WOMEN'S FOOTBALL SPECIAL FEATURE: Arsenal offer 'perfect environment' for grassroots Hitchin Belles and others to grow
PUBLISHED: 17:34 04 May 2018 | UPDATED: 20:30 04 May 2018
Arsenal reporter Layth Yousif has spent the last few months watching the club's women's team along with visits to grassroots sister club the Hitchin Belles while talking to a number of people in and around both organisations as well as interviewing the Gunners US superstar Heather O'Reilly. Ahead of the Arsenal v Chelsea Women's FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday read on for his exclusive, in-depth report on the ever-growing game of women's football.
It is minutes to kick-off before a Premier League game.
A cluster of young girls chatter excitedly while the Arsenal club mascot, Gunnersaurus, looks on as benignly as a ten foot green dinosaur clad in the club’s red and white can.
Banners with a badge featuring the traditional canon are being unfurled, as tiny flag bearers in full kit form a line of honour that will great the top flight teams as they walk onto the manicured pitch.
However the full kit they are wearing is the blue and white and of the Hitchin Belles and the stadium is Boreham Wood not the Emirates, where the teams are set to compete in the Women’s Premier League not the EPL.
The fact there are so many eager youngsters in the crowd is testament to the healthy state of affairs of the England ladies team that has spurred increased coverage of women’s professional football.
It is also due in large part to the unsung efforts of so many who have a genuine love of this form of our beautiful game.
Arsenal’s Tom Hartley is one of them.
Personable and engaging he is responsible for managing football development programmes for Arsenal women’s football.
He is a Level 4 coach and FA Level 1 and 2 tutor and a keen advocate of growing the game.
He has been tasked with growing the Arsenal sister club programme which to date has seen more than 30 grassroots girls clubs come under the wing of the global giant.
The Hitchin Belles are one such club, hence the reason so many of their youngsters are in attendance for the match in question, Arsenal Women versus Reading Women.
Tom says: “It’s great having Hitchin on board as one of our new sister clubs this season. The aim of the sister club programme is to offer a really positive experience of football.
“To inspire as many people as possible to want to come to games. We also try and help grassroots coaches create the right environment to keep the girls interested. To help Hitchin Belles grow and develop players and keep leading the way.”
The Belles are a great example of a club that has a lot of very dedicated people who want to develop the game and he adds passionately: “There’s a huge amount of opportunity in girls football at the moment and Hitchin really do show that if you put in energy in the right places it will benefit the club.”
There is a strong tradition of supporting women’s football at Arsenal. The club have long been at the forefront of such progress.
While Manchester United have only just agreed to operate a women’s team, this particular strand of the North London giants was founded in 1987 as Arsenal Ladies FC.
They are the most successful English club having lifted an incredible 44 major trophies in 31 years including a pair of Women’s Soccer League titles and prior to the rebranding 12 Premier League trophies as well as 14 FA Cups.
The club are set to compete in another showpiece Wembley final on Saturday as they take on Chelsea in the 2018 edition.
Tom adds: “We’ve been around for 30 years. We are the most decorated club in women’s football and people look at us as the way to do things.
“The way to play the way to bring players through – and if we can share that philosophy with the clubs we work with then that will be great for everybody.
“It’s a perfect environment.”
He is right. There is a family atmosphere to proceedings at the Reading game.
While you might struggle to note youngsters in the Emirates crowd away from the Junior Gunners section, there is a preponderance of tots, kids and teens in the crowd at Boreham Wood – sitting happily with their friends while parents and guardians look on.
The teams walk out – acknowledging the support of the Belles mascots and flag bearers – and the game kicks off.
What is noticeable is that the technique is as good as the men’s.
So is the movement and attacking intent. The crowd watches on attentively and nosily – as anyone who knows the wonderful long-standing Gunners obsessive ‘Maria’ will testify.
The Arsenal Women beat Reading Women 3-1, extending their unbeaten run to 12 games, while moving up to third place in WSL 1 after captain Kim Little curled an excellent effort into the far corner to put the hosts ahead from Jordan Nobbs’ pass.
Louise Quinn outjumped the impressive Royals keeper Mary Earps, with the Gunners Dominique Janssen heading into the net for Arsenal’s second.
Fara Williams then struck a sweet volley to pull a goal back for the visitors before the talented Danielle van de Donk rounded Earps to slot home and seal the points for Joe Montemurro’s side.
I speak to one of the club’s superstars, and an idol to so many, Heather O’Reilly a few days later while she carries out vital community work at the Arsenal Hub, yards from the Emirates.
She recalls the Reading match saying: “We were really happy with our performance against Reading. To be part of Arsenal is a huge honour for me. I was fortunate to have a very full career in the US.
“But one thing I’ve never done is to be part of a big club like Arsenal.
“It’s been a real honour for me to be over here and to wear this badge everyday.
