Cottenham United growing girls' football through SSE Wildcats sessions
Bumper numbers show hunger for football
An evolution is taking place in Cottenham.
It is hidden from view, and even the participants may not currently understand the significance of the role they are playing.
The venue is the primary school, and the central figures are, on this particular day, 37 youngsters aged between five and 11 taking part in a football training session.
There is a buzz of excitement and enthusiasm for the drills, and it is an atmosphere that feels different to other training sessions.
Of course, there is the usual array of football shirts on show, from Manchester City to Cambridge United, but what makes this training unique is the identity of the players – they are all girls.
We have long known that boys constantly talk football, arguing the merits of the best players and teams and recreating their favourite famous goals in the playground.
But if there was ever any doubt of the appetite of girls for the sport, then the success of the SSE Wildcats session at Cottenham Primary School should answer the questions.
Run in conjunction with Cambs FA, the sessions are designed to inspire girls to take part in football, and through word of mouth alone, the numbers have risen from six to 37 in only 10 weeks.
“When we set this stall out, we honestly hoped if we could get 15, maybe 20 at a push – because it had never had this focus before in the village – we would be over the moon,” said Simon Rose, who runs the training with David Burkett.
“To sit here and have 38 registered members and 30 to 34 players every single week is absolutely amazing. And we’re still getting new people turning up, which means the girls are talking about it in the school.
“I think, if you keep it fun and target everything for the girls’ and what they enjoy, they start spreading the word.
“I think it speaks volumes about the fact that we probably have a perception that girls don’t want to play football; we have a perception that football is a men’s game when, in truth, this proves that it isn’t and the girls sell it themselves.
“I have heard through the grapevine that girls are now coming up at lunchtimes and challenging the boys to games, which is great to hear – when they start winning, that will be even better.”
Rose, pictured left above, is Cottenham United Colts chairman and Burkett, pictured right, a lead coach at the club, and their efforts make you realise how much the growth of girls’ football depends on volunteers, and seeing the demand to provide opportunities, alongside the support of county FAs.
In order to give something back to the community, the pair first started coaching sessions for 11 to 16-year-old girls at Cottenham Village College.
They took time to get off the ground, but a minor alteration in approach – changing the training night from Wednesday to Tuesday – has led to it blossoming, and with numbers now at 18, they will be launching a team to play in the league next season.
“That was probably a bigger challenge,” said Rose. “When we first started a year or so ago, we had three or four turning up each week and it was quite difficult – not quite enough to play a match or do drills.
“But me and David kept persisting. We went into the school, we did a few assemblies, we did a lot of work with the PE department to try to kickstart it even more.
“It was just something where we could say, as a club in a thriving community, we can give something back which we’ve got a bit of knowledge in and we’ve got a bit of experience.
“And if four turned up, we’d have given that opportunity to four girls. If they go on to play professional football then you’d sit there and argue that was worthwhile.
“For us to get 50 girls in this village now playing football, that 18 months ago were not playing football, it’s brilliant.”
Rose stresses the importance of keeping football fun for the girls, and giving them the confidence to enjoy themselves – it is evident at the SSE Wildcats training sessions that some of the younger ones like doing the drills and kicking a ball around with their friends, but are less interested in playing matches.
On the other hand, the older players are clearly keen to learn as much as possible to hone their skills – and take it into their new team next season. With that, Rose offers some observations.
“Girls listen a lot more than the boys do, and from that perspective they’re not frightened to keep trying because I guess they understand by keep doing things,” he said.
“Whereas, I think with boys that thought process is more about getting on with a match, scoring a goal and winning the game.
“That’s something I’ve noticed massively in the difference between the girls and the boys.
“When you talk to the girls as a group, particularly the older ones, you’ve got their focus and they will listen to every word and hang on every word you say, and go away and try it and try it.”
He added: “A lot of local clubs are building girls’ football and when you’re seeing so much of other parts of football dying off or reducing in numbers, it’s great to start seeing girls’ football expanding.”
Rose and Burkett’s efforts have earned Cottenham United Colts the Best Inclusive Project and Development Club prizes in the Cambs FA Community Awards, and also the regional Best Inclusive Project prize.
And in years to come, we could be seeing a Cottenham ladies team become a dominant force.