A Different Ball Game

A male supporter’s journey into women’s football 

I’ve written this blog in the hope it may help, in some minor way, to change the perception of women’s football for a few people. I started the season as someone with no interest in the ladies’ game, and ended it as a passionate women’s football advocate.

Like many, Portsmouth Football Club is a huge part of life. My late father didn’t support any particular team so it was up to me to find my own affinity. That came at the age of 10 when a simple playground discussion turned into us all picking teams to support.

The declarations of allegiance quickly sprung up: “Man Utd”, “Tottenham”, “Liverpool,” they declared. Not for me, I didn’t want to support a team of that stature. It didn’t appeal to me as a 10-year-old and it doesn’t appeal to me now. My football knowledge was limited so I remember telling my mate Jamie I didn’t know who to pick. He told me his dad supported Portsmouth.

The second he said it I knew it was for me; it was nearby to our Surrey home and a regular day-trip destination for our family. “That’s it,” I declared. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was a decision that would shape my life and impact me and my family in ways I never could have imagined.

The story from that day to now spans 25 years and, like most football fans, I have enough stories to write a book. However, I want to keep this relevant to subject matter and that’s women’s football.

Before the start of this season I had absolutely no interest in women’s football. Sharing an unfortunately common view, that it’s just a crap version of the men’s game to be laughed at via blooper reals and YouTube videos. My journey through the nine-month, 31-match season would see my views on women’s teams – and their players – change significantly.

It started as a means to an end. I have two children: Abigail (7) and William (1). I’ve always struggled to get Abby into football. She started going to the odd Pompey game aged three and has done a fair few over the years, including our famous Notts County promotion game. I am a dedicated home and away supporter. It’s impossible for me to get to all games but since our relegation to league two and fan ownership, I’ve averaged at least 35 games a season. A figure of which I’m proud.

Abby and I are very close. I was hoping Abby would catch the Pompey bug and be drawn to come with me every Saturday when I would often disappear in the early hours for away games. It didn’t happen though; the games she did come to she would often declare herself ‘bored’ by half-time. Fiercely loyal to Pompey at school (refused to be on the red team, always wanted blue bibs in PE) but the matches were not her thing. She wouldn’t play football either, often commenting “girls don’t play football”. I was so close to my daughter, yet I couldn’t share one of the most important things in my life with her. I had to find a way.

I’d almost given up when I decided to try to find something she could relate to on a personal level. I remembered my friend Sam sometimes went to watch Pompey Ladies. At this point all I knew was Pompey had a ladies’ team, and a player called Gemma Hillier. They are run by Pompey saviour Mick Williams and his wife Ann. That was the full extent of my knowledge before this season. I thought there was no harm in seeing what it was all about in the hope that seeing the ladies play football would change Abby’s perception.

So I made the decision to go along to the ladies’ first home game of the season at Havant and Waterlooville’s West Leigh Park. Little did I know that decision was to heavily impact the next 10 months of my life, change my perception on women’s football completely and finally get my daughter into football.

Sunday, 20th August, 14:00 kick off. Cardiff were the opposition in the ladies’ first game of the Women’s Premier League South – a league which consists of 12 teams. To add some context for those not familiar with women’s football, that’s the rough equivalent of League 1 in the men’s game. You have the Women’s Super League (Premier League), the Super League 2 (Championship) and then the Premier League North and South (regional equivalent of League 1).

The women’s football structure is made up of a mix of teams affiliated with larger professional men’s teams (Pompey, West Ham, Crystal Palace, etc) and those who stand alone or are linked with semi-pro or amateur men’s sides (Chichester, C+K Basildon, Lewes, etc).

Being affiliated with professional men’s teams doesn’t guarantee you success or large funding though. Affiliation with a men’s team can be as simple as just sharing kit designs and name. It could also go as far as sharing training facilities, coaches, social-media accounts and, most importantly, money. I’m not privy to the exact information but Pompey Ladies are officially part of Portsmouth Football Club. They are as much Pompey as the men’s first team, reserves or youth teams are, but as a fan its evident Pompey Ladies affiliation with the club is a work in progress.

Unlike the men’s game the vast majority of women’s teams are amateur or semi-pro, including Pompey. Only a select few have full-time women’s teams. There are no pro teams in Pompey’s league. Yes, some teams do pay players to play, but we are talking pitiful sums of money compared to your average men’s League 1 player. Paying players in Pompey’s league is by far the exception rather than the standard. Most play for free or with only their expenses covered. They maintain their full time jobs around playing a roughly 30-game season and training two or three times a week.

