The victorious Women’s Euro 2022 campaign captured the attention of the English nation, with the final being watched by 50,000,000 people and delivering the first major football trophy won since the men’s World Cup in 1966.
‘The Frame’ editor David Levy sat down with three of the players from the official England Lionesses supporters team to talk the rise in interest in women’s sport, mental health, and barriers to entry…
The Frame: I thought good place to start would be to get some background on each of you – what you do, who you are and where you grew up, and how you got into football and involved with the England Fans team.
Chloe: I’ve been playing football on and off since I was about six years old. I had a break for about seven years – I had a really bad injury and broke my hip, and then come back to it. I used to play at Walshaw, and it was through them (I got involved with England Fans FC). Me and another player from that club went down to go and just train. I think we had a few dropouts, and then me and this other girl just kind of got put in the squad.
The Frame: Was there any resistance for you? Did you ever face any kind of prejudice?
Chloe: Yeah – I played with lots of teams between six till about nine, I think it was, before we legally split boys and girls. Luckily for me, there was a team near where I lived called Sale, but to be told as a nine-year-old “I’m really sorry, you can’t play for us anymore because you’re a girl.” was tough to hear. Luckily for me, I’ve got a great family behind me. So, they buckled together and found me somewhere.
The Frame: Did you understand why that was?
Chloe: I think I did at that age, but maybe not as much as I do now. They said it in a child-friendly way and I was protected by those around me. But I know girls that had the totally opposite experience to me so I was definitely lucky on that side of things.
The Frame: Were your parents always supportive of you playing?
Chloe: 100%, yeah. My mum’s one of my biggest supporters. She literally got me to games wherever they were. And if she couldn’t, my nana and granddad took me. I’ve had a massive support from family.
Sam: Mine’s a similar story to Chloe’s, actually. In primary school, I was the only girl on the team. I remember I was picked to put the kits out in the changing rooms and the cleaner came in and asked why there was one kit in the other changing room. I was like, “Oh, that’s my kit.” And she was surprised – “Oh, you’re playing?” That’s always stuck with me. I went to a summer football camp and that’s how I got involved with my first club. I was spotted by one of the coaches who said, “We want you down to Hopwood Hall Girls.” I won ‘Player of the Camp’ and all the boys were like, “how’s a girl won this?” Then I got scouted for Blackburn Rovers when I was 12, 13, something like that. I played for Rochdale and Oldham, and now I’m at Bury.
My mum played when she was younger and it was harder for her growing up, because there was no team – she wasn’t allowed to play anywhere. In high school, they set up a girls’ team. Like Chloe, I also took an eight-year gap and came back again.
In primary school, I was the only girl on the team. I remember I was picked to put the kits out in the changing rooms and the cleaner came in and asked why there was one kit in the other changing room. I was like, “Oh, that’s my kit.” And she was surprised – “Oh, you’re playing?”
The Frame: What was the feeling when you were just the one person in the other room?
Sam: I loved it. I was like – ‘I’ve got my own space and my own changing room!’ Loved it. But for the cleaner to be like so confused, It was just a weird feeling – was I not supposed to be there?
The Frame: As a girl playing football, did you ever get any pushback from men’s teams or men you encountered?
Chloe: Yeah, definitely. In primary school, there were no girl’s teams. And I was at a good level. But in year six, they said, “We’ve never done this before, but we want you to be in the squad for the team.” So, I was the first girl ever in the school to be on the football team.
The Frame: What was that like for you?
Chloe: Oh, it was incredible. I still remember my squad number and everything. It was just the best thing. As a 10-year-old, it’s just the best feeling to know that you’re good enough to play.
When I went to high school, I stopped playing again – no girls team in high school. It was all boys. We used to play in the yard when it was break. And some of the lads a few years above me were like, “no, you can’t play.” I found out later it was because I was better than them.
The Frame: Did you ever dream about going pro?
Sam: Yeah, I had that dream at one point. I got close to a scholarship in America at one point, but that sort of fell through. I wish I had done that, but it was the money at the time – we couldn’t afford it. It was a lot of money.
Danielle: Mine’s a complete different story to these guys. I didn’t kick a ball till I was 15 years old. I played all the sports under the sun. I was mad Man City fan. I’ve got a season ticket and watched football but I didn’t play it. It was never an option for me – I come from a Jewish background where girls didn’t play football. We didn’t do in school, but my friend invited me down to Bury to try out. I loved it and I’ve been pretty much been playing ever since. I went to Bath University and played for their team, and represented Jewish Great Britain in the Maccabi Games. After university, I came back and played for Bury. It’s the only club I’ve ever played for.
The Frame: What did your friends and family make of your playing?
Danielle: I was that weird girl that liked P.E. People were mean because I tried. It was so uncool to join in, which I know is so opposite to other schools, but in my school it was cool to do well in exams, but not to do well in sport. That’s just how it rolled at my school. I had to play it down a bit because if I tried too hard people would say stuff. But I don’t think they viewed me playing football differently to other sports – it was more that you did anything at all.
