Girls' football in Lincolnshire 'will die out in five years'
The success of Great Britain’s women’s football team in London 2012 has heightened expectations of how the Games will inspire the next generation into the sport. However, as Ed Grover finds out, many involved in girls football believe the popularity of the game in Lincolnshire is on a rapid decline...
Amid the hype about the boost the Olympics will give women's football, clubs have predicted a bleak future for grassroots teams.
Cliff Penning, chairman of Birchwood Colts Junior Football Club, believes there will be no girls leagues in the county within five years.
And he says his Lincoln outfit will have no girls team for the first time in ten years this season.
The Lincolnshire Football Association (FA) said it was "struggling" to attract more girls into the game and admitted there was a countywide problem.
Dave Lloyd, chairman of Lincoln Griffins Ladies FC, added the girls' game had faced a "year-on-year decline".
Lincoln Ladies have two stars in the Great Britain Olympics squad and there is hope they can inspire youngsters into the game.
However, Mr Penning says there is waning interest from girls in the sport.
The coach puts it down to insufficient investment and more focus on the elite ladies game.
He said: "I think in three to five years all girls teams and both of the leagues will be gone in Lincolnshire.
"For the first time in ten years we won't have a girls team – it's a bit soul destroying.
"Will there be a league in future? I don't think there will. Girls football seems to be dying.
"There is a lot of investment in elite football but not enough in grass roots.
"There isn't enough promotion of it and I don't see too many clubs doing anything either.
"If we don't have some leadership, it's going to die."
The news of clubs' struggles will come as a blow to bodies hoping the Olympics will get more girls into football.
Linzi Hewitt, women and girls football development officer at the Lincolnshire FA, said the Games had created a "battleground" for sports trying to recruit young players.
Popular alternatives to football are netball and hockey.
"We know the position Birchwood are in and it's a wider issue both within the county and the country," she said.
"We haven't found a magic wand to get girls into the game but it's not for a want of trying.
"There are girls playing football in PE and at school but getting them into the community clubs is difficult.
"We have fallen short of finding that remedy."
Ms Hewitt added over the last ten years clubs enjoyed a surge of interest from girls and so had not focused on promotion more recently.
But she believes there will continue to be girls league in the county as long as clubs create long-term plans and work with the FA.
Despite Mr Penning's claims about investment, the body said money put into grassroots girls' football far outweighed cash put into the elite game.
Megan Harris, the Lincoln Ladies captain and community manager, said she has not seen a drop in interest while visiting schools.
"I haven't noticed a decline, to be honest," she said.
"The numbers seem to be similar to last year."
The midfielder added the impact of the Olympics would be felt in the future and not in the build up.
"It's a massive event," she said. "If we can get the players in the spotlight I think they will be an inspiration to younger girls."
The FA said its strategy for the next year included running events where clubs could recruit players.
They will be held on Saturday mornings in Cherry Willingham, Sleaford, Boston and Grimsby.
The body also said it was available to help clubs create plans for the future.
Mr Lloyd, whose club has six teams, says the county's size means some fixtures require a 150-mile round trip for some players.
He believes in the context of economic pressures this has been a factor in deterring new players.
And he says teams in the south of the county have moved into a Cambridgeshire league to cut journey times.
He added clubs were also no longer required to run a girls team in order to gain the FA's Charter Standard status.
"Seven years ago there were around 96 teams in the county but so far this year there are around 35," he said.
"It's depressing when you see the size of the leagues in the past."
For more information on getting into girls football, contact Linzi Hewitt at the Lincolnshire FA on 08449 670708.