onsıde| ISSUE 39 GIRLS FOOTBALL 22 keen to show the boys that girls can compete and show that it really doesn’t matter who you play. It’s about learning and developing.” The choice of league and division was essential to addressing these concerns, as Tessa Payne, Technical Director for Arsenal’s Regional Talent Club explained. “It was important to make sure that the girls were placed in an appropriate league and division to stretch them, but not to the point that they become disheartened or lost their desire and love for the game.” Officials from the Watford Friendly League recommended that this team, being from a Premier League outfit, should compete in the top division. As per standard rules set by The FA, the games at Under-10 level would be played in a 7v7 format, have retreat lines (to help develop playing out from the back) and last 50 minutes. And then almost immediately, and with only a handful of training sessions under our belt, the pre- season friendly calendar was upon us. We were to about to take our first tentative steps into this brave new world… SO IT ALL BEGINS… The girls’ first real encounter of playing against the boys was a pre-season friendly against Maccabi Lions (August 2016). This was a team that was widely regarded as one of the best and most respected in the league and one that had grown up through the age groups together. It would be a match that was to become a critical benchmark for the entire experiment, as will become clearer later on in this piece. I will hand over to the girls to give you their thoughts on this eye-opening experience for them. Laila Harbert said, “When the referee’s whistle blew, it was as if the boys came out of the blocks like Usain Bolts from everywhere! They were really strong, fast and didn’t give us any time and space to play.” Maddy added, “As predicted it was a tough, and sometimes physical, battle with good positive football played from both teams. We did lose but I didn’t feel disheartened just keen to learn and improve the team’s style of play, we all learnt a lot from that first match.” The game ended with a heavy defeat. It was clear that the boys’ physicality, aggressiveness and speed of decision making were decisive factors and qualities that we needed to develop quickly if we were going to be able to compete at all in this league. However, far from being downbeat, the girls displayed admirable determination and resolve. “We told each other after this game that we can do this and just because they are boys, that doesn’t mean we cannot improve and even win,” said a spirited Ryeesa. Before we knew it, pre-season was over and the first league fixtures were upon us. ADJUSTING TO THE NEW CHALLENGES The first few matches were certainly a wake-up call. The boys’ strength, speed and will-to- win meant that they dominated TESSA PAYNE, TECHNICAL DIRECTOR FOR ARSENAL’S REGIONAL TALENT CLUB “The girls have loved the challenge and have been on a steep learning curve over the course of the season. Arsenal, as a Club, tries to ensure that they learn to play the game with our philosophy, through a creative possession style of football. “However it is also important that the players are being pushed and challenged in all areas of their development if we are going to consistently compete on the international stage and broaden the talent pool. “Ultimately when they play, they are all just aspiring footballers; the fact that they are female becomes irrelevant. Hopefully we will get to a point when this becomes the norm!” EXPERT COMMENT