If I key in my Hastings postcode on the Sussex FA website to find a local club offering women’s adult football, it lists four: Bexhill United, Beckley Rangers, Little Common and Sedlescombe Rangers. Of these, it turns out that only Bexhill United Ladies FC has a team playing any regular fixtures.  The next nearest is in Eastbourne. Equally if I enquire about both senior and junior football I am given 13 clubs (the previous four plus Junior Tackleway, Hastings United Youth, Hastings Rangers, Hastings Wanderers, Hastings Town Youth, Select Youth, Crowhurst, Westfield, Rye Bay) that claim to have “female teams”.  But apart from Bexhill, which runs, in addition to two adult teams, an under-14s all girls team, and Sedlescombe Rangers which boasts an under-8s, none of these clubs actually has one.

Now it is fair to acknowledge that the odd girl may play in what are listed as boys’ teams. Indeed up to puberty, when significantly differential muscle development and body shape kick in, there seems no particular value in segregating by gender. However mixed football cannot occur at adult level (it’s against FA rules). As for juniors, I am informed by Sussex FA that there are 56 girls altogether registered among the 111 teams (under-7s through to under-15s) playing in the Rother and District Youth League, which works out as an average of one girl between two teams.

When I enquired further of the Hastings club Junior Tackleway, which runs seven separate teams across this age range, what happened to their girls team I was informed that it is currently “on hold”. They had hired a venue for the purpose but weren’t “getting the numbers” to make it viable.

And yet according to the Football Association website, football is “the top participation sport for women and girls in England” . In 2016-17, the FA claims, there were almost 3 million female players along with 8.9 million men and boys. (It is not at all clear what constitutes a player for the purpose of these statistics, but we’ll let that pass). Its Gameplan For Growth, a strategy document for the three years 2017-2020, includes in its aims a target of doubling female numbers, presumably to six million. So why isn’t it happening in Hastings?

There are two main strands to the Gameplan. The first is to raise the profile of women’s football at elite level – to “create a sustainable and successful high-performance system to ensure England teams compete with distinction on the world stage at every age group….enhancing the profile and value of the England team and players…. improving the commercial prospects in women’s football”.

DSC_3971Of course every sporting body wants this for its particular sport, and it is hardly surprising that the promoters of female football should pursue a modest share of the mouth-watering money, individual celebrity status and national prestige that puts men’s football in a class of its own everywhere outside the USA. But it’s not so clear that this should be a driving force for grassroots participation. Will more girls really want to play football because there are more women doing it on TV, at a level which with all due respect is not on a par for skill, speed or athleticism with their elite male counterparts?

Secondly the Gameplan has been offering grants for the development of girls’ football at local level. Since 2010 the Football Foundation, which administers grassroots funding, has paid out an aggregate of £263,000 in modest grants to individual clubs in East Sussex ranging between £1,500 and £6,000 each to pay for improved facilities, coaching or other ancillary aid. I am informed that, of this total sum, £62,000 has been dispensed specifically “pertaining to women and girls’ teams” across the county. But for women or girls in Hastings and Rother? Just one grant, the minimum of £1,500, to Bexhill United.

It is tempting to claim that this is unfair discrimination, proof that the Sussex FA, based in Lancing, West Sussex, can’t be bothered with its easternmost borderlands. But those administering grants must identify suitable clubs or other organisations to award them to, and be satisfied that any one-off payment will prime the pump for a viable future flow. Maybe, as Tackleway have been finding, there just isn’t the raw material to sustain it.

Meanwhile if you’re a teenager or adult woman living in this corner of East Sussex and wanting to play football there’s not much choice. Bexhill College run a sixth form sports academy which includes football provision. Otherwise there’s the Bexhill United team or a drive to Eastbourne or Ashford. And of course away games are spread far afield anyway: Sunday afternoon trips beckon to Chichester, Crawley and Chatham. Will the FA’s Gameplan change that?DSC_3968 (1)