After competing for promotion in 2018/19 with Chichester City, Gemma Simmonds and her young teammates have been scrapping at the other end of the National League South. I’ve recently had the pleasure of catching up with Gemma to find out more about her football education and how it felt to be on the end of a penalty shoot out defeat to local rivals Crawley Wasps in the Sussex County Cup Final.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I was born in Southampton and have lived there ever since, I grew up in a small village about 20 minutes away from Southampton City Centre. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always supported and followed Southampton Football Club. My dad is also a massive fan and ever since I was little he would take me to home games and as I got a little older we have travelled across to country to support them.
I am naturally a centre midfielder and have played this position for the majority of my footballing life. However I have played in a few other positions such as full back and even upfront! I enjoy playing in the middle of the park as it allows for you to get on the ball and express yourself going forward.
The reason I got into football in the first place was because of my best friend at school, we would play on the school field or playground before school, at lunchtime and then go home and play too! We would be creative if we didn’t have a football using a tennis ball instead with jumpers for makeshift goal posts. After school we would round up the local kids who lived on my estate and play football until the sun went down. I was the only girl but I was treated like one of the boys, they were great to me and I think they heavily influenced me into playing football consistently from a young age.
As a Southampton fan how are you rating the team’s season so far?
I think the season has been a bit up and down being a Saints fan, we were hoping for a more promising season than last year which to be honest it has been better as we find ourselves in a not so terrible position in the league and hopefully going to be able to stay up without any dramatic finish. We’ve had some good results beating sides like Tottenham, Chelsea and of course our bitter rivals Portsmouth. But then we have been quite inconsistent especially when playing at home, we don’t seem to be able to play as well at home as we can away which is frustrating.
I’m hoping we can go into the next season still in the Premier League and try to build the squad to be able to compete more comfortably and have a crack at a cup which would be nice! We were lucky a few seasons back when we had Pochettino and Koeman at the helm, we were treated to great football and fantastic players.
Who was your biggest footballing inspiration while growing up?
My biggest inspiration in football was Ronaldinho, for me growing up he was something completely different. I remember he always used to play with a smile on his face and he used to produce magic that I had never seen before. I was mesmerised by his touch and how he could control the ball effortlessly. With regards to role models for my position being a centre midfielder, I was always in awe of Andres Iniesta. Again I was fascinated with the control he had over the football and how he made everything look so simple.
I also idolised Kelly Smith in the women’s game, I remember her being included in FIFA’s world player of the year and voted amongst the best players in the world which I thought was fantastic and her being England Women’s all-time top goal scorer she was the first female player I really took note of and would look out for if England were playing.
Could you tell me about your experience at youth football??
I initially joined a boys’ team when I was 9 years old, my best friend was playing for them and I was asked to go along to training as they were accepting girls. There were two teams and I was fortunate enough to get into the team with my best friend! I enjoyed it a lot and continued to play until I was unable to play for the boy’s team. My coach at the time was doing some work with Southampton Centre of Excellence which was headed up by Sue Lopez. He invited me along and I trained with them and ended up being picked to play for them. I absolutely loved it, my parents would have to be up early on a Saturday morning to take me to places like London for a game against Arsenal at 10:30. I am thankful for my coach who took me to train at the centre of excellence as I feel it gave me a great start on my footballing journey. The training was obviously high class due to it being a centre of excellence. We were even treated to being ball girls for the men’s team for a couple of occasions and also doing skills on the side of the pitch pre match at St Mary’s which of course I loved! I continued to play until I was 16 and then we had to move onto a ladies team.
How important was your time at Portsmouth in your development?
Portsmouth was massive in contributing to my development as a player. When I initially joined we were in the National League which is effectively the same as the FAWSL Championship is now. We used to play teams like Leeds, Man City and Sunderland, being 18 this was a massive step for me. Vanessa Raynbird was the manager at the time for Portsmouth and she was great influence on my football, I was used as a right back for the majority of the season and that helped me to gain further knowledge on positioning and also when to make correct decisions. I enjoyed my time at Portsmouth, looking back we had some fantastic players and a great squad. Some of the players have gone on to play top tier of women’s football which is a credit to the club and the players themselves.
One of the highlights of my footballing career has come from my time at Portsmouth, when we reached the quarter finals of the FA Cup beating Durham 2-1 at home and I managed to get on the scoresheet too! It was a fantastic achievement and we went onto play Notts County being the lowest ranked team left in the competition.
