New horizons: The changing landscape of grassroots football for women and girls

What is grassroots football?

Grassroots football is the level of football that is non-professional or elite. According to UEFA, this includes children and youth football, school football, amateur football, football for disabled players, and walking football. Its core aims are to encourage participation, stimulate an interest in the sport and open doors to endless opportunities regardless of a person’s gender, religion, age, physical ability and background.

Driven by its community, grassroots football equips people with skills that go beyond physical ability - it teaches teamwork, friendship, communication and nurtures self-belief and confidence. Some players will use it as a vehicle for transitioning into the professional game, but it’s a space where people can play the sport they love without high pressure and demand. 

However, grassroots football has one fundamental goal it must achieve and that is providing an opportunity for everyone to play. Anyone who wishes to participate must be able to do so and find it in any location. Having a local team is crucial for accessibility but for many years, this has been a challenge for women and girls. For many years, grassroots football's fundamental goal was not fulfilled for women and girls though that is increasingly changing.

But how is this change quantified?

Photos credits: Ellie Ramsden, Verity McGuire, Kya Banasko 

Data Source: England Football

When the Lionesses won UEFA Women’s EURO 2022, they did much more than lift a prestigious piece of silverware. In that moment, they became a catalyst for the explosion of women’s football, prospering the dream of the girl who was once banned from playing 100 years ago. 

In the last ten years, there have been major developments in the women’s game and interest and demand has never been bigger. Record-breaking attendances, extensive media coverage and skyrocketing numbers of teams for women and girls reflect an exciting evolution.

England Football's data shows that since the Lionesses’ victory, the number of grassroots teams set up for women and girls have more than doubled in the last seven years. Paving the way for young girls with dreams as big as theirs, women's football is yet to reach even greater heights. 845,000 girls are now playing football, which is 68,000 more than before the Women's EURO.

We live in a world of social media, marketing and campaigns, which has been increasingly important to feeding the game's growth and opening doors to endless opportunities. Millions are being invested into facilities and infrastructure to engage more women in grassroots football and tackle gender inequality in the sport.

Although we have come a long way, there are still barriers to break and challenges to conquer...

Photo Credit: Una Burnand

Teams in London

Photo Credit: Ellie Ramsden

Taking a look at the journeys of some of London's oldest and most recently set up grassroots teams...

Photo Credit: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

AFC Leyton

Est: 2015

Unlike many other girls' and women's teams which are attached to a men's team, AFC Leyton is an all-female club and has remained that way for nearly ten years.

In 2021, they were awarded Grassroots Club of the Year by the London FA.

Photo credit: Nicola Gallagher

Girls United FA

Est: 2017

Originally founded in Mexico, Girls United FA arrived to London and now operates in 27 locations across South London.

Photo Credit: Verity McGuire

Shepherd's Booters FC

Est: 2021

After realising there is a scarcity of teams in West London, a group of friends decided to change that.

Photo Credit: Una Burnand

Barnet Panthers FC

EST: 2022

A group of parents looking for alternative football options for their daughters approached three coaches and asked them to set up a new team just for girls.

Photo Credit: Billy Grant

Girls tend to pick up football a lot later in life than boys do. This gap is largely due to the lack of opportunities to play the sport in school. For girls, football was almost never a first-choice sport on the physical education curriculum and outside of school, the same problem existed - a lack of local teams.

Let's take a look at the people who set out to change that in London...

Girls United FA

In 2017, Romina Calatayud launched Girls United FA in Quintana Roo, Mexico. A place which would create a safe space for girls to enjoy all of the benefits that football offers. When she moved to London to start university two years later, Romina ensured she brought Girls United with her.

Josh Emerson, global marketing and communications manager at Girls United discussed the importance of their work in improving accessibility and the help they have received to achieve this.

He said: “The exposure that women’s football is getting is growing by the day. We see more people wishing to get involved, brands like Nike working with us and believing in what we do, parents and coaches stepping forward - everyone is playing their part.

“We are trying to bring football to communities that haven’t had these opportunities in the past. I believe there is still a barrier in London regarding cost of venues and availability of pitches. We’re trying to improve the city areas which have previously been quite restrictive for girls.”

In March 2024, Girls United hosted the biggest grassroots tournament in the United Kingdom, which saw 42 teams and over 300 players come together to raise money and inspire the next generation of girls wishing to pursue a pathway into football.

Photos Credit: Verity McGuire, Ellie Ramsden, Kya Banasko 

Shepherd's Booters FC

The club was set up in October 2021 with a goal to fill the void of teams in West London. Run completely independently by its players, Shepherd's Booters have been trailblazers, bringing football to a community that so desperately needed it.

Coach and captain Rose Norris said: "Most of our players played football as kids and when they hit secondary school there was a sense that you either continued professionally if you were good enough, or you just didn't really play again. It was always netball in school which was pretty sad. Football was never offered as like a casual sport for us as women.

"It's been so amazing for everyone to reconnect with that and we also have players who have never played before."

Due to the scarcity of teams in the area, Booters have received a very high demand, causing them to create a waiting list to enable them to catch up with themselves, reinforcing their rapid growth.

Rose added: "We have served the exact purpose it was made for which was to be an inclusive environment for women and non-binary people.

"It's safe, casual and fun. It's good for your physical and mental health. There's so many benefits from from it."

Photos Credit: Una Burnand

 Barnet Panthers FC

Barnet Panthers FC have mastered growth and development. The club was launched when a group of parents came together in search for a place for their daughters to play and approached three coaches to make it happen. Billy Grant, with a daughter of his own, was apprehensive at first, unaware of the journey that awaited for himself and his co-founders which would transform grassroots football in North London.

