Interview: Maidenhead United’s Neil Maskell

Ben Gilby recently caught up with Maidenhead United’s Media Officer Neil Maskell to find out more about the great work going on at the club. 

Neil began our chat by outlining the history of the club: “Maidenhead United Women were formed in 2008, comprising mainly players from Burnham FC and Maidenhead Boys & Girls FC.  The club were promoted from Southern Regional Women’s Division 1 in their first season and one subsequent promotion later we are in the fourth tier, FA Women’s National League Division 1 South West and this is our fourth season at that level.  Women’s football has been played at our York Road ground as far back as since 1895 when British Ladies Football Club played an exhibition match at our home ground and there’s some incredible newspaper reports from that period of 125 years ago in our archives.

Maidenhead United’s historic York Road ground may have seen everything in the past, but it had never experienced a year like 2020 due to the challenges of coronavirus. Maskell highlights how the club have attempted to mitigate the risks: “The players are of course not professional so – as unfortunate as lockdown is – the club is able to shut down during such periods.  The players have been given strict fitness plans by coach Nev Saroya in the meantime and the players seem to enjoy these fitness schedules in lieu of actual football believe it or not!”

Other than coronavirus, the club’s media officer highlights finances as the other major challenge that the club face, in common with many other sides below the top tier: “The players effectively have to pay to play for the club.  There is not a huge amount of capital floating around tier four women’s football so we are indebted to our fantastic sponsors Kensington Mortgages (@KensingtonChat on Twitter) for their support in keeping the team going.”

Allied to this is the relatively loose ties between United’s Women team and the men’s Maidenhead United club, who play one division below the Football League: “In reality we just share a name with the men’s club,” Maskell admitted.  “We do share the same ground but our finances are independent.  The men’s club do try to involve the women’s team in events such as our annual Christmas event in the local shopping centre and the men’s players and staff have been known to attend Women’s matches on a Sunday.”

Maidenhead United are competing in National League Division One South-West, and for Neil, the league is better than ever. “The standard of the clubs in the division seems closer than before. Southampton FC have an attachment to a Premier League club and are clearly ambitious, but otherwise you look at the early season results and everyone seems capable of beating anyone else.  Promotion-chasing Chesham United only won at York Road in September by an injury time goal.  The matches largely seem to be close and competitive so far which is good for the integrity of the league. In terms of what we’re looking at achieving for this season, coach Nev Saroya simply wants the team to improve on last season.  We were tenth out of twelve clubs when 2019/20 finished prematurely due to the pandemic.”

In terms of the future, I was keen to get Neil’s assessment on whether the club have plans on making the jump into the third tier of the game. “We have some fine players who I am sure would be keen to play at a higher level.  Some have youth on their side and may even have ambitions of going pro.  Maidenhead United FC are planning to move to a brand new ground in the next couple of years so improved facilities can only help MUWFC too.”

Maskell highlighted how the pathway from girls football to the senior women’s team is growing, but remains one of the areas that the club are keen to develop: “Since the start of 2019/20, the club has a Juniors section attached to Maidenhead United men with 35 teams.  Girls and Boys can play mixed until their late teens now, but we also have an Under 14 and Under 18 team exclusively for girls.  We want more and more non-mixed teams to give local girls a chance to play in whichever format they are comfortable with.”

As with all clubs at grassroots level, Maidenhead United Women have some incredible volunteers giving so much of their spare time to help the teams to grow and thrive whilst still holding down a full-time job. “The likes of coach Nev Saroya and kit man Sega Makiza put in so much work in for the love of the team.  Otherwise, the likes of Amy Saunders, Alex Dover and Tina Brett have been with the club since Maidenhead United Women first kicked a ball in 2008.  They are wonderful ambassadors for women’s football and for Maidenhead in footballing terms too.

As ever, we finished our conversation by looking ahead to the future, and Neil Maskell revealed where he’d like to see the sport in general be in five years’ time. “For me, there is still a great disparity in terms of coverage of women’s football outside of the top level, but as social media becomes more sophisticated so do our methods of communication!  I hope that in five years’ time, the respect for women playing football has continued to grow.  As a man who volunteers to try and help out as best I can promote our brilliant and dedicated players and our club I still get disparaging comments – “why would you want to watch women’s football?  It is rubbish”.  We are winning the battle though!”