“Arsenal Football Club has such a long tradition. It’s really special and it was a huge draw for me everyday.
“To play for this amazing club every day is incredible.”
Rewind a few months to a freezing, misty Friday night on a floodlit pitch as the Belles hold their weekly training session on Astroturf at a Hitchin school.
All around girls of varying ages are taking part in drills ahead of various small-sided games.
There is a real sense of fun that runs alongside enthusiastic and knowledgeable coaching from unpaid volunteers such as Paul, who turn up for the love of the game.
Every standard of proficiency is accepted and encouraged.
There are accomplished girls who could well have a future at the burgeoning top level of the game if they continue their progress.
But equally, there are girls who just want to take part – to gain the satisfaction that simply comes from playing the world’s most popular game and the camaraderie and sense of belonging that comes with it.
In among the dedicated coaches and young footballers is a familiar face to millions of fans in North America – Heather O’Reilly.
To say she is a superstar in the women’s game is an understatement.
She played for the United States women’s national soccer team – winning three Olympic gold medals and a Women’s World Cup before embarking on a new challenge across the Atlantic with Arsenal in January 2018.
She is happily joining in, taking time to chat to the wide-eyed youngsters, while offering technical advice as well as simply being a cheerleader for the children’s efforts.
Snow might be in the air but Heather is certainly not a diva, even if she is a superstar.
Not that you would know it of course from her friendly demeanour and modesty. Quite simply she has made a positive impression that reflects well on herself, the women’s game, and Arsenal.
Paul Dean, one of the coaches at the Belle, whose daughter also plays for the club said after Heather’s trip to North Herts: “Heather was fantastic. She had time for everyone. She certainly made her mark – she was brilliant.”
Fast forward three months.
Heather is at the Hub, the North London giants community headquarters. It houses two five-a-side pitches and hosts a wide range of activities for those in the area and beyond to use.
The Arsenal Amputee side have just finished their weekly session and the girls of all ages are waiting to take the pitch to play.
Heather, again, is the perfect ambassador. In fact the only time she scowls is when the Women’s FA Cup appears near here.
She may have nearly 400,000 followers on Twitter and is a former World Cup winner, but she is just the same as any footballer in terms of superstition when she politely suggests the trophy be moved away from her for fear of the silverware bringing bad luck ahead of the final against Chelsea at Wembley a week on Saturday.
Otherwise she is politeness personified.
I ask her about the Belles first. A big smile breaks out on her face.
“I loved meeting the Hitchin Belles. They were a wonderful club with some really great players. To build that rapport and that relationship with clubs like the Belles is important to me.
“I remember when I was a young player when professional players came out to my training sessions and I still recall every single conversation with them and the feeling that it gave me.
“I was fortunate enough to go as a 14-year-old to go with the US to the 1999 World Cup and it gave me a real belief in me that I wanted to go on and do something special like that and have an impact on young players.
“My message to the Hitchin Belles is whether it’s football or something outside of the game if you have big dreams and the desire to work hard hopefully you can achieve your goals.
“Hopefully I gave them a little belief that they can do anything.”
Which is what Heather’s side are aiming to do on Saturday when they face Chelsea Women at the national stadium.
Arsenal face a tough challenge against the Blues who are in their fourth final with a new competition record-crowd of more than 40,000 expected.
I tell her more than 200 Hitchin Belles will be making the trip from North Herts to Wembley Stadium.
She replies: “It’s amazing that 200 of them will be at the final to support us. I love the relationships I’ve been able to build here in England.
“I love playing football but to be able to maybe inspire youngsters a little bit is one of the best parts of the job.
“Scoring goals and winning trophies is great but really if you can help people along the way then it’s where our long-term impact will most be felt.
“The programmes they have here are life-changing. I try to come to the Arsenal Hub as much as I can to give back and to keep perspective.
“As a professional player you’re so wrapped up in trying to win trophies and train hard - which is as it should be - but sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the bigger picture.
“You can sometimes forget how meaningful this game can be at a deep level. And if I’m able to come here and inpsire people to play the game, as well as maybe make them forget for a while about certain things they’re going through in everyday life - or even just make people believe anyhting is possible - then that’s what’s it’s all about.
“I’m really grateful to have this game in my life. I’ve been playing it for 29 years and I still have the same passion for it as I did when I was a kid.”
The West Londoners, led by Emma Hayes – who many felt should have been awarded the England job instead of the inexperienced Phil Neville is expecting an epic derby.
Hayes’ side sit in second place in WSL 1 behind leaders Manchester City on goal difference - while Arsenal are now fourth, but only four points behind.
O’Reilly may have earned a barely credible 231 caps for the US spanning a trophy-laden 14 years – including three Olympic gold medals and a World Cup - but she is still excited about appearing at Wembley on Saturday in the Women’s FA Cup final against Chelsea.
