“backing each other up; that’s what’s going to win games” — emma bentley, leeds ladies fcBack
“We never in a million years thought we would do as well as we did,” says Emma Bentley, captain of Leeds Ladies Football Club. “We started last season just wanting to survive, and we ended it disappointed that we hadn’t won the league. We didn’t anticipate that at all.”
That’s football; the ball is round, and it can do many strange things. A lot of them are to do with momentum; first, someone has to kick the football. Leeds Ladies FC, kicked into life after the break with Leeds United that closed Leeds United Ladies, generated their own momentum in 2014/15, and it took them from having nothing in mid-summer, when the old club folded, to the brink of promotion for the new club in May.
Summer 2015 has brought more changes. The most significant off the pitch are a move back to Leeds, to groundshare with Garforth Town, and the establishment of an under-16s team to develop the next generation of Leeds players; they won their first game 11-0.
On the pitch, a number of youngsters have made their mark in a new look team, after last season’s success opened doors for some of Leeds’ experienced players with clubs in the division above. Leeds have begun this season with identical league form to last season — won four, drawn one, lost three — and are now trying to generate forward momentum again, not just to survive any more, but to be successful.
“We were facing adversity last season because we basically didn’t have a club to start with. We’re facing different challenges this season, trying to gel a new team together while living up to last season,” says Emma.
“Although we didn’t expect it, last season showed us how good we can be. Now we know we can be good, and now we have to live up to that.”
The wins on the pitch grabbed attention and raised expectations, and so did the campaign to reestablish Leeds Ladies as a viable football club, as in its efforts to survive the club worked hard to raise its profile in the city, banging a drum to drum up the support it needed to last the season.
“Not everybody liked the way we went about things,” says Emma. “Women’s football can be quite set in its ways, and in our efforts to survive, we did things differently.
“People might have looked at us getting coverage in the local press and on the local radio, and thought we were getting above ourselves, bearing in mind the division we’re in. But that was the point: why should women’s teams always do the same old things?
“When Leeds United Ladies had its funding withdrawn, that should have been it. Most clubs in that situation either fold and disappear, or merge with another club. But we decided not to let that happen to us. We decided to have a bit of bite about us, to say, you know what, we’ll do this our way and put things right again. And I think that shook some people up.
“I think we’re also still caught in the realms of people not talking about women’s football. It’s still a barrier: it’s just a women’s football team, so why should anybody care? Why make such a big song and dance? But rather than just plod along, we’ve been trying to break new ground, to take opportunities like the Women’s World Cup, and make things better. To do things differently, to try and improve women’s football for everybody, make it better for the girls who play and the people who come and watch.
“We wanted to stand up and let people know who we are and what we’re doing, and the support we’ve had for that, particularly from Leeds United fans who have got on board, has been brilliant. It’s been so important to keeping the club going.”
As captain, Emma has been placed at the forefront of building the new club and promoting it to the city, but smiles ruefully when she’s asked about that role.
“I think a lot of people have looked at me, being in the papers or on the radio, and seen that old striker who they didn’t rate, who struggled to get in the Leeds United Ladies side,” says Emma. “Suddenly I’m captain and I’m getting all this publicity, when I’m only playing in Northern Division One. I’ve found it weird, so other people must find it weird too.
“But being captain, and changing positions, first to centre half and now to midfield, has changed me. I’m not the same player who didn’t used to have much confidence, who used to listen when people told me I was rubbish and shouldn’t be in the team. If I’d been asked, I’d probably have preferred to sit quietly in the corner and see out my career that way. But I was given this job to do for Leeds Ladies, so here I am.
“I’ve loved it, but it’s not been about me. Everyone at this club wants to be in the Super League, and wants to win the Super League, and we all believe that one day that will happen. And I know that, when it does, I won’t be on the pitch.
“But some of the players we have now, Cath Hamill, Bob Wattam, Demi Pringle, Caitlin Gunnell; the girls in the under-16s; they will be on that pitch. And I feel a bit like their mum, trying to help them grow up and grow into the team they can be, and trying to make sure that there is a team here for them to play for. I believe this club will get to where it wants to be, and those players will get there with it, and I’m just doing the best I can do now, with the role I’ve been given, to put things in place that will make it happen sooner rather than later.”
A big step along the way has been the return to an LS postcode through the Garforth Town groundshare; football fans in Leeds with £3 to spare now don’t have to travel outside the city to see a team in a white shirt playing football for Leeds on a Sunday afternoon. Under-16s get in free, and one of Leeds’ main targets for this season is to get the turnstiles clicking at Cedar Ridge.
“I love Garforth,” says Emma. “The facilities are second to none, especially when I think about what a lot of women’s clubs have to make do with. Erin White and Vicky Fytche, they’ve got this thing where they come in to the changing room and get themselves a little cup of chilled water from the water cooler. It makes me laugh so much; they don’t actually need a cup of chilled water, but it makes them feel posh to have a water cooler!
