Speaking to Chelsea F.C. Women about how the game is changing the future of sport and providing inspiration for a whole new generation of footballersChelsea F.C. Women
The crowd roars. It’s a warm, bright, beginning-of-summer afternoon in Wembley Stadium, and Chelsea F.C. Women’s Ramona Bachmann careers towards the keeper, scoring the first of two goals in a slamming top corner finish – minutes into the second half of their 2018 FA Cup Final against Arsenal.
Watching her play is surreal in more ways than one, but the thing that strikes me the most is that I’ve never seen women’s football of this calibre before – nor was I expecting such a jubilant crowd. It’s revealed on a screen towards the end of the match that this was a Women's FA Cup Final with a record turnout; nearly 46,000 packing out the stands. It feels as though women’s football is finally being given the space and respect it deserves, alongside the burgeoning feminism of the millennial generation.
Three days before, I met 27-year-old Ramona on an unusual shoot for Dazed at the lush Chelsea training grounds in Cobham, just outside of London, where she spoke highly of their fans. “They’re really cool people, really loyal,” the Switzerland native said with a wry smile. “I’ve had a fan that was quite funny. She’s been sending handmade presents to me. Not only to me – to my whole family.” Her teammate Magdalena Eriksson seconded the fans’ loyalty, saying that the sentiment is returned by the players on team.
“I think we have a different relationship with our fans compared to the men’s side, because obviously we don’t get as many,” she said. “We have to look after them, we have to make sure they feel wanted and like we respect them.” At the end of the cup match, I see this in action – the Chelsea players applaud their fans and take countless (sweaty) selfies. Although their turnouts still can’t match the men’s, it’s worth noting that there has been a significant year-on-year rise. This is probably the busiest the stands have been since the 1920s for the women’s game, when – before the FA slapped a 50 year ban on the sport – it often drew in bigger crowds than the men’s.
It's not just the fans that the team provide inspiration for. The Chelsea team as it stands are already speaking to a generation of youth desperate to emulate them. Even at my big age of 24, I feel inspired and emotional watching them win the cup match at Wembley; it's particularly personal as I know just how hard women have fought, not only for the right to play football but to be respected doing so.
For the girls currently in the Chelsea Regional Talent Centre – who bombarded the makeshift Dazed dressing room at the shoot with the confident exuberance of young women who have been taught from an early age not to be afraid of speaking their minds and doing what they love – watching them succeed and be supported means even more. When I asked each of the girls, whose ages range from nine to 12, whether they want to play football for the rest of their lives, they all nodded their heads.
“We mainly play against boys teams,” 11-year-old Lexi Potter explained, “Because it pushes us to be better. But we don't win very much.” They are all a part of Chelsea's Girls Regional Talent Centre – which has teams ranging from U10s to U16s. They all agreed that they love watching the women's team. “One day I want to be in the first team,” said 12-year-old Katie Cox. For their part, the Chelsea F.C. Women players also feel passionately about the youth players.
“We’re gonna have so many good players in the future,” said 24-year-old defender Millie Bright. “Because there are so many girls playing football now. And it makes me feel like I want to take responsibility and give them the best way to success as I possibly can. Demanding more from Chelsea, more from everyone – to invest more in women’s football – so young girls can have an easy way as it is in men’s football.”
The Chelsea F.C. Women team itself – formerly known as Chelsea Ladies F.C. – has been in existence since 1992, only officially becoming a part of Chelsea F.C. in 2004. There was a brief time in 2009 when then-Chelsea captain John Terry and teammates had to step in to support the women’s team with additional resources, as they were facing budget cuts. This seems a situation unlikely to happen today; in 2016, Chelsea’s Karen Carney told Goal that since the start of her career the game had completely changed thanks to investment in infrastructure from teams like Chelsea. “When I first came in, it wasn't even semi-pro or taken seriously, but now it is professional and competitive. It is pressured and very similar to the men's game,” she said. Ramona echoed this sentiment. “I definitely felt a big change. There’s more money and all of the players are doing it pro at this level. So you can focus fully on playing and your recovery.”