Prior to attending the Cardiff game I thought it would be nice if there was a player Abby could speak to and watch during the game. Sam recommended a Pompey player who was fairly active on twitter – Lauren Peck. I contacted Lauren on Twitter. She could not have been more friendly and approachable. She agreed to meet Abby before the game and chat to her. I was onto a winner and I knew it.

We attended West Leigh Park for the game. I’m not going to lie, picking out Lauren from the Pompey squad was difficult as I only had a headshot from her Twitter to go on! However, I didn’t need to worry; she spotted us walking in and came straight over to see Abby. I have to say that took me back a little. Abby was delighted and had a little chat to Lauren before she resumed her pre-match routine.

Previously, I had watched a very limited amount of women’s football in my life, mostly through clips on YouTube or passing games in the park. I’m going to be honest here. My perception before that game kicked off was Women’s football was horrendous in standard, all goalkeepers were overweight and crap and that it was really a laugh rather than competitive. That was all about to change.

Watching the warm-up it was clear straight away this wasn’t ‘Sunday league’ as per the image I was sold. The warm-up drills were organised, taken seriously and the girls were dressed the part in their kits. To my eye it was exactly what you would see at 2.30pm at Fratton. There wasn’t an overweight goalkeeper in sight, and all players looked athletic and fit. Those pre-match perceptions were already starting to break down.

Looking round the ground I was a bit surprised by the lack of spectators. I would guess somewhere around the 130 mark. Pompey have a huge fanatical fan base but clearly this is an area of the club their influence hasn’t reached yet. The majority of the crowd appeared to be players’ family and friends. As a Pompey fan I would say I felt in the minority – a strange feeling for a football match featuring players wearing our crest.

The match started and within a short period of time something was very clear. The vast majority of these players were not ‘shit, Sunday league standard’ as I had been told to expect the week before the game. They were competent, athletic footballers and I was watching a good standard of football.

I’m not here to do the hard sell of women’s football, I’m going to be honest. The women’s game is undoubtedly slower paced, especially at third-tier level. You’re not going to see players with Ronaldo pace. It’s also not common to see players able to ping 50-yard Beckham-style passes. The games are slower, the passing is shorter and more intricate, and often goals are from result of several passes stretching defenders.

This doesn’t mean it’s not competitive though. They go flying in left right and centre. There were some really crunching tackles. Something that is also very different in the women’s game is they don’t stay down rolling around crying like some of our Premier League superstars do. The tackle goes in, they get back up, and crack on with it. I absolutely loved it.

I was enjoying the style of football being played. I would describe it as “pure” football. Rarely is a single player so good they can destroy your team. Overall, you see good technical team play that’s easy on the eye to watch.

The match itself ended as a 4-1 victory to Pompey. Whilst Abby seemed more interested in Lauren and her team-mates than the actual scoreline, she enjoyed the match and asked to come again. I was impressed with what I had seen and was more than happy to do that, especially considering it costs only a few quid to get in.

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Lauren with Abby at our first ever ladies game

The next match we were able to attend was the next home fixture, again at West Leigh Park. This time against Charlton, hotly favoured to be one of the teams chasing the league title. I was interested to see their standard of play and we assumed our position behind the goal Pompey were attacking.

Within minutes of the half kicking off there was an incident in the Charlton box. A Pompey player went down and the ball ended up trapped by her waist with her back to play. A Charlton defender then proceeded to kick the Pompey forward repeatedly in her back and legs whilst making no attempt to actually get the ball.

Our appeals behind the goal were ‘enthusiastic’ to say the least, the ref blew up. Any preconceptions about the physical side of the women’s game had been extinguished. You assault a person like that in the street and you’re going down for ABH. The Charlton player was rightly sent off and a penalty given. Unfortunately we missed the resulting spot-kick but the whole incident highlight something to me. The fans can impact the game.

At a game at Fratton Park I sit 38 rows back in the Fratton End. I can shout all I want but as a single person I have little impact on the game. At a Pompey Ladies’ game it’s different. Everything you shout can be heard by pretty much everyone in the ground, including the referee.

Aggressive shouts can turn the heads of referees. At Fratton 17,000 fans screaming “Penalty” may lead to the ref seriously thinking about the decision. It’s the same at the women’s games only you can do it on your own. It’s always different depending on the ref: some ignore you, some buckle under the pressure of your screaming, others appreciate your help.

The game ended 1-0 to Charlton. They grabbed a fortunate winner in the final minute after Pompey had been guilty of missing a host of chances themselves. I remember thinking that If the girls can play at home against 10 players most of the game and still lose 0-1, they are well worthy of the name Pompey!

Despite the loss I was really enjoying following the girls. My friendship with Lauren was blossoming as she introduced Abby and I to more players and staff. The football was hard fought and competitive and the players accessible and friendly.

