Tradition, inclusivity and last-minute equalisers. Tayyiba Yunus went to visit Guru Nanak Ladies, to see grassroots football represented perfectly in Gravesend.
Guru Nanak Football Club was founded in 1965 and has since developed a setup comprising several senior men’s teams, youth teams and a more recently formed women’s team. I met Manjit Singh Atwal, the manager of the Guru Nanak Ladies side, to watch the team play a friendly at their home ground in Gravesend.
“The team was formed to give the ladies a space to play and enjoy football, but also compete in the league,” explains Manjit as he gives me a brief tour of the grounds. The pitches lie in the shadow of the Guru Nanak Darbar Gurdwara, a stunning building that is the hub of the Gravesend Sikh community. The complex is primarily a place of worship, but also has a community kitchen run by volunteers and external buildings including a school, elderly day centre and two pitches for the football teams. It’s a great feeling to be able to visit the team in person, feel the buzz of grassroots football and, best of all, watch a thrilling last-minute comeback by the home team.
Guru Nanak FC has a long-established football past spanning over half a century, and the women’s team is the latest chapter in the club’s wonderful history. It was formed in 2016 after Parm Bhandal, the team’s founder, endeavoured to make football more accessible for women in Gravesend. Before forming the team, she used to watch her two sons play at the Guru Nanak Sports Ground. But she wanted to start something for females. She explains the origins of the club as we watch a tense first half: “I knocked door-to-door in Gravesend, posted out leaflets, directly approached mothers to ask both them and their daughters to join the team… eventually I got enough players together to get it started!” Parm’s personal dedication and enthusiasm make it clear to see how she has had such great success with Guru Nanak Ladies. She is a regular part of the starting eleven, despite kicking a ball for the first time a few years ago at the age of forty-eight.
The progress that has been made in the time since Parm set the team up is incredible. Currently competing in the South East Counties Women’s League, the team is made up of around twenty regular players. All are committed to attending training sessions twice a week which builds up to match day on Sunday. The team had their first experience of a league campaign in the 2016/2017 season. Parm says it was “very tough” to experience losses by huge margins, but the team persisted, aware that they’d dived straight in at the deep end. “We’d lose fixtures 16-0 but just kept going. The losses then went down to single figures in the next season. Now we’re at a stage where we are competing and winning against these teams.”
Guru Nanak Ladies also won the Best Inclusive Project Award in 2017, with the team name projected at Wembley Stadium during the Community Shield Final. For Parm, this award epitomises what it means to be a part of Guru Nanak Ladies. “We’re open to all. We have players from all religious backgrounds because it’s not limited to Sikh women. We have players travelling over an hour because it’s not limited to women in Gravesend. Some players had never kicked a ball before, whereas others have had experience playing in professional teams. And we have players over the age of fifty in our starting eleven. It’s such a diverse group of women. It shows you just have to work hard and put the effort in to be a part of this club.”
The effort Parm mentions includes starting Wednesday evening training sessions with long distance laps. “The players run at least seven kilometres each session,” Manjit says. He knows it can be intense, but it’s clear to see that he’s developed a dedicated team that believes in his philosophy. “We want this team to compete at the same level as any other football team. Without fitness, that wouldn’t be possible. Now they’ll encourage each other to maintain our standards without much direction from me.”
One player who is also passionate about fitness is Guru Nanak Ladies’ very own goal machine, Aman Kaur. I speak to her after the game and recall a social media feature on The Grassroots Post about her unbelievable goalscoring record. Twenty-nine goals in eight games is no mean feat.
Unsurprisingly, it means she’s usually man marked by the opposition defence from kick-off. Aman started playing football with her brother in her back garden, but was spotted by a QPR scout during school. She went on to spend seven seasons with the club. “I started off as a defender but later moved into midfield. My parents supported me all the way – they took me to football training and watched my matches come wind, rain or snow.” She explains how she had to leave the QPR team to focus on university. This led to ten years of not playing football until she moved to Gravesend and found the Guru Nanak Ladies team.
For Aman, an important part of joining the club has been meeting other players with different backgrounds, careers and commitments who are all united by their love of football. She resonates with Manjit when she describes the team as being a family. The club has succeeded in bringing together a diverse group of women and providing a space to play competitive football, whilst maintaining an encouraging environment for players to develop as both footballers and people. As for the future, Parm has no fixed plans but would love to see South Asian women becoming a norm in professional football.
Part of the Guru Nanak Ladies philosophy is a refusal to give up, and the team’s performance on a glorious Sunday afternoon of football is a reflection of this. 2-0 down with ten minutes to go, the ladies make a dramatic comeback to make it 2-2 at full-time – with none other than Aman grabbing the equaliser.