Willis backing more girls in football
Willis backing more girls in football

As the Women’s World Cup kicks off this weekend, the growth of female football in the UK over the course of the last decade is nothing short of staggering.

And with Phil Neville and the English “Lionesses” due to begin their World Cup campaign in France this weekend that many believe could see them go all the way, clubs up and down the Country are bracing themselves for another potential surge and growth in the game to take it to previously unprecedented levels.

Here in Kent, the growth in the female game is perhaps among the biggest and fastest and looking to preview France 19 and what potentially is the next stage in this incredible growth story, KSN Chief Football writer Mike Green has been to speak to Leigh Willis, the Chairman of Gillingham Anchorians who have more female clubs than any other in Kent.

In the first part of their discussion, they look ahead to the next month in France and just how far the Lionesses could progress.

“One thing that you have to remember is that until Gareth Southgate took over the men’s team, the Ladies were the best England team that we had!”

“The rise of the sport is massive with the different media companies now queuing up to cover it as this very week has proved. We had an England Nations League Semi Final on Thursday yet everyone was talking about the BBC showing the opening game of the Ladies World Cup in France prime time on a Friday night – there are a number of people who didn’t know that the men were playing such has been the focus on the World Cup – ten years ago that would have been unheard of!”

After finishing third in the last World Cup, there is an expectation level associated with the England team in the next couple of weeks, but that must be a good thing as we’ve still only got just over 4,000 girls in our County playing the game.”

“We’ve got a lot more wanting to play the game and becoming engaged in football after seeing the girls more and more – they’re on TV, they’re on Lucozade bottles and there’s even a Panini sticker album for this World Cup for the very first time.

For the first time in living memory almost, the Ladies World Cup is being shown at prime time on terrestrial football – something that Leigh is still pinching himself is happening!

The awareness of the tournament is incredible,” he told us, “I guess that there is the extra expectation on an England side to do well whether it’s rugby, hockey or football – football more so as it’s our national game. But you know I honestly think that the girls will do well and in doing so it will raise the game still further and create even more role models for the young girls who we get coming through our doors wanting to be the next Karen Carney or Steph Houghton.”

“Five years ago, if you’d have asked the girls playing who they’d like to be, it probably would have been the same as the boys – Ronaldo, Messi and co!

But now you get them saying Steph Houghton, Jodie Taylor or another member of the Lionesses. I don’t believe that the expectation will hurt them, and that they will do well.

I think that the other thing for ladies’ football that has helped nationally is having a well known male football face who may not have coaching badges, but hes got the knowledge of what a top mens team and an international team is all about. And bringing that into the ladies game at national level will only help everyone to engage with the team – you must remember that it was a massive gamble by the FA to appoint Phil Neville in the first place.”

“There were a lot in frame ahead of him, but by appointing a “name” from the men’s game ahead of some more established names in the ladies game again I think shows where the FA want to ladies game to go, and that can only be good for the game.”

The Lionesses campaign starts on Sunday afternoon (BBC1 live from 4:30pm), and Leigh analysed their group opponents for us.

Scotland will be a tough start,” he said.When we played Wales recently it was a lot tougher than a lot of people thought – all the home grown teams are at a good standard with England just at the top!”

“Argentina (given the level of the men’s game) are probably the weakest team in the group which leaves Japan who beat us in the last World Cup Semi Final in Canada, but I think we can and should get through the group. How far can we go?”

“With the expectations they’re looking at the Semis or the Final because they have done so, so well over the last eighteen months even if the last two results haven’t been the best. On the day, I genuinely believe that we’ll do the job and go a long, long way in the competition. Can we win it? Why not…”