Next up was an evening home league game against Chichester, or Chi as they like to be called. Each women’s team has its own personality and Chi are no exception. The only way I could describe them to a Pompey fan is that they are the Plymouth of Women’s Premier League South. As a club they are honourable and dedicated. They very much back themselves.

I’m speaking purely as a Pompey Ladies’ fan when I say I didn’t enjoy our matches against them. Chi are pretty much as close to Pompey get to a derby in a league fixture. Chi love playing Pompey, it’s a no-lose scenario for them. It’s their chance to get one over on us. As it was my first season following Pompey Ladies I wasn’t around for all the events before this season but I gather players and coaches moving between the two teams had helped add an edge to the games.

For Pompey there’s pretty much nothing good to come from matches with Chi – we are expected to beat them. They are resilient enough to make the games competitive. Just like the men’s games against Plymouth. You just want to come out of them unscathed.

We arrived at Havant for the game and I got my first experience of the Chi “youth”. Now you may be picturing kids with Stone Island jumpers and cans of Strongbow dark fruits, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Chi has an impressive youth system: the girls who are part of this system are encouraged to come to the first-team games. From a football point of view that’s fantastic, not so much as an opposition fan.

There were over a hundred Chi fans at Havant for the game. As a neutral I’m sure it was great as it was a large, noisy crowd and a good atmosphere. To me it was like a crap Justin Bieber concert. We just did our best to ignore them. No chance of shouting over them, we were outnumbered 15 to one. We could have done with a few more Pompey there. Chi are the only team to have a young following like this in our league.

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Abby just before KO at the Chi home game

The game wasn’t great, Chi players were as annoying on the pitch as there girl fans were off it. They have a great team unity and they just don’t give up. They are a solid and respectable team for this league, but they also have a secret weapon.

A girl who was affectionately referred to as ‘the blonde girl upfront’ by those around me. It didn’t take long to realise why she was singled out. Her name is Cherelle Khassal. Her striking blonde hair made her easy to spot up front for Chi. She is blessed with ridiculous pace. The plan from Chi was simple. Stay tight, get the ball, and release Cherelle. It was simple but highly effective. No defender likes pace and hers was a huge asset. It’s so often the key in football: play to your strengths!

A late comeback from Pompey saw the match finish 2-2. Chi probably feeling slightly aggrieved that they couldn’t hold on for all three points.

I found the whole thing quite a learning curve. Chichester have a men’s team; I think of Chi Ladies as a standalone entity. As an opposition fan I find Chi as frustrating as I do Plymouth in the men’s game. Having said that I can’t help but admire their dogged resilience. They have a real togetherness as a club and their team gave everything on the pitch. If I was a Chi fan I would be really proud of that. The away league game against them would be interesting.

Next up were West Ham at home. We had arranged for Abby to be mascot at the game and she was really excited. Abby wanted to walk out with Lauren but unfortunately she wasn’t starting. She got upset but Ann Williams arranged for her to walk out with midfielder Rachel Panting instead. Rachel was amazing with Abby, so kind and reassuring. As her father it was a great feeling to see her walk out in a Pompey kit with the players. Would she bring them luck?

West Ham had started the season poorly and on paper this should have been a comfortable win, but as we all know that’s not the Pompey way. Out of the four teams I had seen us play they were the worst. They seemed happy to just defend and lump it up to their lone striker who could do nothing but give it straight back to us.

We didn’t play well and failed to turn possession into goals. We finally made the breakthrough only to let West Ham equalise late on with one of their few attacks. It looked like the game was going to peter out until the last minute when a mazy run from Pompey legend Gemma Hillier saw her brought down in the box. Penalty! Up steps midfielder Rachel Panting and smashes the ball into the top-right corner, fantastic penalty.

With four home games under my belt it was time to experience my first away game. Pompey faced Crystal Palace at Bromley FC. Even though some ladies’ teams are affiliated with pro clubs it’s rare to find the matches played in the club’s stadiums. It far more common for them to pair up with a smaller local club and ground share. Palace does this with Bromley, Basildon with Canvey Island and Pompey with Havant, for example. I’ve loved this aspect of the ladies’ game. You get to see so many different grounds.

Bromley is a nice tidy set up, a clubhouse and stand on one side of the pitch and three terraced stands surrounding the pitch. The pitch is something to note as well: its 3G artificial grass. Something I learnt as the season went on was whilst this was not the norm, it wasn’t uncommon for ladies teams to play on artificial surfaces. The players didn’t seem bothered at all by it.

Palace had a few fans there singing away behind the goal. That was good to see. As the match progressed it was evident the ball went through quicker than a standard lower-league grass pitch, the bounce was also slightly higher. Other than that is played really well.

