‘U’s Look To Lewes Phenomenon

Back in January, Hastings United announced that they were going to set up a new women’s team for the 2020/21 season. CEO Billy Wood said then:  “I want to make it clear, this isn’t Hastings setting up a women’s team to tick a box, give kit out and hope for the best. We have a culture we are curating at this club that has to be something we embed and make part of when it comes to the women’s game. A women’s first team is one step towards having a true pathway for females in this area.”

The new team is set to compete in the Sussex County Women and Girls League. That’s the seventh tier of the English women’s football pyramid – one level higher than the United men’s team, albeit in an obviously thinner playing structure. Mr Wood talked at the outset of getting a team manager who would have “the belief and ambition to take this club forward to compete at the highest level possible. We aren’t looking to make up the numbers and want to be competitive, the successful candidate will be given the tools to be able to do so and will work closely with myself in making sure we are pushing in the right direction.”

Lewes Women defend Chelsea attack – season 2019/20
PICTURE: James Boyes

Lewes – the ‘parity’ club

Although the Lewes women’s football team, playing less than 30 miles away, has not been mentioned in any of Mr Wood’s public pronouncements, its profile and recent history is no doubt in many people’s minds as a comparable. Three years ago Lewes, which is a community club owned by nearly 1400 members, famously announced that it would not only pay its female players the same as its male players, it would offer them the same resources and coaching attention, and ensure that grassroots outreach in the local community was on offer to as many girls as boys. Last summer, when the Guardian newspaper ran a feature article on the club, its men’s team manager, Darren Freeman, was quoted as saying: “We use the same pitch, the same facilities, the same ball. As football fans we all want our team to win regardless of gender. Parity means giving everyone the same opportunity and getting the same rewards.”

Those rewards, as elsewhere in professional football, are negotiated on an individual basis.  For male players among the Premier League elite, it’s tens of thousands of pounds in wages per week, in some cases hundreds of thousands – but, obviously, far less lower down the pyramid. At Lewes the men’s team play in the Isthmian Premier League – the level (seventh tier) that Hastings United should have been promoted to if they had sealed their leadership of the South-East Division at the season’s end rather than having it annulled by the Covid-19 lockdown. Precise remuneration will be known only to the contracting parties and the taxman, but wages are generally reputed to be between £100 and £250 per week for first team players, leaving them needing, on the whole, to work other part- or full-time jobs as well.

Those relatively modest wage figures give Lewes’s equality model distinctly unequal outcomes when applied across the sex divide. To put it bluntly, the same budget that restricts the men’s team to a modest competitive level attracts women footballers of a much higher calibre within their separate orbit. Lo and behold, Lewes women contest the FA Women’s Championship (2nd tier) in contention with Sheffield United, Leicester City and Crystal Palace and other elite clubs. Leading goalscorer is New Zealand international, Katie Rood, who previously played for the Juventus ladies team. There have been other recent international imports including Cypriot national team captain, Filippa Savva, and Welsh internationals, Emma Jones and Emily Jones. Team manager up to January this year was a (male) Spaniard, Fran Alonso, who coached previously alongside Mauricio Pochettino and then Ronald Koeman at Southampton and Everton.

Not to be outclassed

Hastings United Women start five tiers lower. However, Mr Wood clearly does not intend them to be wholly outclassed for too long by their near-neighbours. Hot on the heels of his announcement of the team’s formation, he hired as head coach 22-year-old Amy Sinden, born and bred in Hastings but impressing in a brief professional career with Tottenham Hotspur and Crystal Palace. After the interruptions of lockdown, she is now setting about creating a squad that can start preparing for the new season, and has persuaded a couple of players who have been playing in recent years for elite teams – Sophie Reed, a central defender/midfielder with West Ham, and Sophie Bridson, former Brighton and Crystal Palace goalkeeper – to sign up. 

The same budget that restricts the men’s team to a modest competitive level attracts women footballers of a much higher calibre

Most of the other players seem likely to be local and home-grown. Izzy Foot, who played previously for Bexhill United, was given a fulsome welcome by Mr Wood on the club’s website last week: “Izzy is an ambitious, young and local talent that we are delighted has chosen Hastings United to be her next destination. Izzy has seen the changes and the culture shift at the Pilot Field as a regular spectator on men’s match days and wants to embody that and be part of the culture-shaping of the women’s team.”

Local trials have been planned for early this month, though with social distancing rules still in force for the immediately foreseeable future, it may prove difficult to assess the more competitive aspects of an individual player. 

There’s no promise of any wages for the players selected, only a pledge that there will be no registration or match-day fees, that all training and match-day kit will be provided, and all away travel provided for – with the great majority of the clubs in the county league being based in West Sussex, that’s a relevant consideration. 

Home fixtures will be played at Pilot Field, and training conducted on 3G pitches.

Amy Sinden says: “This is a big step forward for us on our preparation for our first season, we are looking at all levels of ability and hope to unearth some local diamonds to be part of this team.”

Mr Wood adds:  “This is an exciting next step for us as a football club, and we do so with the same ambition that we show for the men’s game. We are looking to recruit all levels of experience to create a squad that this town can certainly be proud of…It’s imperative that we create an environment for development, and our partners at East Sussex Coast College are on board with us as we look to ramp up our recruitment of women on to the academic programme in the future. This is a big town, a big club and has lacked female participation for way too long.”

Any female player who would like to participate in trials is asked to email with name, contact information and details of playing experience
to [email protected]

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