The Frame: Did you get treated any differently once you started playing for a known-name like Bury?
Danielle: My guy friends were like, “Oh, that’s cool. You play football.” But obviously in their head it’s not the same league level as the men’s, but they still invite me for a kick around the park. When I went to the Maccabi Games people then thought, “”Oh wow, you’re actually okay at football.” People looked up to that.
The Frame: I’d be interested to know about any observations or any experiences you’ve had about your football on your mental health – whether or not it’s affected you positively or negatively, or if you think it’s of particular importance that you play so that your mental health is maintained or anything like that.
Chloe: I think playing football is a massive part of keeping my mental health positive. A few years ago, I struggled really, really badly with my mental health. It was actually exercise and football that dragged me out of that. And so for me, playing football is massively important.
The Frame: Did it affect your mental health when you had the big break for your broken hip?
Chloe: Yes but it wasn’t just the break – I’d had a few personal issues that had gone on. It just became one big snowball that kind of just broke me in the end. It wasn’t until I started moving around more and started playing more that I noticed uphill movement in my state of mind.
The Frame: Did you just discover that doing exercise was going to make you feel better by chance? Or was it something that had in your mind it was important to do?
Chloe: All the people around me had mentioned it, but when you’re that low, I don’t think it crosses your mind to actually do it. You have to be in a place where you’re ready to do it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, even now, on some of my tough days, I really can’t be bothered going out the house and getting in the car and driving to training. But I pick myself up and do it because I know that after it, I’ll feel so much better.
Sam: Mine’s again quite similar to Chloe. I had personal issues a few years ago, and then, a friend got in touch with me and said, “Are you up for a kick about, get your mind off things.” So, we went to the park, and then the next day she said, “should we join a club?” So, we went down to train at Bury and in that first session, I thought I was going to die. I thought my legs were going to fall off – it was horrific! But I just loved it straightaway and kept going back. I began to notice I was in a better mood at work. I felt good. And I do put it down to football.
Danielle: I struggled quite badly when I went to university – I’d gone to Bath, which is three hours away from home. I didn’t cope too well with that. I’d had some anxiety being so far away but knowing three times a week I had a training session was a huge comfort. If I ever got a small injury and took some time off, I’d definitely notice the difference in myself, and I missed my sessions.
Sam: I agree with that.
Chloe: I agree as well – I just play injured now!
Sam: I know. You need to stop.
The Frame: What’s the support like when you have to take some time out?
Chloe: I think it’s mainly teammates that we get support from. Would you agree, guys?
Danielle: Yeah. There’s two girls in my team now, and they’ve got serious, serious knee injuries. And I can’t imagine what they go through, but they just come once a week to stay in touch with us and watch the games. I don’t know how they deal with not playing. They’re on the group chat and they come to the socials. But I don’t see a wild amount of support for them, to be honest.
When they come to the once-a-week session, I make an extra effort to go over and check they’re alright. I don’t know them too well. I can ask them a few questions, but I don’t think there’s that much support for them.
The Frame: More generally speaking, I’d like to know your experience of the treatment of mental health in sport. How often is mental health mentioned? How much education did you get?
Sam: Yeah. Zero.
Danielle: “I need to miss training tonight. I’ve hurt my ankle” or “I need to miss training tonight. I didn’t feel great” – they’re not always perceived the same way.
Sam: No, they’re not.
The Frame: Do you have any thoughts about what needs to be done to change that? You’ve all had your experiences, you’ve all had to discover that playing has helped you…
Chloe: I think the awareness is there now, which it wasn’t years ago. Five years ago, nobody even considered mental health in sport, really. I think the awareness is slowly but surely increasing. And I think it just having that dedicated person on the team that will will check in with players should be as important as checking someone’s injury with a physiotherapist. We should have a mental health specialist.
Danielle: I guess it has to come from the senior members of the squad, but if someone was able to say “I need to miss a session because of mental health” younger members would see that’s a valid reason. But some people might feel not ready to admit that’s why they have to miss a session.
The Frame: Someone definitely will have missed a session or something because of mental health. Is it ever named in that way?
Sam: Probably not.
Chloe: No, probably not. Although actually I missed one because I was just feeling really low and I just didn’t want to go. And I just said that I’m not available, I didn’t say why. I just said that I’m not going to be there.
Danielle: Me too, did that last week. I couldn’t face it, but I didn’t want to give a reason.
Sam: I missed both last week because of it.
The Frame: This really re-enforces what you’re saying – the second one of you named it, all three of you agreed.
Danielle: On a big group chat, like we have with 40 people at Bury, it’s difficult to be the person who goes first.
Chloe: I think we’re quite lucky because we’re close anyway. And so I think if one of us is feeling a bit rubbish, I could message you two, and you’d be there to support me no matter how you were feeling. And it’d be the same vice-versa. Even if I was having the worst day of my life, if you messaged me, I’d be there for you.
The Frame: Do you ever get the feeling that discussions around mental health wouldn’t be as welcomed?
