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Pitch booking review promised in Islington as leisure provider recognises boom in women's football

PUBLISHED: 13:37 23 November 2019 | UPDATED: 13:37 23 November 2019

Club Local. Picture: Texas Maragh

Club Local. Picture: Texas Maragh

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One of the country's leading leisure providers has launched a review into its football pitch booking systems in Islington following claims it denied access to poorly-funded grassroots teams.

Club local playing on their new pitch, owned by Barnsbury Housing Association, aided only by street lamps as they have no flood lights. Picture: Sarah BurgessClub local playing on their new pitch, owned by Barnsbury Housing Association, aided only by street lamps as they have no flood lights. Picture: Sarah Burgess

The review, which began this month and is expected to finish in early 2020, follows the Gazette's revelation that start-up teams - usually women's - were unable to book primetime pitch space for training because of expensive hourly rates and block-booking by established men's teams.

Paul Lister, GLL's head of service for London, said: "In the review, we will look at how we allocate space, renew contracts and manage bookings.

"Working closely with Islington Council, we will nominate a bookings officer to work on the review, under the guidance of a senior Islington-based GLL manager.

"It will also look at wider issues around availability, peaks in demand and current usage by sport and demographic."

Aimed at "ensuring fair and balanced access to leisure spaces" in recognition of the "huge and rapid growth in women's football", Mr Lister confirmed the review is likely to push for compromises among everyone using Islington's limited pitch space.

Sometimes year-long contracts for men's training and league games forces newer teams to play intermittently on secondary school astro pitches and in parks, where sessions were often disbanded by the council's park patrol teams.

One of the teams directly affected is Club Local FC, a women's team headed by Zuleika Knowles based in Highbury.

After the Gazette reported on their struggles in pitch-sourcing, they were offered free training space at Barnsbury Housing Association's in-house sand pitch.

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Its CEO Susan French said: "When I saw the article and what was happening with Islington pitches, I thought: 'Why don't we let one of these women's teams use ours?'

"During the school holidays Arsenal Ladies' coaching team come and do some sessions for the tenants. We're very keen to encourage both boys and girls to play football.

"We are a community-driven housing association and we knew we could help. We're delighted to do our bit and offer up scarce resources to the people who live here.

The team are equally delighted that they now have a pitch to train on.

Speaking to the Gazette at a training session, founder Zu Knowles said: "It's amazing having a space to play on throughout the winter. Now we get to train two times a week - at the park on Sundays and here on an evening.

"Since the article came out we haven't been interrupted by Park Patrol at Highbury fields, either. Maybe that's because our profile has been raised or they recognise it was unfair."

Another player, Sara Bell, added: "We can start to become a proper football team now that we have a pitch.

"When we were playing solely at the park, we kept having people asking us to join in - boys included. We'd then have to explain to them that this was actually an official training session and a women-only space. Now that we have a pitch, we don't have to justify anything to anyone."

Since the team began playing at the association pitch, turnout has improved each week and Club Local now envisages their team transforming into something league-worthy.

Team member Ellie Oppenheim said: "All we need now is floodlights, since it's getting dark in the evenings. We also want a coach: ideally a woman. We have a guy who's interested in helping us out for free, but we'd love some sponsorship so that we can pay them properly."

Keen to see how the review pans out, team captain Texas Maragh said that while the association training space is suiting them perfectly right now, "GLL's astro-turfs would be even better."

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