Inspiring a new generation is a Super League aim for Watford’s Vicky Neal
The buzz of developing the women’s game
Showing that dreams are achievable is so important to inspire young people.
It gives them confidence and belief to pursue their goals, and they are all aspects that are particularly pertinent when it comes to developing girls’ football.
Coaches have stressed that making sure the sport is enjoyable for youngsters trying it for the first time is vital to keep them engaged in the game.
It is why role models become such a crucial factor, and in terms of women’s football the likes of England captain Steph Houghton have been a driving force.
But it need not be just at the absolute pinnacle of the game that inspiration arrives, and Vicky Neal’s route to the Women’s Super League with Watford shows that anything is possible.
From a footballing family, Neal’s initial interest in the sport was stoked by watching her brother play and wondering how she could get her hands on some of the trophies that he was winning.
First stop was a boys’ team, with Neal offering an insight into that experience as to why she believes subsequent rule changes will benefit the women’s and girls’ game in the future.
“I started playing with the boys at Bar Hill, but at that time I got to the age of 12 and you had to go and play in a girls’ team,” said Neal.
“That’s changed now which I believe personally will raise the standard of the women’s game massively.
“If you can play with boys and compete with boys, then the standard will go up, as will the confidence.
“And I think confidence with women is a big downfall, whereas if you’re confident enough to take on a boy, you’ll never fear any girl.”
Having to leave Bar Hill, Neal went to Cambridge City girls before progressing to the Cambridge United Centre of Excellence but her hopes of reaching the top were not even a pipedream at that stage.
“No way, not at all,” was Neal’s reply when asked if she imagined ever playing in the Super League.
“It wasn’t publicised that much, it wasn’t known as the Super League.
“It was always a pyramid, and every year at our end of season do, we would get told ‘you guys are here on the pyramid, and you want to try to get to be an international’.
“Every year we would see this pyramid. But it was never really on my radar until university, and that was when I got a taste for it.”
That came while studying at the University of Hertfordshire, who had close links with the Arsenal academy, and the ability to hold her own made Neal believe that she may have a chance of being successful.
But she returned to Cambridge at the culmination of her studies to teach at The Gretton School and set up Bar Hill Ladies.
The fire still burned to try to reach the Super League though, and two years ago she trialled with Watford, and earned a place in the squad.
Yet, those Super League dreams were put on hold again when centre-back Neal suffered a knee injury, tearing an ACL in the warm down after a match, before she had even had the chance to make her debut.
“It was really difficult,” said 27-year-old Neal. “I linked up with Steve Linger (a strength and conditioning coach), and I still see him now; and I swear he is the reason I’m back playing at that level.
“I know so many people that have had ACL injuries in women’s football and they just don’t get back.
“Steve managed to get hold of me early enough to get me back on the right track so that was cool.
“I trained at Cambridge United for a while to get my confidence back but roughly seven months into my rehab, there were Watford trials again and I thought that was fate.
“It was déjà vu, but I went for it and got back in.”
And now Neal is about to start her second season with Watford, with the Hornets’ fortunes having been transformed since the appointment of Keith Boanas as manager.
“It’s been great,” she said. “Keith has got loads of experience in women’s football and I’ve learned loads from him. I’m excited to keep working with him to be honest.
“This year, since Keith’s come in, we’ve finished eighth out of 10, but we managed to lift ourselves off the bottom.
“His aim in the next two years is to get promoted. It’s a massive push, we’ve got the right coaching staff, we’re going to get the right players so it’s definitely a team on the up.”
It is not just the quality of Watford that Neal sees as being on the up, it is also the women’s game.
But she believes that one of the crucial factors is getting more coaches into the sport.
“I think there needs to be more of a push that coaches can make a living out of women’s football,” she said.
“A lot of coaches I know want to be involved in men’s football as a career – they would never think ‘I want to help a women’s team progress’.
“Whereas now that’s a potential opportunity so we will actually attract better coaches that will hopefully drip down to better players and things like that.
“It’s got to be the shift towards, actually you could make a full-time living out of coaching women’s football and the quality is going to be there.
“It’s not there yet, the quality, but I think it’s going in the right direction.”
Having grown up in the area, Neal has a close affinity to women’s and girls’ football in Cambridgeshire, and she recently went to visit the players at the SSE Cottenham Wildcats to impart some advice.
And the message to the youngsters was simple.
“Before I joined a boys’ team, I was at Cottenham in a girls’ team, so I said to them, ‘I was you about 15 years ago – I was you’,” she said.
“I can’t give any more proof than how possible it is than standing there and saying I started at Cottenham in a club exactly like this and I progressed to where I am now because I loved football and I kept going.
“I knew one of the girls because I went to watch a cup final and I like to be around so that they know I’m just a normal person that likes to play football, and you can get there.
“That’s what I want to do, just help them and inspire them to do that.”
And Neal shows that achieving your dreams is possible.