Chloe: I think the younger players might struggle more to understand it than the more senior players. When I was younger, I wasn’t around discussions on mental health as much. But things have definitely changed now, so they could shock us!
The Frame: I’ve got a question about coaches in women’s football – have you generally been coached by women?
Sam: I’ve only had one female coach in my life – and was when I was about 9, 10?
Danielle: I’ve not had one.
Chloe: I think I’ve had one, but other than that, it’s all been men.
The Frame: How then is it then being female, and having to talk about either physical or mental health with male coaches?
Chloe: I don’t think I ever did speak to it with my coaches. I spoke to my mum about it, and if I had to miss something then my mum would just message and say, “She’s not going. She’s not well.”
Sam: You didn’t really need to give an excuse when you were younger, and it’s like you need to give excuses now, but it was just no, I’m not well.
Danielle: I’ve had the same manager since the day I began playing until now, so we’ve built a relationship where I could tell him. We have a good setup where the manager is the guy you would go to mental health or physical problems, and the coach is just focused on football. I feel like I can go to my manager with these issues and he’s very good. If you tell him to keep it to himself, he’ll do that. I should just say it more, I guess.
The Frame: I was wondering if anybody has a particularly strong viewpoint on why it is that women’s football has grown so much in recent years?
Chloe: I think it’s more visual now than it was back when we were young. I think there’s so many girls that are interested now that it’s been made to know it’s okay to play football. Whereas when we were younger, it was very much like I was the only person in any kind of team that played. I was very much the only girl in the league. Once they see
girls playing they think “Oh, I want to do that” and it’s just grown and snowballed from there really.
Sam: When I was younger, if you were a woman playing football, you were instantly labelled gay. I think now it’s not the case – more women and young girls can say “oh yeah, I can play now,” without it meaning I’m labelled gay.
Chloe: I agree with that as well. It’s the Lionesses, the WSL and the Champions League – they’ve massively supported not only women’s game as a whole, but grassroots as well. They’ve inspired so many people throughout the last couple of years to be get into the game.
The Frame: Do you think that there is any kind of danger at all that it becomes about selling a product? Sportswomen and objectification are often closely tied.
Chloe: I think to some extent it is. but I think people are a lot more open-minded now. I think the girls are a lot more intelligent than we give them credit for and I think women are a lot more intelligent in regards to what they will and won’t do now. They know they don’t have to do certain things to make money.
The Frame: Sam, you mentioned before about the ‘gay’ label. It seem like LGBTQ issues, are much more accepted in women’s football. Top players are very open about their sexuality. Top players are in relationships with other players, and it’s very open. Why do you think it’s different?
Sam: It’s just toxic masculinity I guess – they’re scared of what their peers all think, and they don’t want the fans hounding them and coming up with chants. Whereas you go to the women’s game, it’s full of families and young kids.
Danielle: If you play women’s football you’ve already had to go against the norm and you’ve already had to develop a thick skin, so maybe you’re more open.
Chloe: I do think it’s a masculinity thing, I agree. It’s obviously wrong, but I think if a male was to come out they’ll automatically be seen as less masculine than their peer. They’re still doing exactly the same job, exactly the same sport, to exactly the same level. It doesn’t change them in any way, shape, or form. But I think because two girls together looks better than two boys together, I think it’s just accepted a lot more.
The Frame: Before we wrap up, is there anything anyone wants to add?
Chloe: I think for me the main thing missing at grassroots level is the mental health side. There’s support there but there’s not enough support there, especially for the younger players moving through to adult teams. I agree with what Dan was saying about the manager at Bury – I feel like I can talk to him. But for younger players coming through that don’t have that established relationship and don’t have that confidence to know that it’s okay to not be okay, they’re left asking “what do we do? Who do I talk to?”
The Frame: How does that get fixed, do you think?
Chloe: I think more awareness, more training. How do you deal with younger players and know what to say to them to help them? What direction can you point them in? Have you got any connections that you can say ‘well, we work with this person or this place, go and see them, go and speak to them.”?
Danielle: When you’re doing your coaching badges, which I’ve just started, but maybe that would be a good opportunity to do more on mental health – you already do a first aid section for your physical health.
The Frame: Thank you everybody so much for your time. And thank you for talking about your experiences and being so open.
The Manager Nicky Simmonds
“I’ve been involved with football at a variety of levels and age groups, including working with Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Bury’s women’s teams.
After completing my coaching badges, I knew I wanted to get involved in the women’s game in some capacity, and as a player for both the Manchester United and England Fans FC men’s teams, to get involved with our women’s side felt like a natural step to take.
The way the women’s game has evolved has been massive, and the growth in popularity of the England team, especially since the European Championship, has meant similar growth in women wanting to play, hence the reforming of our Lionesses team. We’re a close-knit group and I’m proud to manage these dedicated, talented women alongside my fantastic team of Colin, Luke, Connor, Bryson, Nadine and Lindsay, all of whom volunteer our time and efforts purely for the love of the game.”