Crystal Palace were a good side, we knew it would be a tough game. We lost the match 2-0 but that was not a fair reflection of the game. We should have been two or three up by half-time, having squandered chances in the box, a theme that would rear its head a few times in this season. Palace only needed a sniff at goal and it was game over.

October brought about a double ‘derby’: Chi away in the league followed by Southampton Women in the League Cup.

Chi away was always going to be a tough game, having got a draw at Havant earlier in the season, they were always going to back themselves in their own back yard. It was under the floodlights as well which would make for a good atmosphere.

When we arrived in Chichester, the first issue was finding the ground, located near the theatre but stuck behind some tennis courts. It’s a small set-up paired with a sports pavilion. The staff were friendly on our arrival and we set ourselves up behind the goal as usual.

The game was end to end. Chi replicated their tactics from the reverse fixture. (If it’s not broken don’t fix it). There can’t have been more than a handful Pompey fans at the game so yet again we were significantly outnumbered. I got talking to one guy behind the goal by the name of Anthony. Having only previously engaged with him via the odd tweet it was nice to put a name to the face. I liked him a lot and he had only got into ladies football the year before and regularly brought his two young children to games.

The Chi youth were out in force again. They had plenty to cheer about as Chi gave us the runaround on the pitch. It did get a little rowdy when some Chi girls starting to abuse a Pompey player personally, and another group deliberately came behind the goal to wind up Anthony and I. I will, however, give a lot of credit to Chi officials here, they came and confronted both sets of girls and dealt with the situations well.

We lost the game 3-2 and deserved nothing. It was a learning curve for our players and staff. You can be technically better than your opposition but if you don’t match their fight and determination you run the risk of letting yourselves down.

Three days later we would have chance to put things right against Southampton Women in the League Cup.

The ladies play in three cup competitions a year and if you get to the final they can form a significant part of your season. They play in the League Cup, the FA Cup and the Hampshire Cup.

Southampton FC don’t have a full ladies team, they have an under-21 development set-up but no adult team playing regularly in a higher league structure, although they do play in the cup competitions. This team is called Southampton FC Women, or ‘official Scummers’ as I call them.

There are two other Southampton-based teams – aka ‘unofficial Scummers’: Southampton Women and Southampton Saints girls and ladies. They are both in the same league but lower down in the football pyramid than Pompey. During the season we would end up playing (and beating) all three of them in the cup competitions.

Today was the Premier League Cup. As I said before Southampton Women play in a lower league than us but had started the season very strongly. It would be a tough test. The game was significant for me: playing against a Scummers team was big enough, but it was my birthday as well.

I didn’t need to worry, we cruised to a 3-1 victory and were never in any trouble. One of the highlights of the day was Abby refusing to talk to a man wearing a Southampton shirt: “You’re a Scummer and I don’t talk to Scummers,” was her reply. Rude? Probably. The right thing to do? Obviously.

Next up was Coventry United at Havant. A mid-table clash, so going into the game I was hoping for the three points. It wasn’t to be, however. We lost the game 2-0 and it was about as convincing a 2-0 you could get. Coventry were excellent. They were very well organised and dominated the game from start to finish. Sometimes you just have to hold your hand up and admit the opposing team were better.

It was now November and we got wind of a friendly match between Pompey Ladies and the Canadian Army. Officially it was a behind-closed-doors game but the problem with that is you need to be able to keep fans out. It was at an open venue so just we attended and walked in anyway. Of course, we did ask the Pompey manager’s permission first. We are dedicated fans, but also respectful. It was a training game divided up into small quarters with a penalty shoot-out at the end. We won the ‘match’ 6-0 but lost the penalties.

I think they were grateful we came as Abby spent the evening playing ball girl behind the Canadians’ goal. It rained for the whole game and was absolutely freezing. It was worth it though as we saw Lauren Peck score a rare goal, a whipping shot from the edge of the box.

Then came a mad rush of games. Cup competitions dominated the ladies’ game before Christmas. We were jumping from league to cup on a weekly basis. We convincingly beat Gillingham 4-0 away in the league and followed that up with a 7-0 win against Winchester Flyers in the Hampshire Cup.

Pompey have won the Hampshire Cup in nine of the last 11 seasons and were going for their 10th straight win. We are the biggest team in the competition which is mostly made up of lower-division sides. There can be some big scores when Pompey play in the early rounds. It’s a great chance to try young players, tactics or just let loose and show what we are capable of.

Your biggest threat is complacency against determined sides. Pompey are experienced in this competition and there were no complacency signs as we secured our place in the next round.

We then took on Lewes in the league, this time AFC Portchester was our home ground. We came back from behind to win the game 3-2. It was a very good performance.

We followed that up with a win away to AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup. Owing to previously postponed games we ended up playing in the FA Cup again the following weekend. This time we would take on Blackburn Rovers who played their football in the Northern version of our league.

