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“i wasn’t going to turn away” – emma bentley & the rise of leeds ladies fc

“i wasn’t going to turn away” – emma bentley & the rise of leeds ladies fc

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Fifteen minutes into the new season, Leeds Ladies Football Club were losing 2–0 at home to Stockport. That the team had started the season at all could be called a miracle. But miracles weren’t impressing new Leeds captain Emma Bentley.

“I just thought, I’m not having this again,” she says. “The first goal Catherine Hamill got kicked in the face, so I already felt a bit of injustice at that, and then when we went 2–0 down…

“I thought: ‘No. Do you know what? I’m not having it. I am not letting this happen.’ That’s when I started shouting and screaming until the girls realised: we can do this. That’s what it was.

“A lot of times we’ve gone behind and heads have gone down, because they’ve not realised they’re good enough. And this time I said, ‘No. Sort it out. You are good enough. Now prove to everybody here that has come to watch that you are good enough to do this.’

“And it was like something just clicked.”

••

Emma Bentley first played for Leeds when she was seven years old. A spell playing in Newcastle while she was at university gets forgotten when she says, “I’ve been part of this for nearly twenty years now.”

The history of Leeds Ladies FC goes back to 1989, when it was first known as Leeds United Ladies. They reached the Women’s Premier League in 2001, and a highest finish of 2nd in 2012; won the Premier League Cup in 2010, and were runners up three times; they were twice runners up in the FA Women’s Cup. Players like Sue Smith, Jess Clarke and Ellen White represented Leeds for England.

Continuing at that level had become increasingly difficult by 2013/14. Being left on the outside of the new Women’s Super League cost Leeds several of their best players, and the league’s reorganisation left them in the Premier League’s Northern Division with a young squad, managed by an ex-professional footballer with no experience of management and no experience of women’s football.

Emma Bentley, Leeds Ladies FC by Shang-Ting Peng

Emma Bentley, Leeds Ladies FC by Shang-Ting Peng

“How honest can I be?” asked Emma, when reminded of last season. “It was ridiculous. It was terrible. “The manager knew how to play football but he didn’t know how to manage people. Tactically, he just got things all wrong. He persevered playing 3–5–2 with two poor wing-backs that he wanted to attack and defend as well, but in women’s football it just doesn’t work like that. We’ve not physically got an engine in us to do that for ninety minutes, not at that level.”

“We fight and we battle and that’s what it’s about.”

Relegation was the result on the pitch, but worse was the damage being caused by mismanagement off the pitch. Good players were stuck in the reserves, and the reserves started outperforming the first team. “I didn’t want to be with the first team, the atmosphere was that bad,” says midfielder Sophie Varley. And at least with the reserves, “I wasn’t used to losing.”

“Things were handled all wrong,” says Emma. “Sophie would be training with the reserves, and we’d be sent by the manager to take their goal off them. It felt awful – ‘Sorry guys, we’re taking this.’

“I just didn’t enjoy it. Didn’t enjoy turning up, didn’t enjoy training, didn’t enjoy being in the dressing room. I’d come back from Newcastle to Leeds and there were many times I was considering moving clubs because I just wasn’t enjoying football.

“But I was always thinking: but I want to play for Leeds.”

••

“If you start off on the right foot, if you start by trying to achieve something, then you’re starting in the right direction,” says Gary Cooper, chairman of the reborn Leeds Ladies Football Club. After five years as chairman of Leeds United Supporters’ Trust, this summer he started on a different project: putting that enjoyment back. And making sure there was a club to put the enjoyment back into.

Everyone at the club had felt what Emma was feeling. “The structure didn’t feel supportive,” says Gary. “Sponsors, fans, players, parents all felt very much on the outside, and of course all football fans know you want to intrinsically feel part of your club. It didn’t feel like that last season.”

Sophie Varley by Shang-Ting Peng

Sophie Varley by Shang-Ting Peng

The structure last season linked the Ladies team to Leeds United through the Leeds United Foundation, and United’s then-managing director David Haigh had installed himself as chairman of Leeds United Ladies to publicly link the two clubs.

“We didn’t really know anything about it,” says Emma. “There were token gestures: they invited us to ‘Ladies Day’ and we played a game at Elland Road. But to be honest all those things were pointless, because we were struggling so much. So what if we were going to Ladies Day at Elland Road? I didn’t care, I just wanted three points at the weekend. That’s how I felt.”

“Sponsors, supporters, players, everyone – we desperately wanted to work with the Foundation and with Leeds United to support the efforts to take Leeds United Ladies back to promotion,” says Gary. “Back to the Premier League proper and then on to the Super League. But it was problematic in many ways.”

“We knew Gary was going to do something this summer,” says Emma. “I always felt like he wanted to do something but he was being chained up and stopped from doing what he wanted to do. There was a lot of conflict with the Foundation, and certainly members of the Foundation didn’t like Gary for one reason and another. I always felt that he wanted to do the best for us, but his hands were tied behind his back and he couldn’t really do as much as he wanted to.”

