Women’s and girls’ football is on an upward curve, according to new England captain Casey Stoney.
The Lincoln Ladies star, appointed captain of the national team last week, said the game had shown “massive improvement” in recent years.
With the Women’s Super League (WSL) in its second season, England trying to qualify for the European Championships and the Olympic Games on the horizon, exposure for women’s football could reach an all-time high this summer.
But it’s not just at the top end of the game where things are looking up. According to Sport England participation statistics, women’s football is now officially the third biggest team sport in the country, behind only men’s football and cricket.
Stoney, who in March became only the fifth English woman to win 100 caps, believes that the game has changed dramatically for the better since she started out in the game.
“I think it’s improved massively,” Stoney told Club Website. “When I was playing as a girl I played with boys. I never had the opportunity to play with other girls. That doesn’t happen anymore. There are so many more opportunities for girls to play.
“There are 1.1m plus [women and girls] playing the game and that wasn’t the case 20 years ago, so it shows you how far women’s football has come.”
The stats speak for themselves. There are now over 7,000 women’s and girls’ teams in England, compared to just 80 only two decades ago.
Buildling on this growth, last season’s launch of the WSL signalled a new era for the women’s game.
It has brought with it bigger crowds, greater competition between teams and more engagement between players and supporters, something that Stoney enjoys.
“It’s brilliant that you get interaction with players and fans. You can’t get anywhere near a men’s Premier League player. I think that’s why quite a lot of fans come to the games. It’s been really good.”
Winning the England captaincy was a “massive honour” for Stoney, who says her “feet haven’t touched the floor” since England coach Hope Powell gave her the good news.
With the role, of course, comes extra responsibility to carry herself in the right manner on and off the pitch, but this is something that the 30-year-old relishes.
“I think you need role models. There will be little girls watching their telly thinking ‘I want that to be me in 10 to 15 years time’. That’s important. We all need someone to look up to or aspire to.
“And I want to be a role model. To be able to relate to the young girls and say ‘you know what, I was there once and this is what putting in the hard work and enjoying what you do can do for you’.
“I’ve traveled the world and I would never have done half the things I’ve done for if it wasn’t for football. Am I going to be a millionaire? No. But I do what I do because I love it and to be a role model is a privilege, so hopefully I can be a good one.”
Like many of her peers, Stoney is proving a fine ambassador for the women’s game, as visitors to the Grass Roots Football Show at Birmingham’s NEC last weekend will attest.
Having taken part in a discussion forum on the women’s game, Stoney and England team mate Jill Scott spent much of the day with the young fans attending the show.
“We’ve been interacting with quite a few of the girls here today and had photos with them,” said Stoney. “The first question I asked one girl was ‘what do you aspire to do?’ and they said ‘be like you one day’.
“For me that’s quite overwhelming, because I just see myself as a player. Yeah, I’ve worked hard but I’m no different to how they were at 14 or 15.
“It’s great to be able to get involved with them, give them something to look forward to and give them a dream really. You don’t choose to be a role model, but if you’re going to be one, why not be a great one? Why not be someone that can influence and inspire?”
With the Olympics just weeks away – and with it the rare bonus of live terrestrial television coverage – the possibility of inspiring youngsters is greater than ever.
Team GB women’s football team kicks off the Games when they take on New Zealand in the Millennium Stadium on 25 July and Stoney would love to be a part of history.
“To be the first Olympians out on the pitch to open the Olympics would be absolutely amazing. We’ve got to fight for places first and there’s no guarantee we’re going to be in the squad.
“But it’s good to dream. You’re allowed to dream, because without dreams I wouldn’t have worked so hard to get where I’ve got to. I’ve always dreamed of playing at an Olympics and being England captain.”
“The Olympics is a massive platform for women’s football. We’ve never had a Great British women’s team in an Olympics. It’s a world stage – the most watched event in the world, so hopefully British women’s football can use it as a springboard for our game.”
For Stoney and the rest of the women’s game, this summer the only way is up.
Dan Pope, Club Website editor
Casey Stoney was appearing at the Grass Roots Football Show at the NEC in Birmingham. To find out more visit grassrootsfootball.co.uk.