“I got a call from one of our coaches, who was panicking. Sixty new people had arrived, had never kicked a ball before, but they had all been watching the Lionesses.”
“How many women felt like they could try kicking a ball for the first time? It was only the quarter-final stage. It only went one way,” Hardy explains. “Everyone trains in England shirts, whether it’s a 90s shirt or Leah Williamson’s most recent shirt.”
Six months after the Lionesses lifted the Euro 2022 trophy at Wembley, the Laces are now 550 men. Other clubs have told BBC Sport of similar growth in interest in women’s recreational football in England.
Becca Todd, founder of Team Brave in Bristol, said: “We’ve had huge interest. It’s given people a lot of inspiration and made them realize that football isn’t just for men.
“It’s great to see the Lionesses being such role models and becoming celebrities.”
Aimee Brin and Jessica Irving, who founded Peaches FC in east London for starters during the Covid closures, have also seen big changes, having initially struggled to find a suitable league.
“We couldn’t find a rookie league and we were losing all the time,” says Brin. “Now there are matches five times a week, two Sunday leagues and a Thursday league, because there is so much demand.”
According to the Football Association, there has been a 12.5% increase nationwide in the number of registered female players from September to December 2022, while between June and December there has been a 5% increase in registered players. affiliated women’s clubs.
Brin thinks the Euros showed a wider audience just how welcoming the game is.
“People have realized it’s not just about playing a sport, it’s a whole community and the Euros have provided that platform,” she adds. “It feels more legit – not like playing a random sport.”
Also Atmosphere felt by people in the stadiums at the Euro continues on the pitch, according to Irving, who says it has drawn envious glances from some people involved in men’s grassroots football.
“I’ve had male friends in grassroots teams who said, ‘I wish I could join the women or a mixed team.’ We are aggressive on the pitch, but we take shots with the team at the end. It’s not like we’ve come to eliminate our aggression of the week on rival teams.”
“We do it because we like it”
While the rise in popularity has been welcome for those involved, grassroots football can be tough, especially in the facility rush.
Since the summer, the FA’s own tracking system has shown that bookings made by women’s teams have increased by 196%.
Already an acute situation in the men’s leagues, it’s now something Brin and his team know all too well.
“On Thursdays, due to lack of availability, the field is divided into three for three different women’s matches at a time,” she said.
“Everyone is running like sardines together. There are pitches nearby that have been booked long-term, and these leagues aren’t going to stop.”
Irving adds: “There was one hilarious time when we were playing directly outside a lighted pitch where the men were and we were in the dark, in the mud, trying to use the lighting on their pitch. . But we do it because we love it.”
Hardy, meanwhile, says it’s not as simple as finding a location.
“You can’t have a practice at 10 p.m. – people won’t come if they don’t feel safe,” she says.
“It’s a different experience walking through a dark parking lot if you’re a woman than it is for a man. And for a lot of people it’s their first time playing football – it’s already intimidating.”
While the Euros has inspired many more women to get into football, Hardy believes it has also caused some traditionalists to back down.
“All the abuse experiences I’ve had have been post-Euros,” she says. “We trained on the same pitch for two years, but now there’s comments from men walking behind the pitch – ‘go on honey’ put it in the top corner, show us what you’re up to does”.
“A week after the final we were training and a guy came to the fence and yelled swear words at us for 40 minutes. He stood behind the fence taunting the players, not even trying to hide his disgust for the players. women who play football.”
“People want to play and keep it going for a long time”
And for the future? Well, Todd is keen that the opportunity to capitalize on the historic achievement of the Lionesses last summer should not be missed.
“The Lionesses have called for more football in schools, and that’s going to be important,” she said. “We must have equal opportunities at all levels.”
Hardy, meanwhile, stresses the importance of ensuring there is also funding for adults just getting started in the sport.
“We have a 55-year-old player coming to play for the first time because she was inspired by the Lionesses,” she said. “It’s life changing. She didn’t have the access routes. We have to welcome adult women because they will have as much impact as [England international] Leah Williamson will.”
Another surge in attendance could be imminent, with the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand less than six months away.
“The World Cup will be an incredible month,” says Hardy. “People want to play women’s football, and want it to continue for a long time.”
Brin hopes the newcomers will continue to play the sport.
“It’s important that you don’t feel like you’ve missed a boat,” she says. “We started with 10 people who had never played before, and joining an established team could be scarier.
“I don’t want people to get complacent because it’s normal now – even if it’s still 100 paces behind the men.”