“There was a lot of hard work going on to try and keep it going,” says Gary. “That involved a lot of people, not just stakeholders but also some people at the Foundation and at Leeds United. But I met with a couple of senior officers at the Foundation and they made it clear that if we didn’t support their proposals, or if Leeds United removed the branding rights, then their option to disband the Ladies was a very real one. So we began at that stage to take that possibility very seriously, and make contingency plans as a group of stakeholders.”

The possibility became reality on July 10th. Leeds United withdrew the rights to use the badge and the name, and the Foundation gave notice to the FA that the club was to close.

“People Enjoy Watching Leeds Because We’re Leeds”

“I thought that was it,” says Emma. “I thought, we’re gone, we’re done, we’re finished. I knew that the Foundation pulling everything meant it was all or nothing, because we had, at that point, nothing. And I knew Gary had a massive mountain to climb. He had to step in and rescue us, and I didn’t know whether he could.”

“It was a Thursday afternoon,” says Gary. “And within twenty minutes of the announcement I was speaking to Hannah Simpson at the West Riding County FA, to Tessa Haywood at the Football Association, and we began the process of renaming Leeds United Ladies to Leeds Ladies FC, and continuing our affiliation with the regulatory bodies.

“It wasn’t easy. I can make it sound simple because I’ve been very lucky, and Leeds Ladies has been very lucky, to be working with people who had the will, the passion, the desire to do it, people who were inspired by each other to make it happen. But this was a quagmire of administration, hour upon hour of endless time and effort by a whole group of people to make sure we had everything in place.”

“If I’m perfectly honest,” says Emma, “I think the Foundation trying to disband us and withdrawing our funding was the best thing that could have happened. It gave Gary the freedom to do things his way, and to do it the right way. I didn’t know whether he could do it, but he did. He did!”

••

“Bentz is just brilliant,” says Gary about the new club’s new captain. “I love Bentz to bits. “Emma Bentley is the kind of player whose heart beats white, yellow and blue. She’s taking over as captain from Erin White, who is another absolute inspiration.

“Bentz is an inspiration, not just as a player but as a person. Not just among her peers and her teammates but to the fans, to the kids who come and watch the games. She’s the kind of person that takes the time out to talk to you, and not just to talk but to listen. And when you listen to what she’s got to say, she’s captivating.

“She understands the game, she understands what being Leeds is about, she has the passion and the enthusiasm. As captain she will lead by example on every occasion, on the pitch, on the training ground, and off the pitch. She’s exactly what you want in your team.”

“I’m led to believe,” says Emma, “that when Gary and [new manager] Jak Oldroyd got together and decided the new club was going to happen, that’s when the decision was made to make me captain. Jak got in touch with me and told me, this is all go, we’re going forward with this, and I want you to be captain of it.

“And to be honest, at that point, I had pretty much given up on Leeds, much as I didn’t want to.” As insurance, Emma had started training with Huddersfield, who had lost only four league games the previous season while winning promotion to the Women’s Premier League North.

“Huddersfield wanted me to sign; I was starting in friendlies and scored two or three goals so I was in with a chance of getting into their first team. Then suddenly: Leeds is back and you’re going to be captain. It was like – do you want to pull on my heartstrings a little bit more?

“The pros and cons list: do I want to play in the Premier League? Or do I want to drop down a level for a team that’s very fragile, that may not continue, that might work, or might just crumble? It was a massive decision. But when you’re from Leeds and you’ve grown up in Leeds, to be able to say, ‘I’m the captain of Leeds Ladies’ – the decision was made. I wasn’t going to turn away from that.”

Huddersfield had always known that they might not be able to keep Emma – “I was always upfront and honest with them; they knew if there was anything with Leeds, that’s where my heart was” – but they might not have bargained on her coming back so soon, as Leeds took them on in their first pre-season friendly.

Karolina Gasiorowska by Shang-Ting Peng

Karolina Gasiorowska by Shang-Ting Peng

Things were still tough for the new Leeds Ladies club, though. “Gary was saying this, that and the other, saying we’ve got this and we’ve done this, and I just got to the point where I went, right, I’ll believe it when I see it. We’ll turn up, and we’ll see what happens. We turned up for the first training session and everybody was looking at each other, looking around to see what faces we recognised, what faces we knew.

“We knew at training that Gary was supposed to be meeting someone there from the FA to sort out the league position, but then we didn’t think she’d shown up. And if we’d lost that there would have been no point continuing, so – brilliant, have we all turned up to training and we’re still going to lose our league position?”

When I asked Emma if the players had needed to learn to trust again after last season, she answered quietly: “Yeah.” Leeds Ladies FC had to be different to the Leeds United Ladies that had gone before.

