‘Women’s sport has developed leaps and bounds since my childhood, now it’s time to take it to the next level’

Aliyah Anthony, Ignite Sport coach and Oxford City Women Head Coach, discusses the Women’s Euro 2022 and its power to inspire a new generation

This summer’s UEFA Women’s European Championship is proving itself to be the biggest major female-only sporting occasion in history.

A record-breaking 500,000 tickets were sold in advance and organisers predict over 250 million people in 195 countries will tune into at least one of the tournament’s 31 matches.

To put these figures into context, the last time England hosted the Women’s Euro in 2005, the competition recorded a total attendance of 118,000 – 21,000 of whom watched the final between Germany and Norway at Blackburn’s Ewood Park.

Seventeen years on, all fixtures are now be broadcast live across the BBC, the tournament has been expanded to include 16 nations and a sold-out Wembley Stadium will host a hugely anticipated final.

It’s therefore essential we harness this explosion in global activity – the like of which women’s sport has never experienced before – to inspire a new generation of participants.

Women’s sport has developed significantly even in my lifetime.

Growing up in Oxford, football was a big part of my childhood through family influence. My first touch was with Oxford Blackbirds FC before I later represented Oxford City and Chesham United.

Provisions associated with women’s football and sport generally back then were limited – we’d turn up to train each week, play a game if we were lucky and then go home.

Apart from the rare occasion, there were no role models to follow on TV, very few newspaper reports to read and no clear pathway to take our childhood aspirations to the next level.

Now, I watch our young players in Oxford City FC’s girls academy in awe – the opportunities, outside influences and acceptance of women’s sport are extraordinary compared to even a decade ago.

Programmes like Velocity Football – our full-time educational academy for girls aged 16-23 aspiring to fulfil a career in sport – have opened career pathways for ambitious and talented females like never before.

As coaches, we frequently refer to the Sports Participation Pyramid to gauge how we should interact with individuals so they benefit from the best learning and coaching experiences possible.

The pyramid’s four key stages are – foundation, participation, performance and elite.

It’s with great pride my Ignite Sport colleagues and I cater for all levels of the pyramid concerning women’s sport through our work in schools, onsite and Oxford City FC’s academy and first team.

It’s essential these provisions are in place if young girls living across the UK are to pursue playing sport through the positive influence of the European Championship.

Hope Powell was a tremendous influence on my decision to play sport and pursue it as a career. Not only did she manage England Women from 1998 for 15 years, but she was a black coach and had the most iconic plats.

Her style, her influence from the touchline and professionalism with the media at a time where women’s sport didn’t always fall into the public eye really inspired me. 

Having that personal touchpoint and story behind your role model is key, and why the Women’s Euro holds the power to inspire a generation.

The pace, skill and accuracy of Ellen White, for example, could prompt thousands of youngsters to pursue playing in an attacking role next season. Or Karen Bardsley’s efforts in goal may result in more children playing between the sticks.

It’s why the combination of a positive first experience with good media coverage and follow-up provisions where participants can replicate their idols are so important.

While I strongly believe professional women’s football will never be on par with the men’s game in my lifetime, I do foresee an entirely level playing field at the foundation, participation and performance stages.

There are short-term improvements which can be made. Making fixtures outside the Women’s Super League more accessible and talked about being one of them by shining a light on the incredible work of everyone behind the National League.

But reflecting on how the wider public perceive women’s football and sport this summer compared to 17 years ago when we last hosted the Women’s Euro, we can be proud of where we stand.

It’s important we continue to push our message and let girls know there is a career pathway, there are playing opportunities, and a lucky few will one day earn a living from playing professionally.

An England triumph really would be the cherry on top!

Aliyah Anthony, Ignite Sport Coach and Oxford City Women Head Coach.

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