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Women’s Football in Kent is on the march. The Grassroots Post travels to the coastal town of Deal to meet Betteshanger Welfare. A team flourishing against the odds.

WORDS AND IMAGES: Vee Pandey LEAGUE: South East Counties Women’s Football League

Last week, I travelled to a tiny seaside town called Deal, to watch a game of women’s football in Kent, and in the wind and rain. A not so exciting experience for some, but I was stoked, for a few reasons:

1. I am a tourist at heart, after all.

2. It is an absolute privilege to watch a game of live football during this crazy, crazy time.

3. Not just your regular football: Women’s football AND a local derby. Pretty much the whole dream.

It’s a local derby between Deal Town Rangers and Betteshanger Welfare and it’s the first time they’ve met. I find out that although Deal is well up on the #staycation list with its independent shops and restaurants, and picture postcard seafront, Betteshanger has its roots in mining. It was once home to the largest colliery in Kent, making for some of the country’s most militant miners. 

Proud histories in sport and mining go hand in hand and Betteshanger is no different, playing their home games at an old Welfare Sports and Social Club at the heart of what was once the mining community. While the football club is steeped in heritage, it’s also a progressive one, with Betteshanger Women’s team forming smack before lockdown one set in.

Women’s Football in Kent is fighting amongst an area grounded with a male-dominated football narrative, the ladies at Betteshanger are not only an FA Charter Standard club but also offer an incredibly warm humble abode to grassroots football. Something we all need during this time with the pandemic bringing its own strains onto the club. Kirsty, their player-manager, and Jem, the team’s captain, described:

“Setting up was always going to be complicated as both Jem and I have little in the way of managerial experience, and although we had a vision for what we wanted, the pandemic put everything on pause. There were question marks over whether or not the league would go ahead and then of course how on earth you bring together a large group of ladies that have to comply with non-contact in a contact sport.”

I came into 2020 thinking 2019 wasn’t short of bad news, but boy, was I wrong. While 2020 is shaping up to be a bit of a downer, it’s hard to ignore that this year has also been tremendous for Women’s football. As of early September, Brazil’s Women’s football team will receive the same pay as their male counterparts. As of a week ago, it was announced that World Cup winners Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath will be playing in England’s fast-growing Women’s league for the first time ever. And as of Sunday, Bettes absolutely smashed their local derby, bagging a score of 4-1 against Deal Town (a modest 8-1 in my opinion, if only the assistant referee had decided to leave his flag home and take a day off). 

Trying to form a team in a contactless world, seeking out new ways to stay close, it’s no denying that it couldn’t have been easy.

“We’ve been relentless, recruited like crazy, promoted where possible and nurtured the side from the get-go all alongside full-time jobs. We’ve worked tirelessly trying to stay connected with the girls, the club and our sponsor during the lockdown. We approached several established men’s sides, putting forward our plans for the ladies team. We wanted there to be longevity in girls’ and women’s football and getting that across was important. We presented our long-term plan and recognised the need to feed back into the football community. It’s been tough and at times would have been easy to pack it in, but we’ve stuck it out together for the good of a truly incredible bunch of ladies.”

There’s something supremely sublime about the way the girls get along at Betteshanger, given the short duration of them playing together. Even with their youngest player being sixteen years old and their oldest player thirty-two (although you’d never be able to tell), the sisterhood and camaraderie between them is undeniable, both on and off the pitch. 

“Some of the ladies juggle motherhood, work and football … I’ll get a mum to answer that. There will likely always be differing opinions on female athletes. Still, I think amongst our team there is so much positivity. I think that body image is something most girls/ladies battle regardless of being on or off the pitch. We try to encourage each other and think that most of the ladies instead focus on football and improving. In terms of balancing it all, there is so much value in wellbeing, and even mums need to have time for themselves. What better way than running around a pitch in the fresh air with teammates and friends.”

And you know what, folks, Kirsty couldn’t have said it better. Running around a pitch in the fresh air with your mates and waiting to get a pint after. There’s no better way of describing grassroots football. In my opinion, anyway.

So, what makes Betteshanger so special?

“We have so much diversity in the team, the mixture of ages, experience and backgrounds. Every single lady has contributed to our strong team dynamic. Grassroots provides the opportunity for all to engage with football, from the little ones right up to the senior teams. You can turn up simply to play or turn up with that competitive spirit. I think I said earlier, there is a lot of talent at Betteshanger, and I’m proud to say that I’m a part of it. The ladies turn up to training consistently, and in some of the most hideous weather, they smile and graft the entire session. They are dedicated and are a truly lovely bunch.”

Betteshanger is not only home to some phenomenal talent, but it’s home to mums, teachers and some lovely women who, when they’re not doing their day jobs, just love kicking a ball about. 

And for what it’s worth, that’s three wins out of three and they’re top of the league. It’s been brilliant to see the development of Women’s Football in Kent. Go Bettes!

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