Impetus editor Ben Gilby spoke to Actonians Chairperson Linda Fox about the FA Women’s National League Division One South-East club, who from humble beginnings have now grown to run three senior sides and a large number of junior girl’s and mini football sides with ambitions to play in tier three of women’s football in England.
Fox began by taking us through the development of the club from its formation in 1998: “We started out as Chiswick United with one team playing in a local park in Chiswick. We added a reserve team a couple of years later and ran with that for about ten or so years before we set up junior girl’s football and also added another senior side in 2012. We moved from Chiswick to Acton in 2003 in search of better facilities and became Acton Sports Club (ASC), we had five successful years as ASC and won 3 promotions before we suddenly found ourselves homeless. We approached Actonians who were based just up the road and have remained there ever since, now running ten teams and growing the club every season. It’s amazing to see where we are now, from park football to the National League and with over 200 players at the club.”
The development of the club and where they now stand, particularly in the Acton community is an inspirational story. I asked Fox about just how the club have done it. “The key to achieving our current league status has been the loyalty of some of our players, several of them joined us in lower divisions and stayed and progressed with us, allowing us to have a solid base to build from which has attracted other talented players to the club. Also of course our coaches and volunteers who have always given their all to the club. As we are completely self-funded we have to work together, this creates a family feeling that people seem to enjoy being a part of which is amazing to see. I do believe that we now have the coaching team and players in place to start thinking about pushing on towards the top of the table and a place in the FA Women’s Southern Premier. With our new coaching team joining us in the summer and many new players it has taken us a little while to settle and the task is now to find some consistency and push on from there. We have also just moved to a new training ground with lovely brand new facilities which will also help us prepare better. But we are heading in the right direction for sure.”
Actonians had an excellent season in Division One South-East of the FA Women’s National League, finishing fourth. In terms of aims for this season, Fox reveals: “We were hoping for the first team to finish slightly better than last season though a patchy start might make that difficult, though if we hit a run of form it could still be possible. For our other two teams (Reserves and Development) we are looking for a solid season, working on closing the gap between the reserves and first team and bringing players through our development team. We wanted to increase our player numbers in general which we have done with aplomb!”
The huge public profile boost provided to women’s football by the summer’s World Cup has seen large numbers of girls new to the game turning up at Actonians. Fox told me all about how the club have tried to meet demand: “The number of queries resulted in us putting on some beginners sessions so that we can cater for everyone that wants to play. Some of these girls have since progressed into our development team so that have worked out very well! We have 200 registered players at the club from U9’s-Seniors plus twenty or so joining the beginners sessions and also ten to fifteen young girls in our Wildcats mini football centre. So it’s looking very healthy and the interest is definitely there.”
With the club running so many teams and the demand from girls in the area so high, I asked Fox how a self-funded club like Actonians handle the challenge: “It is not easy. We try to improve on something every season, this year new training facilities took priority but it does come with additional costs which we have to fund somehow. We have seen a slight increase in sponsorship on the senior side though this season which is such a big help. Finding the time to work on this and other areas is also a challenge since we are all volunteers with full time jobs and families. On the pitch we are largely happy with how things are going, all three teams are moving in the right direction, player numbers are up this season and we have attracted new players of great quality as well as the fantastic coaching team we have in place giving us a great platform to push on from.”
Fox is more than aware the difficulties that stand alone clubs have in the present environment of women’s football: “As an independent team with no backing at all, financial or promotional, it’s a constant battle just to stay afloat. Bigger name clubs attracts players just by their name whereas we have to work hard and show players why they should come and play for us, nothing comes for free as such. Though it can be done even at semi-pro level which clubs such as Durham have shown. Having said that it can also be a risky thing to rely to on a club that could suddenly withdraw their support, the amount of times we have seen that happen to teams certainly seem to show that being in total control of our club is not all bad!”
The development of players through Actonians’ system is absolutely vital in Fox’s view to the club being sustainable in the long term: “Increasing the player numbers from a young age so that the pool of players is there to sustain more teams. The competition will in turn get better and the quality increase. This will in turn fuel interest from potential supporters which will help normalising the female game and in time, I hope, help put bums on seats and bring some more money into the game. We are all impatient and wanting things to happen quickly but even though it might take longer than we want to establish women’s football completely in the mainstream, we are seeing the signs now and every season the interest seem to increase on the whole, as recent attendance records show.”
In terms of how the women’s club relate to the men’s side of Actonians, Fox said: “We don’t tend to interact a huge amount but we are looking to develop the links further and they are very supportive of us, some of our former coaches both coach and play in the men’s section so we have great friends there.”
I asked Linda what her aims were for Actonians in the future: “I think we’ll see more teams and bigger crowds. We aim to keep growing the club and to have the first team promoted to the next level within the next few years and also have a more competitive reserve team backing them up. We have some very talented youngsters in our junior teams and I’m really looking forward to seeing them progress and step up to the senior teams in the years to come. I also want to set up a vets team at the club to encourage players to carry on playing for longer, and I hope that there will be a competitive vets league to play in within the next few years. We can’t be the only team with plenty of players over 35 that don’t feel like stopping but ideally don’t want to play against 18 years olds anymore.”
The development of Actonians Ladies over the years is one which has seen gradual improvement lead to real growth. The club’s position in their community of West London and huge interest from youngsters there can only bode well for an even brighter future in Acton.