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Grace Stanley sees the evolution of Cambridge City Ladies ahead of new FA Women’s National League season

Grace Stanley has seen first hand the evolution of football at Cambridge City Ladies.

The 23-year-old is ready to start a new season with the Lilywhites in FA Women’s National League, Division One South East having returned to the club after a period away.

Stanley was back at City for the aborted campaign last year, but before that had spent four years at Loughborough University.

Having been part of the Cambridge centre of excellence, she was one of the crop of players that stepped out of youth football to form the first City side to enter into the women’s league.

After a year with the squad, Stanley went to Loughborough University to study sports psychology and played for the university and Loughborough Foxes, making a few appearances in her first two years away.

“It was really good and it was a chance to experience something in terms of a different football set-up,” Stanley says of her time at university.

“Obviously with Cambridge City, we have completely different ages – some 16-year-olds and some 30-year-olds, whereas at university you are all a very similar age and in a very similar point so that was nice to see that environment.

“It helped me coming back to Cambridge City and enjoying that as well, the aspect of fun and enjoyment but also people from different stages of their life – at university, you are very similar.”

With just one year under her belt in women’s football before going to university, the time playing there and at Loughborough Foxes was an invaluable learning experience.

“It is a lot about tactically understanding the game as well, not just being a good footballer,” she says.

“You need to learn how to win games. As Cambridge City were learning that while I was away in their women’s league, I was learning that at Loughborough in terms of game management and how to tactically develop and how to tactically be aware of how the match is changing.”

There was also the aspect of playing in a higher tier, with Loughborough Foxes a step above City in the pyramid. But Stanley does not feel there is a big gulf between the two divisions.

“Cambridge City is quite a young team so we do have a lot of development to do,” she says. “But in comparison, I wouldn’t say it was a big difference to be honest because we do have very talented and very experienced players.

“I think it is a similar balance to be honest, even though they are in different leagues.”

Stanley has returned to Cambridge for her career, working for a sport charity in deprived areas of the country to get people active.

Based remotely from the London offices, it has meant that Stanley has returned to City to play.

“I think it’s just a lovely team,” she explains. “You very rarely, in women’s football, get such a nice team but at such a good level.

“Usually, it’s either a really nice team that’s quite casual and quite a casual set-up or a really elite team that can be quite cut-throat and quite a harsh team. The girls are just such a nice team to play with, and there are good quality coaches as well where you are enjoying it but also playing really good football.”

And the club as a whole is very different position to the one she left.

“To start with, they had one women’s team led by Tim (Rapley) and just trained once a week,” says Stanley.

“Now, we have three teams – the development squad and the A team as well. We have sports scientists, coaches at each level, high quality, training twice a week and great facilities at Ely City Football Club, with the new one [stadium] being built as well.

“It’s just becoming a much more professional, elite environment where it is more focused on playing better football but also because we have such a good youth team working the young players up to get into the women’s team as well, it’s such a good pathway.

“It’s probably one of the best I’ve ever been involved with in women’s football, of having a pathway of players coming up and the majority of the players are products of the youth team.”

The season gets starts at Hashtag United this Sunday (August 8).

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