Crawley Old Girls, also known as COGs, is a superb initiative that enables older women, often complete novices, to learn to play football. COGs have been deservedly showered with awards and were even the subject of a BBC1 documentary. After yet another awards win recently – they collected the Local Inspiring Initiative at the Women’s Sport Trust BeAGameChanger awards – we caught up with Carol Bates of Crawley Old Girls to find out more about them, and how they’ve done it.

KUDOS: So what inspired the idea for Crawley Old Girls, and how did you get it started?

COGs: I had always loved football from a very young age (in the 70s) after watching my Dad every week and then both my boys, later in life. As with plenty of Mums who stand on the sidelines week in week out, football is a big part of your life when your children are involved but we never had the opportunity to play. We were the “generation that football missed”. I had also played in a couple of fun charity tournaments (I’d never actually played properly before) and realised I just wanted to play again and again.

Being Chair of the Crawley Town Supporters Alliance and an avid Crawley Town fan, I noticed a tweet from the Crawley Town Community Foundation who were trying to promote a session for their Female Football Development programme, in conjunction with the EFL Trust, to get girls involved in playing football. I asked what the maximum age limit was and it was 25, which was nearly half my age. Not being one to give up, I spoke to Amy Fazackerley, who was running the programme, and asked if I got enough women involved, could we get some funding for an untried programme for “older” women. The EFL Trust agreed and, through the power of my Facebook page, I managed to do some recruiting with the premise of ‘come along, no experience necessary’, with just a willingness to have some fun. I have a lot of friends who have stood on the sidelines with their children too and they were willing to give it a go. Just over a month later, we had our first session, in April 2015, with 10 women and we had an absolute blast, with so much laughter, that everyone couldn’t wait until the next session! Little did we know just how much this would grow…

What have been the key factors in your growth? Is it just word of mouth?

Word of mouth and social media have played a great part but I would say 2 events, in particular, have affected many others, whether it be starting up their own sessions or just joining our group. The first one was a great surprise to us but we were invited to the FA Women’s Football Awards in 2016, after being nominated for the #WeCanPlay Participation Award and we won it! Having respected and influential people in the football world saying to you what an amazing initiative it was, word quickly spreads. We have had some fantastic backing from the FA, since. The second event was a brilliant film made by Sam Supple for BBC Inside Out’s South East programme, which showcased what we were all about, as the first ever group to have sessions for “older” women to learn to play football. It was on at a prime time and a lot of women watched it, saw how we looked and the fun we had and I think resonated with that and wanted to try it for themselves. From then on, we were nominated for a number of Awards as, I think, to many people this was something they hadn’t seen before. With further publicity and more women joining us, we set up our own website at www.crawley-cogs.co.uk and on there you can see that we have had an amazing journey so far. We still have requests for new women to join us and they’re loving it as much as we still do.

How do the sessions take shape? Is there more than one group?

We started off with 1 session a week, for beginners, and it was coached the same way that mini soccer teams should be coached, with development and fun the main priority. The numbers soon rose and after 12/18 months it was felt that the “beginners” had learnt quite a lot and had moved on from being “beginners”. We then set up a second session for the original women to move to where the coaching became a bit more technical and this was now our “Intermediate” session. It was also felt that if we were still engaging with new women who wanted to play, they might be put off by playing with some of the women who had been playing for a while, so we moved the group over and started another Beginners’ session. These two sessions worked really well but then we had more women who wanted to join us who had played previously but just wanted to play recreationally! To have these women join in with relatively new beginners was great, as they “got” what we were about and reigned in their playing expertise while helping improve some players. However, it was clear that we needed to get another session up and running for women who had played before, so we currently have 3 sessions running every week throughout the year. We only stop for Christmas!

So do you have teams playing competitively in a league?

No, but what we do have is a wide range of Women’s Recreational Festivals available now, which are being run by County FAs as well as small sided Festivals/Tournaments which are for Women’s Recreational Football only. There are quite a few teams now in the South East and some of them have run their own events to enable women to play, too. In fact, we have just run our own World Cup themed National Women’s (over 30s) Recreational Football Festival, which was attended by over 200 women in 23 teams all just playing in a participation event. The idea of Women’s Recreational Football is exactly that, it’s a new genre which is all about playing when you can, for fun and enjoyment, so when a festival or tournament is arranged, teams bring whoever can play and make their teams up from those women. There are a few leagues setting up but, primarily, for groups like ours, it’s a case of training weekly and playing in the festivals, which are now becoming more and more popular.

Other similar initiatives in other sports – like, say, Back to Netball – mostly encourage people who used to play the game to give it another go. COGS is different, insofar as it is actually teaching complete novices how to play football. To take up something like football in later life strikes us as pretty brave and possibly even quite daunting. That must make it particularly rewarding for you?

It’s actually difficult to explain, apart from being immensely proud, what it means to see other “older” women learning to play football (most of whom wouldn’t be exercising if they weren’t playing) and seeing women learn to be comfortable in a group of women who aren’t judged on the way they look, how fit they are, or how good they are: everyone is equal. You see individuals turning up having never kicked a ball before and within months they have played in the first competitive match, are completely euphoric and want to do it all again! It doesn’t matter whether they have had a good or bad game, it’s the fact they’ve just played and that’s the most important thing. It’s great for mental health as well as physical health, it’s empowering women and giving them a new self-confidence. It’s great to watch it. We have women in their 50s who are definitely not yet ready to play walking football, they just want to run!

You recently won another award at the Women’s Sport Trust #BeAGameChanger awards – what other awards have you won, and does this sort of recognition help in terms of growing even further and possibly even funding?

We have won a number of Community Initiative Awards (local and national) which has been incredible and is always good to get the word out there and more women involved. The recognition has been amazing and the growth of Women’s Recreational Football is now increasing in popularity, nationally. This is one area of Women’s Football where the FA are keen to increase participation and have been extremely supportive in involving us, with the FA People’s Cup and other campaigns, to show that this beautiful game really is #ForAll. We are extremely grateful and proud of every award we have won but still surprised at the same time, as we now think it’s usual behaviour for “older” women to play football! To be honest, we haven’t applied for any funding as we just pay our money at each session and pay for our own kit. It maybe something we will look into for the future, to organise more events, though.

And finally, where do you see COGs going from here? Do you think your model can be adopted in other areas of the country, and by other clubs?

We will continue to, hopefully, inspire more “older” women that they too can learn to play football, regardless of age or ability and will be working hard to spread the word that Women’s Recreational Football is a fantastic way to make new friends, have fun and exercise at the same time. We will also carry on being inspired by other women who are setting up their own groups and getting more women involved. It may be the case that we have to increase the number of sessions again, as more and more women become involved. What I would like to see is every EPL and EFL Club start running sessions, through their Foundations or Trusts, as the opportunities need to be out there and available to all women. It would also be great to see some mentoring for some existing teams who are running autonomously and don’t have the support of a local football club.

Women’s Recreational Football is growing rapidly and hopefully will spread even further, nationally, in the next few years.

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How impressive and inspiring is that? COGs is a simple but brilliant, pioneering idea, and they could leave no greater legacy than for Women’s Recreational Football to catch on with other clubs and in other areas. We’d like to thank Carol for her time, and for an insightful and illuminating chat. Congratulations to everyone involved at the club, and good luck for the future!

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