Kickstarting the project in 2022, the club grew organically during the blast from the Euros. Now with several teams and over 70 players, Billy and his team have exceeded their own aspirations.

He said: “More and more girls started showing up and we didn’t want to turn anyone away so we just continued to grow the club. We had only three coaches at the time as we were expanding so it was very difficult.”

Opening opportunities for development and participation, Barnet Panthers created experiences for their girls to cherish forever. From organising tournaments abroad, to competing in cups and winning the league, the mental and physical benefits have been consistently increasing.

Billy added: “We wanted to create an environment where we could support our girls, but that meant we first had to understand them. Most of our coaches had only worked with boys and we wanted to adjust our approach, so we set up a wellbeing and mentoring scheme to equip coaches and parents and support our players.”

He explained that although the journey has been highly rewarding, they still face challenges with expensive facilities and difficult accessibility. With a strong ethos to make football a game for all, the club has worked hard arranging lifts for their girls to training and matches, allowing everyone to be included no matter their social and economic background.

Photos Credit: Billy Grant

Funding and accessibility

Photo credit: Football Foundation

Football Foundation

Grassroots teams have managed to grow and prosper due to an increased amount of investment into facilities, infrastructure, and equipment, specifically designed for women and girls. With funding from the Premier League, The FA, and the Government, the Football Foundation has invested lots of money to ensure delivery of care, quality and equal access.

"We have seen an unprecedented spike in demand for grassroots football and among women and girls. But without access to the right facilities, this demand won’t translate into a sustainable impact on participation."
Dean Potter, director of grant management at Football Foundation

The Football Foundation kicked off its 'Here to Play' campaign, which will see new facilities named after each member of the England squad at the 2022 UEFA Women’s EUROs and 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup open.

To further honour the Lionesses’ legacy and turbocharge opportunities for the next generation, the Foundation launched the Lionesses Futures Fund earlier this year. This £30 million investment from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and The FA will deliver 30 new state-of-the-art 3G pitches, each of which will provide a best-in-class experience.

This will see a prioritisation of access for women and girls through reserved peak timeslots and female-only evenings.

The Foundation’s investment is also helping more girls to play football at school through improving facilities in education settings. Last year, Arsenal legend Ian Wright opened the Rocky & Wrighty Arena at his former primary school, Turnham Academy, in South East London, to bring football to as many communities as possible.

Photos copyright: 2023 The FA, Jed Leicester, Football Foundation

Her Game Too

Photo Credit: Jed Leicester

Approaching its third year anniversary, Her Game Too reflects on yet another successful year of advocating for equal access and gender equality in sport. Having formed numerous partnerships with professional clubs, Her Game Too is now using those as a vehicle to shed light on the growth of the grassroots game.

"We will continue advocating that it is her game too, until the day every single girl feels safe playing the sport she loves."
Lucy Ford, Co-Founder of Her Game Too

Hartlepool United Football Club in conjunction with Her Game Too organised dedicated fixtures, which saw young players from grassroots teams come together to enjoy a football match to show that football is a safe space for everyone. A special day saw the children wave 'Her Game Too' flags from the stands and cheer on Hartlepool to demonstrate belonging and foster an inclusive environment.

Here are some photos from the day...

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Photos Credit: Wolviston FC, Seaton Carew FC, Hartlepool St Francis FC, Greatham FC

Boosting growth through events, tournaments and social media

Photo Credit: Robert Wright

She's Got Skills

She's Got Skills is an inclusive platform with a unique approach to encouraging girls and women to partake in football. They break down gender stereotypes, promote an active lifestyle and focus on improving mental health.

Robert Wright and Bhavna Malkani founded the platform in 2019 and hosted a tournament with companies such as Amazon, Deliveroo and Mastercard, inviting lots of different women from their companies to play. Their motivation was to use these big companies to increase engagement by opening a world to all the opportunities it offers. Equally, they delivered educational programmes and remote sessions during Covid-19 to keep people active. They regularly host panels, podcasts and events with guest speakers who discuss the benefits of football.

Eventually the tournaments branched out, reaching youth teams, schools and universities and Robert quickly realised there was so much talent to be nurtured. He held one training session with a group of girls and the rest was history.

Robert said: “At the end of the training session I said to them: we are a team now by the way. I got my coaching qualification and went from there.

“The team name ‘Kenningwell United' was sparked by the fact that I played for Kenningwell United men’s team which was founded in 1967. I proposed to them the idea of merging and they immediately jumped at the chance of having a women’s team.

“During our first season, we got promoted to the next league and each year there has been progress."

Having built a reputable social media following for She’s Got Skills on Instagram, Robert has since used the page to promote his football team, receiving high levels of engagement. Social media has been a big contributing factor to the growth of the grassroots game and the attraction it has received has reached hundreds and thousands of girls. More companies are choosing to market their brands through women’s and girls’ teams, demonstrating the increasing efforts in catalysing its growth.

Robert's team has grown year on year, taking grassroots football to a whole new level. Hear what he has in mind for Kenningwell United's future...

Photos Credit in video and slides: Robert Wright

The future for women's football has never looked bigger, better and brighter. Visibility of female footballers in the media is on an upward trajectory and marketing campaigns and social media are encouraging broader participation. Clubs around the country continue to expand, setting a viable career path for women and girls with endless opportunities for self-development and growth. More resources are being allocated to grassroots initiatives and infrastructure to foster the sustainable space which women and girls need to feel empowered and succeed and there is certainly an exciting future to look forward to.