girls’ football team fight to take up space

Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Vicky Park Rangers under-13s had a crunch game on Saturday. If the girls were going to top the league, it was a must-win fixture against last season’s champions.

Preparations for the game had been far from ideal. A week after starting training on the Stepney Green astroturf, the council told them their time slot – which they shared with four other teams at Vicky Park Rangers, a grassroots club for 120 girls in east London – had been reallocated to a boys’ club.

When they turned up for what they thought could be their last training session at the pitch last Thursday, and their final preparation for their big game, they found themselves locked out, and the boys’ team running around instead.

The players, according to their coach, channelled their frustration into the game. “They used it as fire,” said the under-13’s coach David Drewett. “In the team talk they said: ‘The council doesn’t want us to play in our borough. They want to give our pitch to boys. We need to go and try doubly hard to prove a point that we deserve to be here.’”

The row between the London girls’ football club and a local council – which is now facing the prospect of legal action on grounds of breach of contract and sex discrimination – has sparked national debate about support for girls’ grassroots football and the barriers that girls’ teams still face.

“It’s farcical and it’s not fair,” said Yvonne Harrison, CEO of Women in Football. “We need more facilities, that is very clear – but it still feels like men and boys have priority in grassroots sport, full stop, never mind just football. And that has to change.”

The row began at the start of September when Vicky Park Rangers were told that their coveted two-hour Thursday night training slot they had successfully bid for after hitting the required criteria had – due to a “scheduling change” – been removed from them after one training session.

“It’s had a huge emotional impact on the girls,” said Drewett. “They feel like the council has prioritised boys over girls and, for myself and other coaches, it’s been a huge amount of stress.”

The club did not take the news sitting down, he explains. Last Thursday, after failing to find a solution with the council and not being able to find anywhere else to train, they threatened legal action, accusing the council of breach of contract, sex discrimination and breach of the public sector equality duty.

And on Friday – without a response to the legal letter from the council – they went public, pointing out that the astroturf had been funded by Sport England, with one of the funding conditions being that it must be used to promote women’s football.

The story soon gained traction on social media. Responding to criticism, Tower Hamlets mayor Lutfur Rahman, posted on X: “I am very concerned to read this and have instructed Council officers to look into it urgently. Women and girls’ participation in sport is one of my top priorities.”

I am very concerned to read this and have instructed Council officers to look into it urgently. Women and girls’ participation in sport is one of my top priorities.

— Lutfur Rahman (@LutfurRahmanTH) September 29, 2023

In a statement on Friday, the council said “a processing error” meant that Vicky Park Rangers were given a slot intended for another group and it was “corrected as soon as possible”, and said their offer of a different time slot on the same pitch, and an alternative slot at nearby council-run Leisure Centre at the same cost, were both refused. It would “continue to work with Vicky Park Rangers to find a solution”, it added.

The club say neither option offered was viable for them – the different time slot offered was on a Saturday and so clashed with matches, the leisure centre was a seven-a-side pitch. And, in a 20 September email from the council to the club, seen by the Guardian, it does not mention a “processing error”, but states that after the “fair and managed process” which allocated the slots they “received further information for consideration from another group which led to a reconsideration to a single specific evening slot”.

Then, on Friday evening, after weeks of pleading with the council – and a day of public coverage of the girls’ plight – the council capitulated. Vicky Park Rangers club chairman Taner Baycanli posted a statement, saying that the club had “reached an agreement that will provide our girls with a facility that allows them to train midweek”.

Now they are looking forward to their next game, knowing they will be able to train again next week. But had losing the training pitch affected the outcome of their big game last week? “No,” said Drewett. “We won four-nil.”


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