Women’s Football Walk checks in with Beckenham Town

This is the very first season in existence for Beckenham Town Women. Think about that. It’s only been possible to play full competitive 11-a-side football as a woman in Beckenham since….. NOW. Well, since a few weeks ago. That’s not a criticism of Beckenham Town FC. They should very much be applauded for the work they have done in the last few COVID-ridden months to bring a team together from scratch and get them registered into the South East Counties Women’s Football League Division Two in time for season 2020-21.

Women’s football should be no more immune to criticism than any other genre of football but those who mock it would do well to consider the lack of opportunity women have had for decades and that they continue to have today. How on earth can women’s football possibly be expected to have evolved to the level of men’s professional football when it was banned for half a century? Even though it’s now 50 years since the ban was overturned many girls still don’t have school teams or local clubs to play for. I was awful at football as a kid but I always had the opportunity to play at some sort of level – no-one ever told me I couldn’t play because I was a boy. Anyway, it was with a visit to my local club that my Women’s Football Walk for Rebecca’s Rainbow Heart Ebstein’s Anomaly Trust (snappy I know!) began. Seven months to the day since I last watched live football I actually felt pretty emotional to be pitchside again. Eric Dier disappearing into the stands to angrily confront a fan had been my last depressing glimpse of football pre-Covid.

That night – way back on 4 March – I was working for BBC London on the men’s FA Cup fifth round tie between Tottenham Hotspur and Norwich City. My live preview on the 6.30pm BBC London News bulletin centred on the speculation that ‘within weeks’ football might soon be taking place in empty stadiums. Even as I uttered those words I’m not sure I actually appreciated the reality or the enormity of them. I wonder if that was true too for the majority of the million or so viewers. Coronavirus still seemed to just be “this thing we were talking about”, rather than something which was about to change our lives profoundly.

The 60,000 of us who filtered out of Spurs’ shimmering £1billion pound stadium and into the North London night after their defeat on penalties were the last people to watch a game there. We still don’t know when crowds will be allowed back in.

Right now you can only watch live football at grassroots level. The biggest women’s clubs close to where I live are Championship (Tier 2) clubs Crystal Palace (who play in Bromley) and Charlton Athletic (who play in Crayford). They too, like the WSL clubs above them, are not yet allowed to let fans in. Clubs in the Women’s National League (Tiers 3 & 4) and below can permit spectators. Beckenham Town plays in Tier 8. I counted around 50 fans. Not bad given that I’ve been at Women’s Championship games with fewer than 200 fans. Perhaps it was down to a lack of other live football opportunities, or indeed a lack of anything else to do in this COVID era, that the crowd was comparatively large for women’s football at this level. Or maybe Beckenham Town have done a good job promoting their team? With hands sanitised and mask firmly on I parted with my three pounds and clicked my way through the turnstile.

Conditions were atrocious with heavy wind and rain. Given the downpours had been on and off since Friday night I had wondered if the game might be postponed before kick-off, especially as Beckenham Town men had played on the same pitch on Saturday. The ground staff and volunteers at the club had done a great job though because the playing surface was really impressive.

Welling United took an early lead and went on to win a thoroughly entertaining game 5-2 with Sam Rowlands and Sharna Giordani both netting a brace and Sophie Hayes also on target. Beckenham’s goals came from Paige Bradley and captain Kayleigh Stenning. Stenning – who has now scored eight goals and weighed in with five assists in four games this season – played a key role over the summer in forming the club and recruiting players, along with manager Harrison Hill.

Hill and Stenning started to set the club up from nothing in March. They ran trials, found a support team, a physio and got their social media into full-swing. The coronavirus restrictions meant there was only time for two friendlies before the season got underway, but Beckenham have made an impressive start to their league campaign with two draws and a win prior to this defeat – their first of the season – to Welling.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be visiting other women’s clubs as part of a sponsored walk. In August I underwent open-heart surgery to repair a defect I was born with. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever been through. As my body heals from major surgery some days I feel like I have been hit by a bus, some days I feel like I am carrying an anvil around inside my chest. Other days, I feel pretty good. The doctors warned me every day would be different. Physios advise that at this stage of recovery I should aim to walk three miles a day, depending on if I feel up to it. Where possible I am trying to tie those walks in with a visit to a local women’s football stadium or match. I was born with my heart condition but wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my 20s. Ebstein’s Anomaly is incredibly rare, and one of the only support groups I could find was a charity set up to support children in Scotland – Rebecca’s Rainbow Heart Ebstein’s Anomaly Trust. Thankfully I was not symptomatic at birth. For those who are, life can be incredibly challenging.

The Trust was founded by Rebecca’s mum Jane after Rebecca saw a scan of her heart when she was young. A multitude of colours showed up and she said, “Look mummy, there’s a rainbow in my heart.” Rebecca first had surgery when she was nine months old. She had another operation when she was five. After several major operations she is now 14 and doing well. The Trust helps children affected by Ebstein’s Anomaly as well as campaigning to improve cardiac care and support for all cardiac children in the North East of Scotland.

Every penny donated on my Just Giving page goes to Rebecca’s Rainbow Heart Ebstein’s Anomaly Trust. But I hope the walk will also draw attention to the brilliant work that volunteers do to keep women’s football going in England.

I am also donating 100% of any royalties I receive for sales of The Women’s Football Yearbook 2020-21 to the NHS and women’s grassroots football. I am very proud to have founded ‘The First Ever Women’s Football Yearbook’ in 2017, and the fourth edition has just been published. Men’s football has had a yearbook since 1970. So I thought it was about time that women’s football had one too. You can order the book from Legends Publishing.

I must also say a huge thanks to my BBC colleagues Tom Garry and Bethany Pritchard who helped put the book together on a purely voluntary basis. I am so grateful for all the donations on my JustGiving page and also to everyone who has bought the book. In what has been an incredibly challenging year for everyone, and with many uncertain times for us all ahead, every penny is really appreciated and I know that it will mean a great deal to the good causes who will benefit. Thank you also to everyone who has got in touch with me to offer their best wishes: Friends; family; colleagues; people I have not heard from for years. It has meant a great deal to hear your kind words and have your support. Stay safe and well everyone.

– If you would like to donate to a great cause then please visit: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/chris-slegg1