I think women's football in Kent has an outstanding reputation due in part to the excellent work of our County FA, says Gillingham's Charlotte Richardson

Saturday 20th June 2015

GILLINGHAM spokesperson Charlotte Richardson says girls’ will be inspired to start playing football on the back of the Women’s World Cup.

The BBC are providing extensive coverage of the action in Canada this summer and England bid to win a knockout game for the first time when they tackle Norway in the last sixteen late on Monday night (22:00).

CHAMPIONS: Gillingham have won the Kent Women's Cup four seasons on the bounce.
Photo: Kent FA

Mark Sampson’s side were defeated by France 1-0 in their opening Group F game but progressed to the knockout stages after beating Mexico and Columbia 2-1.

The Lionesses are tipped to reach the Quarter-Finals again this time around, after suffering a heartbreaking defeat to France in the last eight on penalties four years ago.

Richardson, 23, is now the head of marketing and communications at Gillingham Football Club and was asked what inspired her to get into football.

“I've always been a huge football fan since I was little,” she said.

“My Dad took me along to my first Gills games aged 6 and I was totally hooked.

“I loved the match day experience, feeling part of a fan base, enjoying the drama both the highs and lows.

“As I attended more games, I improved my understanding (including the offside rule!) and even played a bit.

“Age 16, I recall phoning BBC Radio Kent following a game at Priestfield and started blogging for Gills 365. While this was all for fun, it made me realise I could link my love of writing with the game. From that point on, I knew I had to work in football. It has been a journey since, including an English degree from Kings, Editor of my Uni Magazine, volunteering with Gills Ladies and a wonderful couple of years with the Kent FA.”

Richardson says Women’s football here in Kent has an outstanding reputation thanks to the Kent FA.

“I think women's football in Kent has an outstanding reputation due in part to the excellent work of our County FA who oversee and develop the women's game from grass roots to elite, for all ages.

“The Goals for Girls scheme the County runs was seen as an innovative and ground breaking way to boost participation.

“I think Kent football enjoys a lot of good coverage and competition despite the fact we don't have a Women's Super League side in Kent – yet!

“It's a real shame when the recruitment for the league happened a few seasons ago, that a club from Kent was not in a position to be selected.

“There's certainly a gap there and should the opportunity arise, I think it would be a fantastic for The FA to include a Kent side to lead the way in terms of elite football in the County.

“Gillingham's Centre of Excellence has a great reputation and, as the only one in Kent, it's important as a club we continue to work really hard to develop our model so it meets the standards of the WSL.

“We want to do that primarily because we seek to be in that league but also because we want to be leaders of the women and girls game in Kent; we must set and meet the highest standards and I think we're doing a pretty fair job already.”

When asked how Women’s Football at Gillingham is viewed by supporters who watch the League One outfit, Richardson replied: “Since coming on board with the club last season, we've seen a huge increase in awareness around the women's team.

“Playing some of our home games at Priestfield increased our attendances so we were averaging 300 fans per game.

“The feedback we had from fans was one of pleasant surprise. I think stereotypes and preconceived ideas around the women's game, whether consciously or unconsciously, have become rather entrenched.

“Marketing of the women's game therefore has to be quite aggressive to break those down.

“My experience is that once Gills fans come to a game, it is the first of many. They enjoy the family experience, the different atmosphere and can build a closer relationship with the players who are always so proud to represent the club.

“The players themselves always speak of the amazing way they're treated by fans. They are always received with warmth and respect which is fantastic.

“This is well illustrated by the standing ovation they received around the stadium when they were invited to complete a lap of honour before the men's game following their Kent Cup final win.

“There's an appetite for women's football at Gillingham and it important for us we have the fans continued backing going forward.”

Richardson appreciates the coverage of the Women’s World Cup on the BBC.

She said: “It's huge! They'll be one nation winning the 2015 Women's World Cup but the reality is the women's game as a whole won before a ball was even kicked, due predominantly to the live media coverage.

