Hitchin Belles FC bang the drum for girls’ grassroots football – and England Lionesses

Hitchin Belles FC are a thriving club

Hitchin Belles FC are a thriving club - Credit: Archant

With the success of the England women’s football team at Euro 2017 interest has never been higher in the top level of the female game – none more so than in Hitchin.

Hitchin Belles FC at Wembley

Hitchin Belles FC at Wembley - Credit: Archant

As the England Lionesses prepare to play Holland in the semi-finals of the prestigious tournament on Thursday, after disposing of old foes France in the quarter-final, participation at grassroots level of the beautiful game mirrors this growing passion.

In North Herts, Hitchin Belles FC are rapidly expanding on the back of interest in the national team.

One of the coaches at the club, Paul Dean, says: “I got involved with the Belles through my daughter Isobel. She took part in gymnastics and other individual sports but between us we thought it would be a good idea to try a team sport – and we haven’t looked back.”

The club supported him with his FA Level 1 badges and he is now an integral part of the club – as is the talented nine-year-old Isobel.

Hitchin Belles FC next to the Bobby Moore statue at Wembley

Hitchin Belles FC next to the Bobby Moore statue at Wembley - Credit: Archant

The importance of the success of the England women’s team in the growth of grassroots football is shown by the fact club has seen incredible growth at Under 7/8 level over the past six months. Two years ago the Belles had four players at that age group – next season they will have in excess of 40 training each week.

They even hired minibuses to take some 80 girls to Wembley for the Women’s FA Cup Final between Manchester City and Birmingham City in May.

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Paul believes this healthy state of affairs is in part due to the interest spurred on by the success of the England ladies team and increased coverage of women’s professional football.

“Isobel loves playing football but will normally only watch a TV game if it’s the women,” he says.

The Belles' hard-working coach Paul Dean and daughter Isobel

The Belles' hard-working coach Paul Dean and daughter Isobel - Credit: Archant

“She grew up with an interest in the game from watching her brother play.

“But who knows, over the next generation, younger sisters may start getting into the sport by watching their older sisters play.”

He adds: “I think it’s great the national team is doing so well. They come across as really grounded and humble people.

“Probably because they’re not that far removed from recalling when it was them playing at teams like the Belles at grassroots level.

For the love of the beautiful game: Paul Dean and daughter Isobel

For the love of the beautiful game: Paul Dean and daughter Isobel - Credit: Archant

“It’s important for all levels of the women’s game that they do well – but it’s not the be-all and end-all, which in a way is testament to the growth of grassroots football.”

The club has ambitions to continue that growth.

We are talking at a floodlit Friday night training session on Astroturf at a Hitchin school.

All around us girls of varying ages are taking part in drills ahead of various small-sided games.

Hitchin Belles Summer Party - The Hitchin Belles. Credit Karyn Haddon

Hitchin Belles Summer Party - The Hitchin Belles. Credit Karyn Haddon - Credit: Archant

There is a real sense of fun that runs alongside enthusiastic and knowledgeable coaching from unpaid volunteers such as Paul, who turn up for the love of the game.

Every standard of proficiency is accepted and encouraged.

There are accomplished girls who could well have a future at the burgeoning top level of the game if they continue their progress.

But equally, there are girls who just want to take part – to gain the satisfaction that simply comes from playing the world’s most popular game and the camaraderie and sense of belonging that comes with it.

Hitchin Belles FC

Hitchin Belles FC - Credit: Archant

The atmosphere nurtures weaker players, and coaches routinely give ‘Player of the week’ awards to those who’ve worked the hardest – not necessarily the most skilled.

Paul continues proudly: “We’re the largest female-only club in North Herts and we’ve seen a huge spike in numbers in our younger age groups.

“Our membership has reached an all-time high. We’re proud to be running 11 junior teams plus one ladies team and play our home matches at two venues in Hitchin.

