Islington’s women’s football clubs: We can’t get training space because booking system favours men’s teams

Goal Diggers. Picture: Milo Belgrove from @mondialmag

Goal Diggers. Picture: Milo Belgrove from @mondialmag - Credit: Archant

Grassroots women’s football clubs are being denied access to primetime training spaces on Islington pitches by a system they say favours block booking by better-established men’s teams.

Club Local. Picture: Texas Maragh

Club Local. Picture: Texas Maragh - Credit: Archant

With the second lowest amount of open space of any borough in England, start-up women's teams in Islington are training intermittently at local secondary schools and parks, claiming that sponsored men's league games dominate weekday evening training slots.

Operators of Islington's public sports facilities Better/GLL confirmed to the Gazette that hiring full-sized pitches at peak times for up to 60 minutes costs between £66 and £97, while block-booking is available for regular users.

Bookings are made on a "first-come-first-served basis" with a waiting list, rather than by sharing the space out between everyone who wants it.

Block-booking for months at a time is often out of reach for smaller teams because of its cost.

Goal Diggers in action. Picture: Karen Yeomans

Goal Diggers in action. Picture: Karen Yeomans - Credit: Karen Yeomans

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Because of this, the founder of grassroots women's and non-binary people's club Goal Diggers, Fleur Cousens, told the Gazette it had taken her four months to find available and affordable pitch space back in 2015.

Eventually, an agreement was procured with The Bridges' Secondary School near Kentish Town, but the deal only allows a third of the Goal Diggers players to attend at once.

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Despite receiving £1,000 in funding from Islington Council and £1,500 from FA's "Grow the Game" grant in acknowledgement of Goal Diggers' efforts, Fleur says the inaccessibility of training spaces is holding them back.

Smaller teams, meanwhile, are unable able to guarantee their training sessions will even go ahead.

A Club Local player in training. Picture: Texas Maragh

A Club Local player in training. Picture: Texas Maragh - Credit: Archant

Club Local is a young women's team with about 50 members. Organiser Zuleika Knowles said: "Because booking out pitches is impossible for our club, we train at Highbury Fields. Who knows if we'll be able to sustain this over the winter?

"The council has actually banned football and cricket, but for some reason hasn't banned rugby. So while Park Patrol break up the six of us just kicking a ball around, they've got no issue letting a 40-strong group of rugby boys take our place."

Both Zuleika and Fleur expressed their concerns to Islington Council, but the council's only solution was to offer training slots at prime facilities, like Whittington Park and Market Road, at awkward times - such as late on a Friday.

GLL added: "There is late evening capacity on our football pitches and we are happy to welcome the women's team if they would like to make a booking."

Goal Diggers in action. Picture: Karen Yeomans

Goal Diggers in action. Picture: Karen Yeomans - Credit: Karen Yeomans

But Fleur said: "Training at 9pm on a Friday just isn't feasible for working women who need to spend time with family and friends. There needs to be a commitment to democratising mid-week slots occupied by the same teams for years.

"Young girls in particular need to see women training to understand that this is not a 'men's sport'. It's so frustrating that 11-a-side pitches are being used by 22 men while 60 of us are crammed onto a school astro pitch. It's illogical."

The clubs' perception that Islington Council lacks understanding about the scale of women's football also wasn't helped by its decision in 2017 to convert the five-a-side football pitches at the Sobell Leisure Centre in Finsbury Park into a trampoline park. Town hall bosses said the idea was to get "more teenage girls exercising".

A spokesperson this week said: "We are committed to promoting sport for women and girls around the borough, and we sympathise with the Goal Diggers in their search for a pitch.

Goal Diggers in action. Picture: Karen Yeomans

Goal Diggers in action. Picture: Karen Yeomans - Credit: Karen Yeomans

"We are looking to expand our pitch provision and are actively working with schools and other venues to try to get access to new spaces for sports, including football."

There is a slot at Whittington Park for local women's teams to play league games, of which Goal Diggers are a part.

Islington Borough Ladies FC has also had its own regular booking there for more than a decade, but this is little help to newer teams. The club has recently committed to putting on beginners' sessions for local mums on Thursday mornings, but this isn't necessarily viable for teams with a younger membership.

A representative from Islington Borough Ladies FC said: "There are so many more women's teams now than there were two years ago, and it's physically impossible to accommodate the demand. We all just have to make the most of what we can get."

See editor's comment, page 11

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