Blackburn are a good side who would go on to win their League and, we couldn’t cope with them, losing 7-0. A shattering result against a team we should be able to compete with. We had a chance to put that right the following weekend when we took on Lewes away in the Premier League Cup; having just beaten them at home it felt like an opportunity to get a good result.

Abby and I made our way to Lewes’ stadium in Sussex, oddly named the Dripping Pan. I’m not sure where the name originates from but it’s unique! The ground itself is fantastic. It’s so full of personality and is the most individual ground I’ve ever visited. Each side is totally different from the others. Behind one goal you have a standard terrace, behind the other goal you have a very steep terrace, which is actually the main ground entrance.

Also located there are beach huts built in at the top of the terrace overlooking the pitch. They appeared to be used by a mixture of officials and fans. On one side of the goal was a small stand with seats and opposite was a huge grass bank with a concrete path at the top. You can actually stand up there and watch the game. Because of the steep elevation of the bank you’re watching the match high up. It’s fantastic.

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My view from the Dripping Pan at Lewes

Lewes has a men’s team who played the 17/18 season in the Isthmian League South Division.  As a club Lewes have a claim to fame as being a team that pay their men’s and women’s teams the same money. To me that shows they are taking their women’s team seriously, which is highly commendable. However, it’s not exactly a level playing field is it? For the likes of Pompey and Charlton are not going to be following in Lewes’ shoes and paying their female players 10k+ week.

Paying their men and women players the same is admirable, but has to be taken in context. Great club though and the staff are very friendly and welcoming. We lost the game 5-1. We simply were not at it for the first 30 mins and were 3-0 down in the blink of an eye. We were suffering a major Christmas/New Year hangover.

Abby was in tears by the time the third goal went in. Rachel Panting scored a consolation goal for Pompey and celebrated it by running up to Abby. After the match, midfielder Tash Stephens took Abby into the clubhouse for some food. If you’re not getting the message by now then surely that tells you what Pompey Ladies is about. Rachel and Tash showed us how much our support is appreciated. It meant a lot to Abby and she didn’t stop talking about it all week.

Two defeats and shipping 12 goals was not a good start to 2018. I could see the pain on the faces of the players and staff. Our next game was a Hampshire Cup tie away to Warsash Wasps. We had a new signing settling into the side: Daisy McLaughlin, who signed from Reading. She was working her way back from a serious injury but had showed some signs of real quality in the final third. She was to go on to be the key player in the second half of the season.

We eventually found Warsash Wasps’ ground despite the Sat Nav taking me into a field in the middle of nowhere first. Warsash play their football at a lower level than Pompey but their pitch was superb and clearly looked after well. The stewards (sorry, steward) was a very feisty older lady who demanded we only stand on one side of the pitch and must not go behind the goal!

We all crammed round along the touch line and the game got underway. We were never in any danger of losing this game. We were hungry to put the last two games behind us and the gulf in standard was clear. The match finished 10-0 with the highlight a Sammy Quayle hat-trick.

Next up was an away trip to QPR who play their games at Uxbridge FC. It’s a tidy ground with a terrace behind each goal and small, seated stands on the sides of the pitch. QPR were not doing too well in the league, floating near the bottom and struggling to pick up points. As a Pompey fan these are the games that make you nervous. On paper it was three points, but as we know games are not played on paper.

It was a tough match, QPR very much content to sit in their own half and bank up whilst trying to catch us on the break. It was hard work. There was one particular nasty moment in the second half. Pompey forward Shannon Albuery was running on to a lofted through ball. As she jumped with the QPR keeper, Lauren Dolbear, it appeared Lauren led with her arm flattening Sharon.

Sam and I were behind the goal on our own so this foul was clear for us. We appealed but the ref gave nothing. It was a free-kick but probably should have been a card, maybe even a red. Our appeals were lively but nothing directed at the goalkeeper personally – but she clearly had taken umbrage at this as we were to find out later.

It look the introduction of Molly Clark to open the game up. Molly is a class act; having played at a higher level she has the ability to change games whether it be an assist or a 25-yard strike. When she came on in the 58th minute we started to carve out more chances, eventually leading to Katie James scoring 14 mins from time.

Cue celebrations from Sam and I during which point Sam shouted “Serves you right keeper you should have got sent off”. This triggered what only can be described as a tirade of swear words and abuse towards us from the QPR keeper. Abby was sitting in the side, stand so it wasn’t a problem. Sam and I laughed it off and Sam exchanged a few insults with her, but nothing of concern.

