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The 2017 Women’s Euro Finals will kick off in the Netherlands on 16th July. This year sees the competition grow with 16 teams taking part.

Female football has come along way in the past 10 years. Across Europe there are currently over 1.27 million girls and women registered as regularly playing football, a 6% rise since 2016.

UEFA has a clear aim: to make football the number one women’s sport across Europe. It is a big challenge, but they have a strong plan to deliver it, built around a campaign called ‘Together #WePlayStrong’. It focuses on three key pillars that showcase the best of the game: skill, teamwork and a positive attitude.

There is no denying its growth as a spectator sport too: the UEFA Women’s EURO 2013 Finals had 133 million viewers, with the final alone being watched by 15.9 million viewers – an increase of 59% on the 2009 final.

Despite fantastic weather in the UK over the course of the 2013 finals, ratings consistently outperformed the BBC3 average, with live matches not featuring England averaging 2.47% compared with the channel’s 2.1% prime-time average. The average audience for England’s three games was 870,000 (a 5.5% rating), 68% of the average rating for matches in the FIFA Confederations Cup, also shown on BBC3.

Expectations for viewing figures for the 2017 competition are high, partly reflected in Channel 4 out-bidding the BBC to show all of England and Scotland’s matches, including their opening fixture which sees the two go head to head against each other on 19th July.

England Lionesses performance in the 2015 World Cup, finishing in third place by beating Germany for the first time in 21 games, showed how far women’s football in the UK has come and this is supported in no small part by some very talented England u19 and u17 squads themselves fed with talented players from the 34 Regional Talent Centres (RTCs) across the UK.

With women’s football soon to take centre stage in Netherlands, we took time to catch up with Millwall Lionesses U16’s, on the back of a very successful season to hear what they had to say about developing elite female football players.

Stuart Jones, Millwall Lionesses RTC Club Manager & Football Development Officer believes that whilst the number of participants is going from strength to strength, there is still a very long way to go and the women’s game is still a good few years behind the men’s game, especially when it comes to the amount of money in the game. What is, however, encouraging is the number of girls who are interested in playing despite the lack of money.

Another aspect that is perhaps surprising is the lack of awareness that it is possible to make a career from the game, possibly due to there being a bit of a stigma attached to be seen to be involved in a sport associated so closely with men and that girls (and their parents) don’t want to be labelled as “manly”.

Asked what could be done to change perceptions, Stuart felt that increased media exposure – at prime time on TV – would have the greatest impact. At the moment, the Women’s Super League games are shown post the lower league highlights programme which is after the prime time Match of Day show, so as late at half past midnight which rules out a lot of younger viewers. Similarly given the lack of money, and full-time female professionals, there are fewer opportunities for in school promotions/player appearances which is common among the male players to generate both interest and promote community initiatives for the club. These initiatives are an important part of club activities in order to both promote involvement by youngsters but also key to football’s desire to enhance the reputation of the game given the negative aspects that often accompany the sport – “players earn too much money, don’t llve on the same planet” “Foul language doesn’t set a good example to youngsters etc. There is a drive to redress the balance with schemes such as using sport – particularly football – to improve numeracy skills and in some areas even promote attendance at school since players are such seen as such heroes.

So what exactly can football offer female players? Everything, according to Stuart. Millwall have introduced a 2 year full time education and football route leading to recognised Btec qualifications for 16-18 year old interested in pursuing a career in a sporting field. They have also had a lot of success with girls being scouted to continue their education in the States (where ladies football has a much larger following) based on their technical and physical skills learnt playing for Millwall RTC.

Outside of education, Stuart is keen to promote the valuable life skills that the players learn from a very young age when involved in sport: teamwork, commitment, respect for yourself and others in the team – all of which are transferrable and desirable skills for future employment.

Interestingly, Dan Logue, current U16s Manager, spoke about the attributes he looks for when assessing potential players during trials. The first thing he looks for isn’t technical ability but attitude; a desire to work hard, someone who wants to learn and who is interested in self-improvement. Again, comparing these traits to the world of work, it is easy to spot the similarities. Some skills can be taught, attitude and a open mind set is not
so easy.

As the players approach the age of playing at a senior (and hopefully for some, professional) level, they also have to face the challenge of dealing with disappointment and not necessarily making it off the subs bench. Remember the article from 2010 when it was reported that “winning [was] banned in two thirds of schools as teachers reward ALL students” (Daily Mail 2010). Unfortunately, we know that in life and particularly in work and sports, this isn’t true – there is always a winner at the end of the competition. Playing in a team game can help prepare the girls for disappointment but also to show them that if they work hard and are prepared to put in the effort, they will stand a better chance of being successful. A win can’t be guaranteed – it’s football after all – but sometimes learning how to lose gives you as valuable a lesson as a win!

Millwall U16s went unbeaten over the 2016/17 season – playing 18 games , scoring 63 and conceding just 7 goals. They made it to the FA Youth Cup Final for the first time in the Club’s History but lost to Arsenal 4-2 on penalties after a thrilling 3-3 draw. The total stats for the season were Played 19, won 18, lost 1, goals for 68, goals against 14.

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