Sunday 12th June 2005

Fleet going in the right direction

BBC Television's coverage of the Women's European Championship in the North West of England will be beneficial to the Women's game here in the Garden of England, writes Stephen McCartney.

In an EXCLUSIVE interview with www.kentishfootball.co.uk Tina Martin, from Kent's second highest placed women's team, Gravesend & Northfleet - who - just like the men's team - are under Gillingham in the footballing ladder, are relishing the challenges that lie ahead.

Although Hope Powell's England side finished at the foot of their group, there has never been a better time for girls to take up the sport.

"Yes I think it was exactly the right profile for the sport," Martin said of the European Championships.  "Watching role models in the sport play at the highest level and do very well should get more people involved in all aspects of the ladies/girls game."

And now Nationwide Conference outfit Gravesend & Northfleet - who have taken the bold step going full-time in the men's game - have teamed up with local women's side AEI Gravesend - who are one of the leading sides in the women's game.

"We provide opportunities for girls/ladies aged over 14 to play football, whatever level they are currently at from beginners to experienced players," added Martin.

"We have an ambitious and professional set up whilst maintaining the importance of being a strong team unit and provide a good social programme.  The sport also aids in keeping a fit and healthy lifestyle."

However, the AEI Gravesend ladies side have changed their name to Gravesend & Northfleet Ladies and are now reaping the benefits with their partnership with the Fleet.

"Our team will only play a few selected home games at Stonebridge Road, as agreed in our partnership with the club." Martin revealed.

Most of their games will be played at North West Kent College in Gravesend but Martin admitted she would like the team to play at Stonebridge Road - but understands the ground stages matches involving Gravesend & Northfleet, Dartford and Charlton Athletic ladies.

She said: "In essence yes we would love to play weekly at the Fleet but we understand the pressures of maintaining a pitch at a high level.   Overplaying would waste the good standards of the ground, and the financial implications and loss of revenue would impact on the running of the whole club, so we understand their current reasons.

"It is also up to us as a team and a sport to provide spectator opportunities and higher league standings to challenge for our place there."

But Martin admitted she is satisfied with the assistance given by the main club.

"We have been working in partnership over the past season and have officially changed our name for the coming season.

"The biggest plus for us is the profile.  People have heard of Gravesend and Northfleet especially since they earned Nationwide Conference status.

"They are going full-time this season - they are a club on the up - we feel we are very much the same and hope to be recognised in the same way.

"They help provide first team kit to match the men's, we will be working very closely with their community programme to raise awareness and get more girls involved in the game.

"We have selected use of the pitch but we aim to improve on this as season's go by.  I think the partnership will improve and develop as time continues through the hard work of the ladies section is putting in to raise the standards of our club."

The ladies section rely on sponsorship deals, player subscriptions, fundraising and grant applications from lottery funds and the Football Foundation to support facility hire and professional coaching costs.

They are now anticipating their biggest test so far. Gaining promotion for the second year running, although finishing in sixth place in their league, the top six teams have joined forces with another league to form the London & South East Regional League.

"We were pleased to gain promotion for the second year running," Martin admitted.  "Although we are aware that the opportunity only came through a league restructure.  We realise we have a lot of improvements to make for next season.  

"We have started this already by beginning pre-season training early and bringing in new players to strengthen the existing squad."

They are led by their manager/coach Valter Anutunes and their star players last season were Amanda Spry (Managers' Player of the Year and Players' Player of the Year), Rebecca Pattenden (Runner up Managers' Player of the Year and Runner up Players' Player of the Year), Lisa Chickelday (Most improved player over the season) and Claire Williams (Top goalscorer).

Special thanks also went to Julie Ruddock (kit) and Ian Mitchell (match officiating).

Gravesend & Northfleet will be up against former league rivals Woking, Whitehawk, Hastings United, Lewes and Crowborough Athletic and face new challenges against London Women, Long Lane, Hendon, Carshalton Athletic, Clapton Orient and Tottenham Hotspur.

Women's football needs to be viewed as a successful sport in its own right.  Football is the top female sport in England and in the 2003-04 season the number of players hit the 100,000 mark.  There are now 101,000 girls and women playing regular eleven-a-side football in this country.

Looking ahead to next season, Martin said: "We will be joining up with the strongest six teams in the London Premier League and the strongest six teams from our South East Premier League of last season to form this new regional alliance league.

"It's great to look at new challenges for the team with completely new opposition.  We are quietly confident that we will do well and are working hard towards this, but wouldn't like to guess positions at this stage before researching some of our new opposition."

As the Fleet embark on being Kent football's second highest ranked team (both in the men's and women's game) this is all down to hard work and dedication by players and club officials.

"Its great for us to be in this position and it has taken many years of dedication and hard work by players and club committee but has also been great fun along the way with many ups and downs to achieve where we are now."  Martin said.

"I would recommend all clubs to get involved and help the sport grow in the right direction, using experience and knowledge that they have to put something back into the nations favourite game.

"To give girls and women the same opportunity as boys and men has to be our ultimate goal, to be able to play at grassroots social level to excellence, from local, county to national stage. 

"A lot of people have and are putting in some very hard work to achieve this."

Please check the club's website www.intheteam.com/gravesendladiesfc to find out more about the women's game.  It also has links to girls leagues in Kent and other female clubs if you want to get involved and don't live near Gravesend.

Contact Tina Martin  on 07732 148 011 for more details joining Gravesend & Northfleet's newly formed reserve team.

When contacting please mention www.kentishfootball.co.uk