The ref didn’t agree though. He proceeded to stop play and called both managers to him. The conversation between the ref and the managers was out of our earshot but I was told after he wasn’t happy with the Pompey fans’ (all two of us) behaviour behind the goal. Following this over comes one of the QPR coaching staff. He comes into the terrace and stands right next to Sam and I. Bearing in mind we are the only fans in the stand this is a bit odd; I simply asked him if he was ok and got my ear bent for it.

Apparently Pompey fans have a “reputation for this type of thing”. I explained it was actually his player who swore at us but he was having none of it. Eventually he and Sam started exchanging insults, it was a ridiculous situation. He stood there with us for the final 15 mins. We didn’t care, the game finished 0-1 to Pompey and we went home with the points. It was a battling performance tainted by a fiery incident that left a bitter taste as I went home. The home game against them would be interesting …

The following week we were in Hampshire Cup action, a semi-final away to Southampton Saints girls and ladies (not the official Southampton team). Even though they were not the official Scummers team you don’t want to lose to Southampton-based sides. It was freezing and the wind was whipping around the ground.

Lauren Peck was well up for this game. As the season had gone on Lauren and I had started to become good mates away from football. She is a lively, confident girl and she seemed to really buy into Pompey as a club. She had joined us at MK Dons away the week before this game and later in the season would also come to Plymouth away. By now she was well aware about the rivalry with the Scummers and I knew this game had a little extra edge for her.

It was inevitable she would be booked, and she was. We were clearly the better side during the match and we cruised to a comfortable 0-3 victory securing our place in the Hampshire Cup final.

We were now approaching the end of February and whilst it was clear we were not going to win the league the season still had plenty of legs. A good finish would see us double our points total for last season and end the campaign in a comfortable upper mid-table position. Then there was the Hampshire Cup final to come as well.

Cardiff away was our next game, our seventh away game in a row at this point, due to fixture postponements (more on that later). Cardiff is one of the longer away games in the league so my wife Susie came with us so share the driving. The game was at a place called the CCB Centre. It was a decent facility with a pavilion one side and large stand the other.

Cardiff were sharing the mid-table positions with us so it was a going to be an evenly matched game. We put on a very solid performance and secured a 2-0 victory.

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Abby on mascot duty away at Cardiff

Finally, after nearly four months, we had a home game. We were taking on title-chasing Crystal Palace. We went toe to toe with them in the away game so I was hoping it would be a competitive game. Unfortunately, due to a clash with one of the Pompey men’s fixtures (thanks SKY) I missed the match, as the ladies crashed to a 4-0 defeat. My wife went with Abby and, from what she said, it sounded like Palace were just a little too good for us. Sometimes you just have to accept that and move on.

Because of postponements it was a month before our next game. We faced Swindon at home and we were looking to put the Palace defeat behind us. Swindon were struggling at the foot of the table without a single point all season and shipping an average of six goals a game.

As a Pompey fan you know these games are risky, we hardly every thump poor sides. The message around the team was clear: be professional and get the job done. We did exactly that. Playing on Bognor’s ‘bowling green’ pitch helped us play our fast passing game and we were simply too much for Swindon, beating them 5-0.

In a strange twist of the fixture lists we faced Swindon again the following week this time away from home. As soon as we arrived at Swindon’s ground it was clear we were not going to be able to play the type of football we had the previous week. The pitch was uneven and bobbly – it was going to be a more difficult afternoon. We battled away and eventually grabbed a goal through Daisy McLaughlin in the 68th minute and two late goals secured a 3-0 win.

Whilst Swindon were a poor side and we had scored eight against them without reply I did have a lot of respect for them. They were losing week in week out yet carried on through the season. They could have easily withdrawn from the league but they didn’t. They had battled for 90 mins of both games against us. Whilst they would ultimately be relegated they had my respect.

We were now into April and had five league games and a cup final to go. The next four league fixtures were against title-chasing teams in Basildon (home and away) and Charlton and then we also faced a reformed West Ham side. I wasn’t expecting too much from the games but was hoping we would at least be competitive.

First up was Charlton, who had looked like they were going to win the league all season. We were unlucky in the home game succumbing to last-minute defeat. We would be looking to repeat that level of performance in this game.

Charlton had a formidable front line in Kit Graham and Charlotte Guur. By the end of the season they would have 83 goals between them. It was going to be tough. I know the Pompey manager, Jay Sadler, and his team had been working hard on a game plan to counteract Charlton’s obvious attacking threat and it worked.

We played superbly well and had we been a bit more clinical in front of goal we would have been out of sight. As it was it was 0-0 in the 85th minute when Kit Graham smashed in an unstoppable shot from outside the box. They didn’t deserve it and their celebrations told you that. It took both our starting centre backs to be off the field injured for Charlton to score. I was gutted – we had done so brilliantly and deserved the three points but left with nothing.

