Carol Bates: Reviving football for the “missed generation” of women

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This week’s game changers podcast features Carol Bates, the founder of the award-winning Crawley Old Girls. During the episode, Bates talks about the importance of creating a place for women to enjoy the physical and mental benefits of physical exercise.

Although she is a lifelong football fan, Bates was not allowed to play the sport as a child. The 50-year ban on women’s football in the UK was in effect until 1971 and prevented a young Bates from ever taking to the pitch.

“We weren't allowed to play at school, and of course we had the ban for 50 years, and in the seventies, girls couldn't play football,” Bates reminisced. “We weren't allowed to, the nearest we could get is maybe trying to nick the ball or go and run after the ball, after the boys have been playing and bring it back. But there were no opportunities for women through the seventies to play football at school.

“It was just normalised, wasn't it? Which is such a shame when you think about it now, it was just normalised that girls played netball, and hockey and things like that. We used to play basketball with the boys, but we never, ever got to play football.

‘It was really strange actually, when you think it was really segregated like that, but in PE we could play basketball against the boys. It was a real shame growing up, but of course there are many women like me who have been in that same situation and benefiting now that we can actually play the game.”

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Aged 48, Bates set up the Crawley Old Girls to revive football for the “missed generation” of women. Now known as Women’s Recreational Football, the initiative has now grown from ten of Bates’s friends to over 100 regular players.

Bates explained how she first realised her passion for playing football. “So having loved football all throughout my life, when I got to 48, I was asked to go to a charity tournament and play football in that,” she said. “I was so excited and I was a little bit nervous as well, going along for the first time, thinking ‘oh my God, we don't really know how to play, don't really know how to kick the football properly.’

“But it was all for charity, so it didn't really matter. So we just went along there. Oh my goodness. I just had a blast. And I just thought I've got to do this again. It's given me so much joy just to be on this pitch. I think I touched the ball about twice or something, but to be on this pitch and to just play was just, it's really difficult to explain it, it was like a real high.”

Bates soon asked Amy Fazackerley, manager of the Crawley Town FC Community Foundation projects, whether she could set up a session for older women. Fazackerley agreed and found funding for 10 weeks. From there, the initiative took off.

Since 2015, numerous women have now benefited from the project. Bates described how playing football had changed the participants for the better.

“I've seen women come in that have never kicked a ball before, and then you look at them a year or so later, and you look at the confidence in them,” she said. “We go to play little festivals and friendlies, things like that.

They are a little bit nervous when they go and play the first games, but you just watch them play with smiles on their faces and they come off that pitch and you just see them radiating confidence.

Bates continued: “That sort of builds, not just in their football lives, but as they go outside as well. It’s body confidence and things like that. You go on a pitch and you're seeing women with lumps and bumps, you know, that are running around with boobs jumping everywhere and things like that. Actually, that is good for them to see it because that builds their confidence as well. So then their confidence is taken into their working life or home life.

“Lots of women have said it's changed their lives really, and that's quite dramatic, but you know, it has, because they wouldn't have done anything like that before, and it's built their self esteem.”

As someone whose life was impacted by the FA’s ban on women’s football, Bates commented on the progress the organisation has made so far with making amends for the regulation. She said there had been “incredible work” behind the scenes, but there is still more to be done on normalising women of all ages playing football.

“It's not about winning this and winning that, it's about getting women involved. You can’t do everything at once, you have to build these things slowly to make sure they're going to work, especially with Sport England as well, with their investment with the FA.

“So, I just want it to be normal, that a woman like me will think I'm just going to go and play football tonight. You know, like people say, ‘oh, I'm just going to go to a yoga session, or I'm just going to go to Zumba’. I want it to be normal that someone says ‘we're just going to go to a football session tonight’ because I want there to be sessions all around the world, all round the country, that women like us have access to.

“I think that's the problem is that at the moment, there’s pitches, everyone wants pitches, there probably aren't enough pitches about, but let's just normalise it that however old you are, you can still play football.”

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As the interview came to an end, Bates emphasised just why it was so important for older women to be participating in sport.

“Going through the menopause and perimenopause, it is so important for women to be active. I wasn't active before I started doing this. And I do feel that it's really benefited me in terms of, you know, bones and heart disease. It's really important to try and stave away all these diseases and illnesses that actually do come around when you get a bit older.

“Especially menopause where you are going through a tough time. I've not been too bad, but I've heard some horrendous stories of anxiety and this sort of thing. And to get out and be active is so important. You know, you can't underestimate what going out and playing an hour's worth of activity can do for your body, mentally and physically.

“I can't stress how much it's changed me. It's changed my life. Being able to do this and play football. I would have never, ever have thought that I could run down the road up and back again, using years ago, even when I was like 30, you know, I probably couldn't have done it. But playing football and just having fun, sort of running around and being silly or whatever, has enabled my fitness to increase without me even realising it."

This article was produced in partnership with the game changers podcast, which is supported by Barclays. You can listen to the full episode with Carol Bates here

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