O’Reilly, 33, adds: “We are training hard for the cup final. Chelsea are a great side but we’re looking forward to the day at Wembley. We feel like we’ve grown as a team.
“Hopefully we’ll put on a good performance and get the job done and hopefully come home with some silverware for everyone.”
After Arsenal vanquished Reading at Meadow Park it was instructive to note that all the players stayed on the pitch and happily signed autographs for every single one of the young fans waiting for their heroes near the dug-outs.
What was also noticeable was the fact the Arsenal Women enjoyed doing it. There was none of the bored looking faces a few of the men’s squad show when faced with such a task. The women engaged with their audience and genuinely appeared to relish in their interactions.
Gemma Smith, chairman of Hitchin Belles was present. She explained: “It’s different from what you might find at the Emirates. It’s a really family friendly way for anyone to experience women’s football for the first time.
“One of the best things about women’s football is how accessible the players are.
“You can get autographs and meet the girls – it’s such an inspiration.”
The tireless Paul Dean, a coach and parent at Hitchin Belles agreed. He brought his daughter along to the game as a dad and as a busmans’s holiday.
He added: “It’s a great atmosphere and a wonderful experience for the girls. Our team have learned a lot watching such fantastic football.”
Lea Baynes, a member of the Gay Gooners committee, had completed a circuit of the ground selling raffle tickets at quid a pop to give fans the chance to win a signed shirt.
She, like so many in attendance was excited.
“I love coming to the women’s game. I actually come here more than the Emirates. I absolutely love it.
“The atmosphere is brilliant. The girls are so great not just on the pitch, but off it as they always sign everything they are asked to for all ages.
“It’s great for families.
“It’s brilliant. If you haven’t been before you should. There are familiar chants so don’t think you can’t come if you don’t know the songs.
“We always try and get the kids to sing along.
“My best mate, Clare, just handed out the player of the game award. Her first game was Kelly Smith’s testimonial and after that she was hooked.
“Once you start coming the players even get to recognise you afterwards when they’re signing autographs and they’ll stop and have a chat.
“They really make you feel like they’re one of the team, not just a paying customer – and that is the big difference.
“The players past and present are all so modest and down to earth.
“You’ve got Faye White [who played for Arsenal with such distinction for 17 years] and Kelly Smith and if you ask them for a photo they’ll say: ‘What do you want a picture of me for?’
“It’s a bit like David Beckham saying that in the men’s game. It just wouldn’t happen.
“Once you come to one women’s game you’ll be so hooked you’ll want to come to them all.”
Her friend Clare adds. “Lea made me come to Kelly’s testimonial about 18 months ago. And that was it. I was hooked.
“The atmosphere between here and the Emirates is different. The girls always have time for you.
“I’ve been a fan for 25 years since I was a kid. Over the last year I’ve had more autographs and spoke to more players than I had done in the last two decades.
“Watching the women has rekindled my love for the game.”
The Belles have doubled their player registration, increasing from 75 girls to 150. But that’s only the number playing league games.
They have another 50 who train with the club every week as well.
Belles supremo Gemma added: “This season we’ve taken a leap and joined Arsenal as a sister club. It’s made a huge difference just by raising our profile. “Being here at watch Arsenal play is fantastic. The kids are really excited.
“Our tie-up with Arsenal helps grow the women’s game. At grassroots level, at local level you’ve got kids aged five and six who’ve probably never played football before but are being given great role models [in Arsenal] and are understanding that girls can play football too, and that it’s ok to play football.
“Arsenal have been so supportive. They’ve helped us get the word out. I can’t speak highly enough of them. I can’t think of a better team for the Hitchin Belles to be a sister club with. We’re really proud.
“The growth has been absolutely amazing. The link up has also allowed us to attract players to our training sessions such as Heather O’Reilly.
“There is definitely a family feel here at Arsenal. Just as there is with the Hitchin Belles.
“We’ve been to a few matches and we’ve all come away feeling amazing.”
The Belles are looking forward to returning to Boreham Wood for the final home game against Manchester City on Saturday, May 12 – a week after the showpiece at Wembley against the Blues.
They hope that they FA Cup will be on show that day.
AO’Reilly concludes: “We want to win the FA Cup for each other and for Arsenal and our amazing supporters.
“We are a community here at Arsenal and we want to do it for all the teams that are affiliated with us.
“I know a big part of Arsenal’s mission is to engage with the community, to bring pride to our community and we’ll be doing our best to do that come the cup final.
“We take that task very seriously. We’ll be going into the final with a lot of confidence but also a lot of awareness that we have to honour the traditions of Arsenal.”
And win it for the Hitchin Belles?
Her smile lights up again.
Yes she replies. We want to bring it back to where we think it belongs which is Arsenal Football Club.
And to win it for the Hitchin Belles Heather says.