Hitchin Belles FC: ‘To devote your life to your passion is so rewarding’, says inspirational copper turned chairwoman Gemma
- Credit: Archant
The England Lionesses may have lost to the Dutch in the semi-finals of Euro 2017 but their heroic run has still inspired a Hitchin girls’ football club to even greater heights – led by their new chairwoman.
Gemma Smith is now the chairwoman of the renowned Hitchin Belles FC. She also plays for the ladies’ team while her daughter Madison appears for the under-eights.
The Belles are a Hitchin success story to be proud of, as the ever-growing girls’ and women’s football team has seen their membership reach an all-time high.
They have 11 junior teams, with around 170 children affiliated, as well as a ladies’ team – and the numbers are growing every week.
The club has been awarded the FA Charter Standard in recognition of its standards, and actively supports the national body’s Respect campaign.
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The Belles, founded in 1997, have gained many plaudits for its inclusivity – but passionate football-lover Gemma wishes it had been around when she was growing up.
The former policewoman first started playing football when she was five, in the back garden with her brother and dad.
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Before long she was playing against boys – but in the 1980s the FA banned girls’ and boys’ teams from playing against each other, and her parents struggled to find a weekend team she could play in.
Unsympathetic teachers didn’t help, telling her she was unable to play at school level.
Speaking to the Comet, Gemma recalls: “The anger and upset I felt at the time fuels my energy and passion now.
“You ask a young player, ‘Who’s your favourite footballer?’ About 99 per cent of the time they’ll mention a men’s player, but what the Lionesses have done is built up the interest in the women’s game.
“People are now talking about the players in the team that many might not have heard of before – and we want to build on that interest at Hitchin Belles, so maybe in the near future when a girl is asked who her favourite footballer is she might say a woman.”
The importance of the success of the England women’s team in the growth of grassroots football is shown by the fact that the club has seen incredible interest at under-seven and under-eight level over the past six months.
Two years ago the Belles had four players at that age group – next season they will have more than 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.
As a young adult Gemma lived in Tenerife for two and a half years before she joined the police in 2006, working in Cambs for six years before spending four years based at Hitchin police station in College Road.
She says: “It wasn’t until my early 20s, when I returned from living abroad, that I joined Hitchin Town Ladies in 2003.
“I played right-wing – shame I can’t do that now as I’m too old!”
After joining the force she didn’t play football again until 2014, when she joined Shefford ladies for two years before becoming associated with the Belles.
She says: “I’m gutted Hitchin Belles wasn’t around when I was younger as I’m sure I would have made it as a professional.
“I spent 10 years as a police officer but decided, after becoming a single parent, that bringing up my daughter was far more important. I left the police last year.
“It was a very difficult decision – but it turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made.
“I’ve absolutely no regrets in joining the police. I’m glad I did it. But I also feel like I’ve got control back with my life and I’m doing something that I’ve loved for years and years. My whole life is based around football and, more importantly, my daughter – who also loves football.
“To have a job and devote your life to your passion is just so rewarding. I’m really enjoying it.”
Gemma says the flourishing club is the perfect environment for children to gain experience – including her own eight-year-old daughter Madison – as it aims to provide a caring, family environment where girls can develop their skills and enjoy football free from pressure or fear of failure.
It’s also a place where poor behaviour, bad language or abuse in any form from coaches, players, parents or spectators is simply not tolerated.
Gemma continues: “There’s a family feel to it at Hitchin Belles – everyone has a common interest in developing the girls and that’s important - there is a nice community feel to it.
“In terms of work-life balance – I couldn’t commit to playing football or even coaching or watching her play football while I was working in the force as there was a lot of shift work.
“She started playing when she was six and I realised that I wanted to coach as well – at that time they were looking for more coaches to form another team, so it seemed like a natural move to get more involved.”
Among the most heartening aspects of the club is the fact that they are backed and supported by a hard-working set of volunteers, parents, local partners and sponsors – and above all, the players, who are the heartbeat of this thriving club.
Busy Gemma is also looking forward to being the Belles’ chairwoman, in a move that shows the club is at the vanguard of being a leading light in girls’ football.
She adds: “I hope to inspire the club, our volunteers and players to aspire to being the best they can be.
“As a club it is vital we have a pathway for every player of all levels and every coach who wants to better themselves in their coaching career.
“It’s quite daunting having the responsibilty of being chairwoman in a generally male-orientated environment – but because I want to spread the gospel of women’s football and increase awareness and participation, it was an easy decision to take up the role.
“I also hope in years to come our players will look back on their footballing career and be proud to say they played for Hitchin Belles, the leading all-female football club in Herts.”
And next season’s targets?
“I’m so busy but I’ll be coaching our under-nines,” she says with a smile, adding: “I’ll also be playing for the ladies team.
“I also now work at the Herts FA.”
The Lionesses’ heroic run at Euro 2017 may have ended at the semi-final stage, but one thing is for certain – our beautiful game is in safe hands with clubs like the Belles, led by passionate and inspiring advocates like Gemma.
To find out more about Hitchin Belles FC, have a look at hitchinbelles.com.
The Belles are always looking for more sponsors – if you are interested, email email@example.com.