“Playing at Knaresborough was brilliant, and if I could have picked up Manse Lane and given it a Leeds postcode I would. But playing at Garforth ticked that final box of making it easy for people to come and see us play. That’s what we really want: people to come down at 2pm on a Sunday and see for themselves.”
What they’ll see is a developing team with one of the lowest average ages in the division, that has at times this season played fast, incisive passing football that is a pleasure to watch; and has at other times shown its inexperience and been kicked out of contention. Going into a three week break for cup matches, Leeds are third in the table, although teams below have games in hand; new players like Nicolle Jepson, Sophie Thompson and Zoe Doherty are beginning to assert themselves, Doherty in particular picking up momentum to show herself to be an authoritative and inventive playmaker.
“And Ackers,” says Emma. “If people want to come and see worldie goals, Ackers is the one to do that.”
This was a good time to open Leeds Ladies’ Instagram page and watch, again, Rachael Ackroyd’s goal against Chester-le-Street from the weekend before. Controlling a ball from Demi Pringle on the run, Ackroyd faced up to her marker and, with three taps of her right foot that showed she knew exactly what she was doing, opened up space for a shot. She took the shot, and found the net; from twenty yards out, the ball curled beyond the desperate dive of one of the division’s best goalkeepers, and slotted sweetly into the top corner.
“If I’d scored that,” says Emma, watching the video loop round again, “I’d watch that a million times. But I always knew Ackers could do that, from seeing her play for Leeds United reserves. I played in that team with her and knew how good she was, and I was so glad when she broke through from the Development team last season and made people sit up and take notice. She’s taken becoming a first team player so well. She’s just got on with things; not with a point to prove, not trying too hard, just playing really well.
“We’ve got those players coming through now. Demi Pringle, Bob Wattam, they’re all so young! Something ridiculous like fifty players turned up for trials in the summer, fifty players wanting to play for this club, and now we have such a store of talent in the Development team and the U16s, and they’re already feeding through to the first team.
“Gunners. Caitlin Gunnell! Where did she come from? I heard the name because she was doing well in the Development side, and then suddenly she swans into the first team and I’m like, where have you been all my life? She’s really, really good.”
After the summer departures, Leeds’ young players are having to grow up quickly when they reach the first team, alongside other young players, who grew up quickly in Leeds’ first season; last season’s youngsters are this season’s senior players. Erin White, a combative midfielder in the fine tradition of Leeds footballing number fours, plays as if she’s seen it all and done it all despite being only 20 years old, and sets a standard for early maturity for a young team and a young club.
“Ez is invaluable,” says Emma. “Mistakes are going to happen when you’re such a young side, and we need to deal with them as a team, backing each other up; that’s what’s going to win us games. And that’s why you can not put a price on Erin White. If there’s a gap on the pitch Ezza fills it. If there’s a tackle that needs to be made Ezza makes it.
“We’ve got players now who are stepping up and showing their maturity, that last season was potential. Vicky Fytche started the season really well — she’s another that isn’t scared of a tackle. She spent her first season blighted by injury, but with a full preseason she’s showed what a good player she can be, as well as a good character.
“Emily Starkie is another. Starkie was quietly one of our most consistent players last season. She was asked to move from being an attacker to do a job at right-back, and she played more games for us than anybody else. But she was a bit of a wallflower; wouldn’t say boo to a goose, just turned up and did as she was told, while taking loads of stick from the girls. But this season that’s all changed. She’s the one dishing out the banter, she’s the voice in the dressing room.
“And I don’t know which way round it is, whether she’s playing better because she’s confident or confident because she’s playing better, but now Starkie’s playing like she’s realised she has a right to be here. She’s done a full season with Leeds Ladies, she’s played more games than anyone, she’s now one of our experienced players. And that’s bringing the best out of her.”
Momentum served Emily Starkie well last season, as it did the whole club. As part of the collective effort to have a club to play for, Starkie — like many of the players around her — consistently performed above expectations in every game, effort adding vitally to ability, until after thirty games that combination made a higher level the new normal.
Leeds this season need to dig deep again and find the same spirit, and the same effort, to generate the same momentum and get the ball rolling on their second season. A football won’t do anything until it’s kicked, but once it starts to roll, a football can do many strange things. Like roll to the top of the table.
“The target is promotion,” says Emma. “And it always will be promotion, until we get there.
“Success comes from consistency, and we’ve lacked that so far this season as we try to put a new team together. We know we have the talent and ability here to achieve our goals, and that’s the bigger picture in front of us. Right now we need to break that down into smaller pictures, to focus on the here and now.
“One of our coaches, Liam, came out with my favourite Mia Hamm quote the other day: ‘Somewhere behind the athlete you’ve become and the hours of practice and the coaches who have pushed you is a little girl who fell in love with the game and never looked back… play for her.’ That’s what we’re trying to do now, to forget about promotion and focus on playing football because we love it.
“If we can achieve that miniature goal, then we will perform, and we will win, and we’ll achieve our bigger goals. And the people who come to Garforth will see a team that plays well, that wins, and that loves to play football.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 29