|Watch We Are England – England’s Next Lionesses on BBC iPlayer Monday, January 9 at 8:00 p.m. GMT.|
Jill Scott ended 2022 as European Champion and Queen of the Jungle.
But if it hadn’t been for a South Shields youth worker who started a grassroots girls’ team 30 years ago, she’s sure her life would have taken a different path.
In a heartwarming new film on the BBC, Scott returns to South Shields to revisit the club where her journey into women’s football began.
Boldon Girls was established in 1992 by Paul Smith, and the club has three Lionesses among its alumni – Scott, Steph Houghton and Demi Stokes.
Houghton captained England for eight years, while Scott and Stokes were part of the side that lifted the Lionesses’ first major trophy at Euro 2022.
Scott retired in August as one of the most decorated footballers in the country. The 35-year-old has played in 10 major international tournaments, including two Olympics. At club level, she spent nine years with Manchester City – winning the Women’s Super League once and the FA Cup and League Cup three times. She also won the FA Cup at Everton.
But in a story all too familiar to the Lionesses, Scott struggled to find opportunities to play football as a child.
“I don’t think I would have continued playing for England without Paul,” she says during the film.
“I was told when I was nine that I couldn’t play with the boys anymore. I had to go get a girls’ team. That’s when I found Boldon and met Paul Smith.
“Paul used to pick us up, take us to training. Those are my fondest memories – getting up early on a Saturday, playing football, traveling with the girls laughing so hard.”
Looking back, Smith says the problem was that there was no provision for women’s football.
“There was no league, the Football Association didn’t really provide anything,” he says. “The boys wouldn’t let them play.”
Smith did – and he can now look forward to seeing the young players he coached achieve international success.
“I was proud that an England team won a big tournament,” he said. “I think Boldon played a part in their success.”
When Scott returns, she is overjoyed to see how the club has progressed.
“I think one of the main differences is that I can see more than one trainer during the whole session,” says Scott. “I think it was just Paul alone, bless him.”
The provision of grassroots women’s football has been a focus of the Football Association in recent years.
In 2020, the organization launched a strategy for women and girls, called Inspiring Positive Change, which aimed to increase participation.
And in November 2022 it reported that since October 2021, there had been a 17% increase in affiliated female players at all levels of the game, a 30% increase in registered women’s soccer teams, and a 15% increase in women’s youth teams.
Despite this, there is still plenty of room for growth, with the FA calculating that just 63% of schools in England offered equal access to football for boys and girls via PE. Their goal is to increase this number to 75% of schools by 2024.
During the film, Scott meets Boldon players who aspire to turn professional.
Abbey, captain of the Under-15 team, said: “I would like football to be my full-time job.
“The Lionesses are really inspiring. It’s a very good feeling to know that they come from this club.”
And Scott hopes stories like hers can encourage other young girls.
“Growing up my role models were David Beckham and Steven Gerrard – male footballers, because that’s what I could see on TV,” she says.
“I think it’s great now that women’s football is more visible, more accessible. I hope that by winning this medal, it will give the girls more bragging rights.
“If boys say ‘girls can’t play football’, girls can say, ‘Well, there was a game at Wembley this year where the girls did well!'”
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