How do you balance your football and your day job?
I am quite lucky with my day job and football not conflicting too much, I am usually always available to be able to train on the evenings we train which works well. Some weeks I am on call on weekends and throughout the weekdays in the evenings but I am able to manage it quite well which is good and allows me to continue doing what I love. I work in shipping at Portsmouth Port which I enjoy, quite different from the football environment but it allows me enough flexibility to continue with my passion!
During Aaron Smith’s tenure in 2018/19 season Chichester City spent much of the season at the top of the National League South. How did the you and the squad feel when you were pipped by Coventry United for promotion?
I think we were naturally gutted to not finish at the top of the table last season, we started the season incredibly well with a very strong squad. We had a bit of a blip towards the end of November into December where we lost two games against Watford and Crawley both away from home. We also lost at home to Coventry earlier on in the season but managed to get a great result when we played them away towards the end of the season winning 3-2 but unfortunately we had already lost too many points to gain any advantage. That was the only game they lost all season and credit too them they were a well organised side with some great players.
I don’t think from the start of the season anyone would have expected us to be sitting that high, we competed very well in that league with some experienced sides at that level.
You began the season travelling the globe. Where did you visit and where do you recommend checking out?
I did, I took some time about to do a bit of travelling and see what was out there and I am glad I took the opportunity to do that as it has opened my eyes to the rest of the world whilst getting an opportunity to see some wonderful places! I went to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam & Cambodia, I initially went on my own but joined up with a tour group a couple of days later. We were a group of 21 strangers who all met for the first time in a hostel in Bangkok and from then we travelled for a month across the 4 countries via bus, boat and plane.
One of my favourite places from travelling was when we visited a city call Luang Prabang where we went to a local school and spoke with children to help them with their English. The majority of my time spent there I spoke talking about football with the teenagers who were as interested in football as I was! It was great to help them with their English and also get an understanding of how football has been a great escape and hobby for them. Vietnam is also a wonderful country, from the north to the south so very interesting cities and places to visit. Hoi An in Vietnam is a wonderful city, I would definitely recommend anyone to go there if they were looking to visit Vietnam!
When you returned to Chichester City you were met with a very different looking squad in a different league position. How did you find it incorporating yourself with all the new faces in the squad?
Coming back it is a completely different squad to when I left, there are new players, a new management team and girls that have stepped up into first team football. I have to say the atmosphere amongst the players and the coaching staff has still always been good even though the majority of the season where we have not got the results we have necessarily warranted. It was always going to be a challenge especially in this league where there are good competitive teams, teams with WSL experience and experience at competing at this level for a long time.
I think from when I first came in until now the team has improved so much, we are learning every week and it seems from recent results that we are taking this out onto the pitch and putting it into fruition. We signed some experience in the summer which has helped on the field but also we have some youngsters who have made the step up and look comfortable competing in this league.
I was in the crowd for your recent Sussex Cup final against Crawley Wasps. With Crawley winning comfortably in the league earlier in the season many wouldn’t have given you much hope of winning the trophy. I thought that you were all first class and on the balance of play you must have been hugely disappointed to have come away with a defeat on penalties?
I think going into that game nobody really expected us to compete for the trophy, after previously losing to them 7-1 in the league I would imagine most people would have thought it was going to be a comfortable victory for Crawley. Crawley are a very good side with great players, they are well organised and move the ball well but we seemed to have an answer to them defensively across the pitch which is a credit to our hard work but also what the coaching staff have engrained into the way we play. I think we gained a lot out of the game from the way we played, pressed and fought to the end to take it to penalties.
I think no matter what we were proud of ourselves that we took the game to penalties and we proved to ourselves we can compete with some of the best teams in our league. We have shown great performances against Watford and Crawley which shows us what we are capable of. For us now it is being able to carry those performances forward into every game that we go into
What are your personal targets for the rest of the season?
My personal target for the season is to help the team stay up because I think we are more than capable of getting results and for the club to be able to continue to compete in this league to grow on what the coaching staff are building. Personally I would like to contribute by adding to my goal tally which is always a target for me each game that I play. With the youth players coming through I think it could be exciting times at Chichester with them gaining experience in this league and pushing on next season.