The number of women and girls playing football in England has reached 3.4 million, confirming the Football Association has reached its target to double participation in three years.

There has been a 54% increase in affiliated women’s and girls’ teams, to 9,251, since the FA launched its Gameplan for Growth in 2017. A 715% increase in Wildcats centres for girls aged five to 11, to 1,621, has been another contributing factor. School partnerships, 2,000 Disney-inspired Shooting Stars programmes, 147 Just Play centres for adults and 88 community club organisations have also played a part..

Louise Gear, who joined the FA in 2017 as the head of women’s football development and was immediately handed the target, said the “impact that [the programmes] are all having on physical and mental health and wellbeing and the joy they are bringing to their communities” was “probably one of [the FA’s] proudest achievements”.

Gear said perhaps the biggest challenge was finding pitches. “If more women and girls are playing the game then they need places to play. Easy to say but much harder to execute and providing more places to experience football has been our top priority.”

Drawing on England Women’s run to the World Cup semi-finals had been important in inspiring “women of all ages and abilities to … get outside and play”, she added.

Critical to achieving the milestone has been the buy-in of the women’s football workforce and volunteers. Lymm Rovers in Cheshire, for example, have gone from a five-a-side women’s team in 2014 to having more than 200 players aged five to 72, including an academy and a mothers’ team.

The club’s chairman, Gavin Laidlow, said that between 2016 and 2018 “three of our under-18 female players were selected to play in the under-18s’ male youth teams – a first for league and county FA”.

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