The following week saw the arrival of an interesting fixture in West Ham away. West Ham Ladies play their home matches at the men’s training ground at Rush Green. The pitches were out of this world. They were like bowling greens. It was a scorching hot day and we knew we were in for a long hard battle. West Ham had gone through a massive transformation since we beat them at home seven months previously.

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West Ham’s impressive facilities

They had decided to bid for a place in the professional Women’s Super League next season. This resulted in a significant strengthening of their squad including the signing of one of our players, Molly Clark. I don’t blame Molly for going, she was offered wages and a chance to play at the highest level next season, and she would have been a fool not to go.

Before their squad investment West Ham were just your standard mid-table side but were now a formidable team in the league. They had no chance of finishing above mid-table as their weaker squad had had such a poor start to the season. Now they were on the rise, undefeated in months and smashing teams five, six and 10-nil.

A defeat was always likely but the score line was so disappointing. We lost 7-1 and it was a terrible performance. We looked defeated the moment West Ham scored in the 13th minute. There should have been more fight about us, but we just limped through the game. No doubt West Ham were better than us, some of their players were superb. However, if you pull on that blue shirt you don’t roll over and get smashed like that.

The players and manager looked absolutely gutted, which is why I wasn’t angry. They were hurting as much as Abby and I. Pompey’s player of the match was undoubtedly my daughter who seemed to get louder as the goals went in. She did her best to chant over the top of the mocking West Ham fans. I was very proud of her. We are a decent side and having seven put past you hurts a lot. There was to be no let-up though as we now had back-to-back games against Basildon, who were now on Charlton’s tails chasing the league title.

Basildon play their games at Canvey Island FC, a really smart little ground – if you climb to the top of the terrace behind the goal you can see the sea. We made our way to the ground and it was freezing, a ludicrous contrast to the previous week at West Ham.

Going into the game we were all still hurting from the West Ham thrashing and desperate to put it right. However straight from kick-off Basildon went for the kill. We were caught on the back foot and 3-0 down within half an hour. Basildon didn’t look that much better than us, they were just confident and clinical. Those two things mean a hell of a lot at this level of women’s football.

Everyone looked despondent. This wasn’t the battling Pompey side we had seen all season. We went into half time 3-0 down. I don’t know what Jay and the players said to each other at half-time but we came out like a rocket second half. We really took the game to them. Daisy McLaughlan and Shannon Albuery both scored sensational long-range goals, but the game finished 4-2.

It could have been so different had the ref not allowed the Basildon goal. Ellie Kirby had blatantly been fouled in the build-up but the ref and lino bottled the decision and they scored. It was a brilliant second-half performance and when I spoke to Jay after the game he was desperate to carry the momentum on at home the following week.

We were back at Bognor to face Basildon at home. The weather was glorious and there was a feeling of growing confidence around the Pompey team after the second-half display the previous week. We knew we had it in us to beat them. A defeat for Basildon would all but end their title chase. After this match we had the Hampshire Cup final followed by the final home game. We really needed a boost ahead of those games.

Two good sides going toe to toe on a bowling green of a pitch. You couldn’t ask for more. It was a fantastic match to watch. We were brilliant, easily the performance of the season for me. Daisy McLaughlan opened the scoring from the spot after Sammy Quayle had been brought down.

In the 41st minute we were to be witness to Pompey’s goal of the season. A cross came into the Basildon box and was cleared to the edge of the 18-yard box. Daisy then had the nerve to bicycle kick it back towards goal and it went flying into the net. An unbelievable bit of skill. Goal of the season without a doubt.

Basildon pulled a goal back but the game finished 2-1. The girls had given absolutely everything on the pitch and I was so proud of them. Some Basildon players were in tears as their title chase was over. It was the perfect way for us to go into the cup final.

On Thursday 10th June we travelled to Alton FC to watch Pompey take on Southampton FC in the Hampshire Cup final. We were due to play Southampton Women FC in the final but they were disqualified. Apparently they brought on an ineligible player as a sub in their semi-final against the Southampton FC. Even though there were only 10 mins to go and Southampton Women FC were already 3-0 up, they were still disqualified.

I didn’t mind. The chance to play the official Scummers team was a mouth-watering prospect. There was a decent crowd for the game too. We took our position behind the Scummers goal and much to her mother’s embarrassment Abby kept singing “we hate Scummers” over and over. I thought it was hilarious and so did a local journalist.

It didn’t take us long to start putting them to the sword. The game finished 5-0 and it was a walkover for us. We were far too good for the Scummers and Pompey Ladies proved they truly are the pride of Hampshire.