The Chelsea team is managed by the brilliant Emma Hayes, a former coach who was able to lead them to victory for the first time in the FA Cup in 2015. Despite being pregnant at the time, she still took to the sidelines throughout the 2018 cup campaign – one of the few women managers in the sport at present. “I think it’s great to have a strong woman as a leader and as a coach,” said Bright. “I’m used to having men as coaches and having Emma – just a good female coach – is a good role model for all of us. To try to be strong women like her. And a few of us are maybe interested in becoming coaches at the end of our careers – so it’s very inspiring to see that she’s made it.”
The newly established difference in career expectation for the women’s side is perfectly illustrated by Millie and Erin Cuthbert’s conflicting stories of how they ended up on the Chelsea squad. Millie was at the Doncaster Belles for six years as a semi-professional player. “We had to graft and grind out some results but it’s made me the player I am today and I wouldn’t change it,” she said, admitting that pretty much her whole life “was dedicated to earning money”, and the semi-pro salary didn’t pay the bills.
She worked as an equestrian groom full-time alongside playing football, and as a fitness instructor. She was just about to go into teaching before she received the offer from Chelsea. “I was like, ‘this is my opportunity to do what I’ve always wanted to do’, so I chose that.”
Erin, at only 20, is the baby of the team. Pushing back the red-brown hair hanging down in styled waves for the Dazed shoot, she said she was “determined from an early age” to make football her job. “In terms of where the older players are in their career, they didn’t have the facilities or the backing that I would have now at their age,” she explained. “I’m lucky enough to be in a stage where the game’s going up. I just need to keep my feet on the ground and continue working hard because it’s easy to get caught up in it all.”
Instead of being semi-pro in the early stages of her adult career and having to work alongside her sporting commitments like many of her teammates, Erin has benefited from the money the FA has been pouring into the sport. She grew up in Ayrshire in Scotland, where she played for Rangers and Glasgow City before being scouted and attending a training week with Chelsea in 2016. “Before I even got to the airport, the manager had offered me a contract,” she said. “So Emma drove me and the manager Paul (Green) wrote up the contract. By the time I got out of the car, I had it.” Even so, her backup plan is solid; should football fall through, she will still have a degree in business that she’s currently working towards with the Open University.
Thankfully, things have changed since the days of Bend it Like Beckham – the 2001 film that launched a thousand young girls’ football playing dreams (including my own), and suggested that the only way for women players to succeed was to head to the USA, where women’s soccer consistently pulls in more support than men’s. Now, in the UK we have the FA Women's Super League (equivalent to the men’s Premier League), which announced in September that they would expect all their teams in the 2018-19 season to employ their players full time. Even Manchester United, who were widely denounced for scrapping their women’s side in 2005, applied to have a professional women's team for the upcoming season this March.
Outside of the professional sport itself, things are also changing. Quirky amateur women’s teams with names like Goal Diggers, Bend it like Peckham, and Romance FC – the latter of which is also a creative collective made up of photographers, stylists, producers, editors and designers – are cropping up in London boroughs, while women’s football and fashion zine SEASON has set a precedent for the women’s game’s attachment to style. Women’s football has never been cooler in its misfit-encompassing, welcoming aura. As a player myself, it’s nice to see the sentiments I appreciate most in amateur football reflected back in the professional game.
Each Chelsea woman's journey into football is slightly different, but as Ramona explained to me, most of the team “have very similar backgrounds”. For Erin, the team has worked as a pseudo-family and support network, as she moved away from home for the first time from Scotland – “they protect me all the time – over-protect me,” she laughed. Twenty-four-year-old Magdalena (who, like Ramona is Swedish) thinks that although the game in the UK is a lot more physical, she was wrong to think the team environment would be “more harsh”. “It’s the same as in Sweden. We’re a team and we hang out a lot outside of football as well – just getting coffee together and just hanging out in the evenings, watching football and stuff. It’s really nice.”