In each issue, FotMob – the livescore app – are sponsoring a feature on inclusive and inspirational grassroots stories and assisting in their development by providing equipment vouchers to these special football clubs. Next up, FC Leytonstone.
By Tayyiba Yunus. Images by Gem Atkinson.
It’s a freezing cold Sunday morning in mid-December, the kind of morning players might just be tempted to choose a lie-in over football training. Not at Wanstead Flats, though. The iconic football venue in East London is home to FC Leytonstone, a local club with a rich history that has been running for close to twenty years. FC Leytonstone provides local youth and adults in Waltham Forest a space to play football, and they have most recently launched their first ever girls’ team.
We trek through Wanstead Flats in the fog in search of the squad and find Sabah, the Head Coach, leading a series of drills for her Under 12s and Under 13s.
“The girls’ football team was formed last summer,” Sabah explains. “Munaf, the Club Chairman, was looking for a female coach to lead and deliver the coaching sessions. I was put in contact with him through a mutual friend and it pretty much all started there.”
Sabah talks about her own experiences which have shaped her path in football. “With my generation, girls didn’t have a lot of opportunities to play. I used to travel over an hour to train at a club and that was difficult. I also didn’t have anyone I could look up to that looked like me. South Asian girls in football were an exception, rather than the norm. When I got injured, my focus shifted to how I could help girls have a different experience to what I had, and this role at FC Leytonstone coincidentally came up at the perfect time.”
Thirty-five girls turned up for the first session in July 2020. Most of the players had never played football before joining the club, but since then the Lemons have played multiple tournaments and started playing league football every Saturday at Hackney Marshes.
Imaani is one of FC Leytonstone’s Under 13s ballers and has been part of the team since it started. I meet her Mum Tasnim on the sideline. Like most of the other Leystonstone parents, Tasnim has family, friends and neighbours all involved with the club. She explains how Imaani has grown from an introverted and quiet player to “so much more confident on and off the pitch. Football has really helped the girls build an identity for themselves and us parents absolutely love watching them train, form friendships, score brilliant goals … we’re loving being with them on every part of this journey.”
Tasnim was inspired by ten-year-old Imaani to get involved with football herself, beyond supporting on the sidelines. She has started playing football on Friday evenings and also has joined the 100FC coaching pathway programme at the club, which addresses the shortage of female coaches in London.
Sabah echoes Tasnim’s comments about the team spirit: “We are definitely a family and a lot of work goes into making everyone feel part of that. We have regular socials, fundraisers and our sponsors are all local. I’ve even moved house from over an hour away to be closer to the club!”
FC Leytonstone is a club full of dedicated parents, coaches and staff, but in particular, the efforts of Club Chairman, Munaf, and Club Secretary, Umar, are talked about constantly.
“Both Munaf and Umar go well above and beyond their actual roles at the club,” says Sabah. “They put in a lot of hard work to make football open to all. Finance is a factor that is sometimes overlooked, but our sessions are just £3 and this makes sure football is accessible from a financial perspective.
“They’ve also understood the importance of visible female role models and given this project to local female coaches to lead. The players and parents hadn’t seen South Asian females involved in football before, so it changed perceptions and gave the girls the confidence to play. We know the power and positivity that role models can have on communities, and having a local club like FC Leytonstone providing this is amazing.”
FC Leytonstone are a wonderful community club with contagious positivity and a dedicated leadership team. The club are at the beginning of their journey in women’s football, but with plans in place to expand the girls’ programme and form a women’s team in the upcoming year, the future for the Lemons is an exciting one.