“At the first ever training session,” says Gary, “The first thing we did with our manager Jak Oldroyd was hand out cards to the players and say, okay, this is new, there is uncertainty. Write down on this card the things you’d like to see; what would make you happy? What do you think we need for success? We took their opinions at the first training session and so far we’ve acted on every single one, because those opinions matter. We asked the Supporters’ Club the same thing, and we’re working towards achieving everything that everyone involved feels is the right thing for Leeds Ladies FC.”

“WE BARELY KNEW EACH OTHER’S NAMES BUT WE WERE ON A PITCH TOGETHER”

Some of the results of that are visible; the players are wearing a branded Macron kit in Leeds colours with the new club badge. Others are more subtle. “After the first game I fed back that the players had nowhere to refill water bottles,” says Emma. “Five minutes later I got a message through with a photo of the water cooler they’d ordered. It’s a small thing but it makes a big difference.”

“I just want to see smiles,” says Gary. “I want to compete on the pitch, I want to win more games than we lose, but more than anything I want smiles, on and off the pitch. That’s exactly what we didn’t have last season.”

••

With pre-season organised for most other teams, Leeds Ladies had to take the games they could get, starting with a trip to Huddersfield.

“I said to Jak, this is going to be tough,” says Emma. “We’re throwing a team together that have had no training, and we’re playing a side that have been together a long time and stormed their league last season. I thought, this is going to kill us.”

If all you read was the result, you’d think that was what happened. “We lost 5–0,” says Emma, laughing. “But I enjoyed it! It was really weird. I’ve never lost 5–0 and enjoyed it.

“Playing. Just playing. Being on a pitch. Being a team. We all had the same kit on, we warmed up together, we sat in the changing rooms together, we went in a huddle, and we played. We barely knew each other’s names but we were on a pitch together. That was when it started feeling real.”

••

More heavy defeats followed in pre-season, before the new Leeds Ladies team played its first game in the FA Women’s Premier League North, Division One, at home to Stockport County. It wasn’t just about one game that day; it was the culmination of everything Leeds Ladies FC had gone through, in two rapid months, to get there.

“On the morning of the match I was thinking, is everyone waiting, after the pre-season results, are they waiting for Leeds Ladies to go and get tonked?” says Emma. “Everybody wants Leeds to lose; everybody always wants Leeds to lose. I said to the girls before the match: don’t do it to prove other people wrong, do it to prove yourself right. Do it for the people who have come and are stood at the edge of the pitch.”

Emma Bentley by Shang-Ting Peng

Emma Bentley by Shang-Ting Peng

And then two early goals nearly knocked Leeds Ladies out. Which is when Emma thought: “I am not letting this happen.”

“At times it wasn’t pretty Barcelona football,” she says. “We had to do what needed to be done. It was as simple as that. Leeds have never been a team like Arsenal where people say, I enjoy watching that team. People enjoy watching Leeds because we’re Leeds. We fight and we battle and that’s what it’s about.”

Sophie Varley, a midfielder playing in attack, got Leeds back into the game almost immediately, hammering the ball past the Stockport keeper after a pass from Vicky Fytche. Leeds kept applying pressure, and when Bianca Ross was brought down in the box, it fell to Emma to take the penalty. Her shot was unsaveable; her celebration was a Leeds salute. “That was a nerve wracking but special moment.”

After half time Erin White put Leeds ahead, and Varley added her second to make it 4–2; from the moment she had scored her first, Leeds had always looked like winning.

“At full time you’d have thought we’d won the league,” says Emma. “I was a little bit embarrassed. I ran over and cuddled Gary and I was nearly crying. First I was thinking, this feels massive; then, don’t get ahead of yourself, it’s one game. But then I thought, I’m in the moment, I should enjoy it.”

The captain’s responsibilities returned after the weekend. “At training Gary was bouncing off the walls, all the girls were really on a high. Everyone was buzzing but I had to say, sorry, I don’t mean to pee on your bonfire, but that’s done now. We look to the next game. There’s no point winning one game, no point being a one game wonder. That’s it now: you’ve had your fun. Let’s go again.

“We’re not going to win every game. I don’t think for one minute that we’re going to storm the league. But as long as we work damn hard to try and do that then that’s all we need to do. For me, I’ve put a marker on it – I’m going to look at the men’s score every weekend, and whatever they do on Saturday I want us to do better on Sunday. As long as we’re doing better than the men then the people in the city will like it.”

••

On Emma’s phone are photos of Billy Bremner that she’s hoping to get blown up for the dressing room wall. “Side before self,” she says, scrolling through them. “It doesn’t even need to be instilled. It’s just kind of grown within us. Like Vicky Fytche and Erin White in midfield on Sunday, kicking anybody they could just to try and get the ball back.”

I ask Emma what she thinks her duties are as captain, and I think Billy Bremner would have approved of the answer: “Living and breathing Leeds Ladies FC.”

••

Originally published in The City Talking issue 16 • Leeds Ladies will be playing their home games in the 2015/16 season at Garforth Town AFC’s stadium at Cedar Ridge; follow them on Twitter for fixtures and updates • sign up for email updates and match reports from Moscowhite here.


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