St Matthew’s Project, a football scheme founded on a Brixton housing estate, turned 10-years-old this month. A decade on from its creation, the FA-backed organisation is ramping up its efforts to boost girls football at a grassroots level.
Brixton Blog caught up with two talented young women who made a successful transition from football novices to coaches via the Project. Aramide Okelunle and Megan Smith share their views on sexism in football, playing for AFC Wimbledon Ladies and the beautiful game’s influence on their lives.
Aramide (pictured to the right) can vividly recall the moment she caught the football bug at the tender age of three. We’re sat in the corner of an outdoor 3G pitch in Brixton on a chilly Saturday morning. The 19-year-old law student, decked out in AFC Wimbledon’s famous blue and yellow strip, has some interesting recollections of her childhood memories of the game.
Experiences that include being the only girl in her primary school football team and being mocked by boys who underestimated her raw talent.
“There were no girls’ football teams at all in the primary school I went to. I was the only girl in my school’s team”, says Aramide. “When I was younger sometimes I’d watch boys’ teams play against each other here at Ferndale (Community Sports Centre).
“Occasionally when one team appeared to have fewer players I would ask them if I could join in. They would all give me funny looks. I knew it was nothing to do with my age. If I’d been a boy they would have definitely said ‘yes, come and play’ straightaway to me.
“I got a chance to join one team who were quite relaxed about having a girl in their squad. It gave me the opportunity to show that, actually, girls can play football. In the end they were pretty impressed”.
Aramide’s skills have progressed considerably since those days. The university student, who is considered to be a St Matthew’s Project success story, now racks up goals for AFC Wimbledon Ladies Development team. Goals that have helped the South London side maintain their Division One top spot in the Greater London Women’s Football League.
“Being part of the Project helped me develop as a footballer”, Aramide added. “Girls who come here get to learn football skills and techniques that build their confidence as players. You don’t have to be a boy or man to play this game.”
A few yards away from where we are sat, Megan (Aramide’s AFC Wimbledon team-mate) is putting some teenagers through their paces in a training session. The weekly, free-of-charge ‘girls only’ six-a-side session is one of the many sports activities coordinated by the Project.
Football is more than a pastime for Aramide and Megan. Aside from playing competitively, both are fully committed to spending their Saturday mornings coaching girls who dream of emulating England’s Lionesses.
“I enjoy teaching other girls what I’ve learnt and seeing them progress”, says Megan, a 21-year-old right-winger and a Level One FA-qualified trainer.
“Girls who come here make new friends, go on trips and visit places like St George’s Park (the national training centre for England’s football team).
“The Project also offers nominated girls the chance to go on FA coaching courses and get their Level One coaching qualifications for free. Every week we just keep telling the girls to bring down any friends they have. We’re keen to make this as big as possible because it’s free football on a Saturday morning.”
Girls who train here are among the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have helped football become the biggest team sport for females in England. According to FA, more than 1.3million women and girls are reported to play the game regularly across the country. Whilst this is a substantial number, some grassroots football experts believe it masks growth and participation challenges facing the girls’ game in some inner city areas.
“We find that the problem in inner London is that girls’ football is not as popular as it is in the suburbs”, says St Matthew’s Project Founder Lee Dema.
“If you go out to the suburbs, it’s a major thing. You’ve got parents involved, you’ve got teams in leagues, 15 players in a squad. That hasn’t quite happened around here.
“We’ve sat down with the London FA, Women’s Development and the local Council to discuss this. You hear a lot about how popular women’s football is now but I haven’t found that yet in places like Lambeth. We have been to tournaments where our girls’ football team has been the only team that’s turned up.
“But what we have found is that the girls we do get are very talented footballers, like Ara (Aramide) and Megan who both played for Chelsea Ladies before moving to AFC Wimbledon.
“We don’t have enough numbers here to split the girls into groups based on their abilities yet. So far we have just had to make do with what we have. We just want to get the word out there and encourage more girls to join in.”
For information about St Matthew’s Project visit www.thesmp.net