekend, there will be a women’s game on here. We’re targeting one per cent of the club’s home crowd to come and watch. That’s a big target but it’s something to work for. Again, it’s achievable but it will take time.”
Despite breaking down barriers in recent years, thanks, in no small part, to the increased media coverage which followed England’s third placed finish at the 2015 World Cup, Walshaw acknowledges there are still plenty of folk who think football is the men’s rather than the people’s game.
“The biggest hurdle to overcome is probably one of perception,” he says. “It used to be seen as a man’s game and, if you look back at pictures from the Fifties, there was hardly a woman in the crowd. United have done a great job of bringing families to the game though and, hopefully, that has made the job easier.”
“We played two games at Bramall Lane last season and had up to 400 there,” Walshaw adds. “It was a great experience. A lot of our players, like I said, sit on the Kop at weekends. They’re United supporters and, like any man, dream of playing at Bramall Lane.”
So how would Walshaw sell the idea of watching United Ladies to more sceptical supporters?
“Physically, it might never quite match the mens’ game. But technically and tactically, yes it can. And in terms of the commitment too. The success of the WSL has really put the womens’ game on the map. Tackles fly in and the will to win is unbelievable. I was really surprised myself when I first came here. The standard is really high.
“It’s free, you can bring the family the family along for no expense and it’s part of something new. That was one of the big attractions for me too. It’s something exciting and something that will be a big part of the club going forward. So why not get involved? If you support the first team, we are also playing in red and white stripes. And it’s another successful team.”
Walshaw, whose role involves dealing with the FA, various “secretarial stuff” and ensuring criteria relating to the RTC are met, is convinced United’s Ladies are equipped to build upon their recent progress.
“The staff here, like Dan the manager, are volunteers. They’ve shown so much dedication. He’s a bit worried about setting the bar too high with what was achieved last season. But it’s nothing worry about because it’s down to his hard work, the players and lots of other people too.”