“We’ve around 170 junior players across the age groups – as well as 18 in the ladies team with the numbers growing each week.

Hitchin Belles FC U12 champions

Hitchin Belles FC U12 champions - Credit: Archant

“We have earned a reputation for being a fair and friendly club and were delighted to be awarded the FA Charter Standard in recognition of our high standards.”

There is a diversity among the girls that is as much a joy to see as the sheer sense of fun and achievement the youngsters gain from their endeavours. There is even a subtle difference in the unity of the parents on the sidelines on a wet evening that is missing in the sometimes more aggressive forms of boys’ football among these age groups.

With clubs like the Belles grassroots girls football is here to stay.

It might be a far cry from the men’s Premier League, but not, even now, from the top level of the women’s game – although things are changing with only Southampton and, shockingly, Manchester United, failing to run affiliated ladies teams with superior levels of facilities and support.

More medals for Hitchin Belles FC

More medals for Hitchin Belles FC - Credit: Archant

Good-natured but passionate Paul warms to his theme of his beloved Hitchin Belles.

He explains: “We aim to provide a caring, family environment where girls can develop their skills and enjoy football free from pressure or fear of failure. We won’t ever tolerate poor behaviour, bad language or abuse in any form from coaches, players, parents or spectators.

“The club actively supports the FA’s Respect Campaign and through our proactive work in this field, we’ve previously won the Herts FA’s Charter Standard Club of the Year.

“Through excellent links with local schools we continue to attract new players and several have represented our club at county level in advanced coaching centres.

Training is always fun at Hitchin Belles FC

Training is always fun at Hitchin Belles FC - Credit: Archant

“Many girls have gone on to play at centres of excellences and recently a former Belles player was called up for a national training camp.

“As a thriving grassroots club we hope to see many more of our players go on to progress on the FA’s Player Pathway.”

The club was formed in 1997 and registered with the local league and the Herts FA.

During the following decade, the club grew organically and became one of the largest all-female football clubs in the county. Their youth teams play in the progressive Herts Girls Football Partnership League.

Hitchin Belles FC chairwoman Gemma Smith

Hitchin Belles FC chairwoman Gemma Smith - Credit: Archant

Paul adds: “We are always looking for ways to develop the Belles and the playing experience of our members.

“We actively seek to enhance the skills of our coaches by joining the Herts FA Coaches Association and promoting the FA Coach Education programme amongst our volunteer base. We encourage a strong social togetherness at the club and the off-field activities are a mark of our bond. We organise regular trips to the Women’s FA Cup Final and England matches.

“We celebrate each team’s efforts by holding team and club end of season celebrations – and for the last two years we have attended a Butlin’s Football Festival in Bognor Regis.”

The club has a woman chairman in former police officer Gemma Smith – [featured in the second part of this special report] and they’ve also embraced Futsal and have twice represented Herts at the national finals in Birmingham. Their talented U16’s even made it to the last four in England three years ago.

The future is extremely positive for Hitchin Belles FC as they continue to grow and develop the female game.

Among the most heartening aspects is the fact they are backed and supported by a wonderful set of volunteers, parents, local partners and sponsors and above all, the players, who are the heartbeat of this thriving club.

The training session draws to an end and I note the girls willingly chip in and gather marker cones and collect stray footballs to help their coaches.

I ask self-confessed Stone Roses fan Paul if he were to choose a song by the legendary Manchester band that would sum up the growth of the Belles and women’s football in general, what would it be?

Without missing a beat the long-suffering Chesterfield FC fan immediately fires back: “What The World Is Waiting For or She Bangs The Drums”.

This is fitting. The world has certainly waited long enough for women’s football to be on an equal footing with the men’s game, but thankfully in Hitchin that wait seems to be over.

For more on the inspiring Hitchin Belles FC visit www.hitchinbelles.com.

Tomorrow: Meet Gemma Smith – Hitchin Belles copper turned chairwoman.