It wasn’t so long ago that it was believed team sports for girls consisted almost entirely of hockey and netball. Football was very much for the boys.
Not any more.
Participation levels amongst women and girls in the game is at its highest and Sheffield and South Yorkshire is at the heart of giving every girl the opportunity to take part, should they wish to.
In the past, if a girl showed an interest in playing, they would have to join a boys’ team and then more than likely drop out as teenagers, as there was often a gap in age groups.
Now, more junior clubs are adding girls teams to their ranks and the region’s big senior clubs are throwing their weight behind increasing participation amongst girls right down to the ages of eight and nine.
However, competitive football isn’t for everyone. Not all kids, boys or girls, want to play every week in a team and some just want to have a kickaround.
That’s where the SSE Wildcats Centres come in.
While most of the centres, a scheme rolled out across the country by the Football Association and organised here by the Sheffield and Hallamshire FA, are linked with local clubs, the main focus is on giving girls space and time to play, mostly for enjoyment but with a few new skills picked up along the way.
Carla Ward, manager of Sheffield United ladies’ side, knows the importance of giving young girls the chance to play, having had to mix it with the boys when she started kicking a ball.
“I was still having to play along with boys when I was 15 or 16 and even at that stage things were starting to grow, but nowhere near where we are now,” said Carla, below left.
“Opportunities for girls to play when I was younger were scarce but thankfully, now, if anyone wants to play football, there’s somewhere for them to go.
“That’s why the Wildcats Centres are so important. There might be girls who want to play in the playground but find that they can’t get involved with the boys for whatever reason, or are a bit unsure about it.
“This is all about participation and giving the girls the space and time around other girls their age, just to enjoy themselves.
“Obviously if they want to take that on and get involved in a club further down the line, then that’s brilliant. At this stage though, it’s giving girls the confidence in themselves around other girls who are doing the same thing.
“They can go on and develop as footballers if they want and perhaps we will get from this the next generation of players from the city.”
As much as anything, though, the Wildcats Centres are about bringing social skills to young girls from the ages of 5-11, as Sarah Wood, Football Development Manager at Sheffield and Hallamshire FA explains.
“It’s all about three things - having fun, making friends and playing football,” says Sarah.
“Girls like to be sociable and be around their friends, but we want them to grow up loving sport and being healthy and active.
“There are social skills that we want the girls to pick up that will help them as they grow up and later in life.
“Team sports are a great way of developing young people as they grow into adulthood.
“We want girls to take onboard the benefits of being part of a team - it can help with confidence, resilience, leadership, teamwork also give them belief in themselves.”
Neil Speed helps to organise of the Wildcats Centres at Sheffield High, through Crosspool Juniors, who currently have seven girls teams from under 9 up to under 14, and he has seen a big rise in participation already.
“We started off with about six or seven girls coming down and now we have over 20 coming on Thursday nights,” he said.
“We just want to show that there are places for girls to play. That hasn’t always been the case but the number of girls playing and wanting to play keeps rising and it is great to see.
“What’s important in the Wildcats Centres is that we make it as easy as possible for them to want to get involved. There are no hurdles, nothing standing in their way.
“It’s been started at a time when the weather is better, the nights are light and they are always involved, always moving, always with the ball.
“There’s no standing around in the cold, in the dark, waiting for something to happen.
“There are some girls who play with clubs already and this is a way to giving them more practice during the break in the season.
“But there are also many more who are doing this for the first time and you can see them growing more and more confident as the weeks go on because they are playing alongside girls their age and with similar abilities.”
Womens’ football has come a long way but Carla Ward says old-fashioned perceptions remain.
However, this generation of young footballers will find it a lot easier than those who went before them.
“Let’s not pretend that everything is perfect,” she says.
“We still get the odd person who will sneer and say things that they shouldn’t be saying but we are all on the right road.
“The girls that play now at a young age will be coming through a time when the acceptance of girls playing is growing at a fast pace.
“There’s still a lot to do to get rid of some of the perceptions, that football isn’t for girls but things are getting better from that perspective.
“There have never been more opportunities for girls and it is great to see so many taking the chance to play.”