Having been mascot for the final Abby was invited up to lift the trophy with the team. After skipper Charley Boswell lifted the cup she immediately handed it to Abby to lift ahead of the other players. I won’t lie, there was a tear in my eye. We had been with the girls home and away this season. I was fortunate to call some of the players my friends and Abby had found a love for football. All because of Pompey Ladies.

To see her lift that trophy felt like the perfect culmination to everything that had happened. Pompey Ladies was now a huge part of our lives, it was all Abby talked about some days. That cup final will forever stay with me.

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Abby with the Hampshire Cup

The following Sunday saw the final home game of the season which was going to be played at Fratton Park against QPR. Mick and Ann Williams had done a cracking job arranging this and everyone was looking forward to it.

I had been trying to push the game a lot on social media. I was hoping with the draw of Fratton Park some fans who had not been to a Ladies game before would come along. It was a glorious day, the sun was out and a crowd of 400 saw Pompey thrash QPR 6-1. Pompey were unstoppable.

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Watching Pompey Ladies play at Fratton was fantastic

We finished the league sixth out of 12. We had doubled our points from last season and had a hugely better goal difference than the previous term as well. On top of that we were Hampshire Cup champions. I was fortunate to see such a fantastic season as my first one.

During the 10 months we followed Pompey Ladies I saw my daughter turn from someone with a fleeting interest in football to a girl addicted to every aspect of her team. She has 25 posters of all the players on her wall which I made as an advent calendar at Christmas. She had large Pompey Ladies vinyl transfers on her bedroom walls and knew every player’s squad number.

I had taken her to that first game against Cardiff to try to get her into ladies’ football and managed to become hooked on it myself.

I was delighted that Lauren Peck got a special award to commemorate her community work this season. She was fantastic with Abby and my family this season and is a huge part of the reason why we kept coming. She also helped push the ladies’ football on social media by engaging with fans. When she came to MK Dons away with us she spent half-time talking to other Pompey fans about the ladies’ team – she is a credit to our club and deserved her recognition.

The women’s game is getting an overhaul in the summer. The Women’s Super League is going fully professional with strict criteria to enter it. The Women’s Championship, whilst not going fully professional, also had entry criteria. For this season only promotion isn’t won to these leagues, it was a case of bidding to get into them. If you want to play in the top leagues you need things like academies, full-time coaching and medical staff. This was a controversial decision. This kind of model could have been brought in over a period of time but the FA wanted it done quicker.

Pompey are not bidding to enter either of these leagues and will remain in the women’s third-tier next season. I’m more than happy with that decision. We are not in a position to go into that level of football right now, though it doesn’t mean we won’t be progressing.

It’s been quite a journey from knowing next to nothing about ladies football to attending as many games as we did. Women’s football freshened up my love for the game in a way I wasn’t expecting. I have done my best to encourage other people to go. Sometimes people have bought into my message and come along to games.

I understand it’s not for everyone but it annoys me when people label it “crap” without ever having been to a game. The standard is good even in the third tier. Why do people insist on comparing it to the Premier League football they watch on Match of the Day?

Women’s football is its own standalone entity and should be treated as such. If you go into it looking to put it down you won’t enjoy it. Women’s football is growing all the time and has loads to offer. I loved doing all the different grounds, I enjoyed the access to the players and staff and the general feeling of community around the women’s game.

Women’s football is full of unsung heroes. We have many ourselves including the club secretary Bill Griffiths.  This guy is one of many people all round the country who give so much time and effort to keep the Women’s game running.  He is such a cracking bloke. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our terrace chats this season.

In April I started the #2teams1club campaign with the help of some Pompey ladies fans Ash and Nat  They were great helping me push it on social media. The hope was to get the Pompey Ladies closer aligned to the men’s team. Mick did a fantastic job but needed more support.

The day before this blog went live the dream of #2teams1club has become a reality. The club have announced that the Ladies team will now be aligned with the Men’s club completely.  It’s a massive day for Women’s football in Portsmouth.

A huge thanks has to go to the Eisners, Mark Catlin, Mick Williams and many more for making that dream a reality.  The Ladies will play their games at Baffins Milton Rovers next season.  This is fantastic as we will have a home ground in Portsmouth which hopefully will attract more fans to come.

I would say to anyone, come and give it a go. Go to a Pompey Ladies game with an open mind and I think you will be surprised how much you might get out of it.

Ian Chiverton

2 thoughts on “A Different Ball Game

  1. Great article, really captures what Pompey Ladies are all about. I hope more Pompey men’s fans give it a go…. and now they play locally, let’s hope they do. And it’s only a few quid to get in. Play up Pompey.

    Like

  2. Brilliant article. I think Abby gave as much as she received and she was as much a part of the success of the team as they were, she played her part brilliantly! Well played Abby & PUPL! #2teams1club

    Liked by 1 person

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