“I know of a lot of networks and individuals within the industry who have had to champion the women's game for years building up to this moment.

“Having all the games on the BBC, not only the England fixtures, shows commitment to creating equality in sport.

“The broadcasting enables all types of people to enjoy the tournament; I'm sure it has changed many people's perceptions and generated a whole new fan base.

“Not only that, but if you look at the BBC communication channels from its website to social media, the content being driven has been outstanding and I can't speak any higher of the work the BBC has done to support the women's game during this tournament. This runs from a local level at BBC Radio Kent to a national scale.”

That coverage will inspire girls and women to take up playing football.

“That has to be the aim,” said Richardson.

“For me personally, I look at the England team and the set-up of women and girls football now and wish it had been around 10 years ago when I used to play football.

“At that time cricket, netball, tennis and athletics all had structures in place for girls, but if I wanted to kick a ball, it was with the boys. I ended up drifting towards netball and suspect many more girls did the same. It's different now so I hope girls will be more inspired to achieve their goals.”

The Women’s Super League and Super League Two is a summer league, but The FA Women’s Premier League is the highest level of Women's Football played during the winter months.

Gillingham finished runners-up in The FA Women’s Premier League South under James Marrs in 2014, but he left to join Brighton & Hove Albion, but last season was disappointing.

The Kent club suffered relegation in Simon Ratcliffe’s only season in charge of the club, with virtually a different team last season.

Richardson said: “Last season was one of transition. We made history playing at Priestfield and lifting the Kent Women's Cup for a fourth successive season. We lost some quality players and staff during the close season but were able to start the re-build in a short space of time. Our final league position was disappointing and one I feel did not reflect our improvement over the year.”

But Gillingham chairman Paul Scally has welcomed the Ladies side in at the club and that will continue.

Richardson said: “Gillingham Ladies are considered part of the club. Whilst not full time professional yet, the philosophy from the chairman and his senior management team is that our players and team get treated equally, including recognition at the Player of the Year event.

“The girls train three times a week, have access to the club's facilities, have the same kit and we host games at Priestfield when we can.

“The player pathway structure at the club reflects that of the boys. We have full time academy students embraced into the club on a full time basis which is unique.

“The club's Community Trust deserves great praise too for how it goes out into the community and provides coaching for girls of all ages and abilities.”

When asked whether the side will play at Priestfield or in Chatham next season, Richardson replied: “We're still awaiting confirmation of which league we will be in which determine a lot of our plans, but we'd certainly hope to be appearing at Priestfield at some stage.”

With joint-managers Darren Hare and Jack Wheeler now at the helm, trials are taking place next Thursday 25 June at 19:00 and Sunday 28 June at 11:00 at the club’s training ground at Beechings Cross.

When asked the club’s aspirations for next season, Richardson said: “Again, depending the league we play in will determine the goals the management team set.  

“In terms of aspirations they are the same as they've been for the past few seasons. The culture at the football club is to provide top class coaching to develop individuals to be the best they can be. We like to play football in an attractive and entertaining style with players who encompass key values the club treasures - hard work, determination and hunger.”

Richardson spoke of the changes that she would like to see within the women’s game.

“I'd like to see The FA continue to develop the women's football pyramid as it has done over the past few years after the Olympics.

“The WSL is quickly becoming a highly regarded league internationally and I think it is important the whole structure moves with its development.

“It's great to see more international players coming to play in our domestic league and that will of course improve the standards of football. Diversifying our game whilst ensuring our domestic players progress would be a great advancement to see.”

To take part in Gillingham Ladies trials, please email jackwheeler@priestfield.com.

Training venue: Beechings Cross Training Ground, Grange Road, Gillingham, Kent ME7 2UD.

Please mention that you read this article on www.kentishfootball.co.uk.

Visit Gillingham Ladies’ website: https://glfc2013.wordpress.com