Thatcham and Newbury Town are playing for progress as pioneering women’s and girls’ football club continues to break new ground
Thatcham and Newbury Town are a pioneering women’s and girls’ football club who have been breaking new ground in West Berkshire and beyond since 1992.
Since starting out with a single team 32 years ago, the club has worked to bring football to more and more women and girls; now, there are teams right through the age groups, from the Wildcats to the ladies’ first team.
For the coaches, parents and players, the benefits of the beautiful game are diverse and wide-ranging.
Whether it’s dreaming of becoming the next Lioness or just having fun with friends on the weekend, football provides an opportunity for women and girls to pursue a career, meet new people, keep fit and develop skills that make a mark on and off the pitch.
Of course, behind all of the goals, dreams, tough tackles, saves and celebrations is a massive effort in terms of time and logistics.
For women’s teams - and, indeed, women in football generally - there are more barriers to stability and success than there are in men’s football.
Only 63 per cent of schools offer the same access to football for girls as boys while the women’s game receives far less support and financial backing than its male counterpart - not to mention the outdated opinion of some who still argue that the women’s game should play second fiddle to the men’s.
That means clubs like Thatcham and Newbury have to work even harder to establish and support a safe space for girls to come and fall in love with football; with a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears, coaches, volunteers and parents have turned the club into one of the biggest and best of its kind.
Two of the women playing an integral part in taking women’s football from the margins to the mainstream are co-chairwomen Christina Brown, who also manages the under-14s, and Suzi Lewis, who manages the under-12s.
Brown has been with the club for more than five years and, like so many of her colleagues, first got involved when her daughter started playing; the same is true of Lewis, who has been coaching for two years.
The two women make a remarkable commitment, giving up a lot of time in their roles as both managers and mums.
Of course, what makes it so worthwhile is seeing their daughters - and hundreds of girls like them - develop as people and players.
“Having girls participating in any sport is so important,” Brown said.
“Whether that’s just having fun at the club or progressing further and maybe even ending up in a development squad somewhere like Reading, it’s great for the girls.
“It’s about being part of a team and a community, working together to achieve a common goal.
“It’s all about participating and having fun; if they stop enjoying it, especially as they get older and have more commitments, they’ll stop playing.”
For the people that make the club possible, a lot of work goes on behind the scenes. While top flight coaches have the luxury of spending hours poring over tactics and team selection, at the grassroots level it’s not always so glamorous. For Lewis and Brown - and a host of others like them - at least half the battle involves logistics, from sustaining a full squad to sorting out travel and training.
Lewis said: “There’s a lot to think about.
“From picking where the girls are going to play to recruiting girls to join the teams, it’s a balancing act.”
One value Lewis and Brown no doubt share with the likes of Emma Hayes and Jonas Eidevall is the importance of recruitment. The similarities stop there, however; Thatcham and Newbury don’t have a hefty war chest to go out and poach the best talent and, even if they did, that’s not what the club’s about.
For the most part, the squads are well-stocked but the next step is to attract enough attention that each age group can field two teams. That means working even harder than usual recruiting.
“We want to emphasise that we are about participation,” Brown said.
“No matter what level or ability these girls are, the first thing we want them to do is have fun.
“If they’re having fun, mixing with different people, then they’ll develop as footballers and get a lot more out of it as well.”
Like clubs up and down the country, Thatcham and Newbury are still looking to capitalise on the surge of enthusiasm that followed the England Lionesses’ memorable triumph at the European Championship in 2022; the first time a senior England team has lifted a major trophy since Bobby Moore got his hands on the World Cup in 1966.
With England making the final of the Women’s World Cup last year and the Women’s Super League developing at a faster rate than ever before, an entire generation of young girls are dreaming of becoming the next Alessia Russo, Kiera Walsh or Mary Earps.
And Lewis and Brown have noticed a considerable increase in numbers following the success of Sarina Weigman’s Lionesses; the challenge now will be ensuring the women’s game continues to grow - and that starts at grassroots level.
Lewis said: “It’s had a big influence.
“The girls have got lots of role models to aspire to, the Lionesses in particular.
“Being able to go and watch women’s matches with big crowds gives the girls something tangible.
“Five or six years ago we probably had 11 or 12 players per team, now we’ve got as many as 20. The growth has been massive.”
Brown added: “Most of the Lionesses started in boys’ teams, girls’ teams just didn’t exist.
“A lot of the girls feel much more comfortable playing in girls’ only teams, so that’s given people the freedom to come and play.
“The important thing now is maintaining the momentum.”
In spite of all the progression, a quick look on social media will provide a stark reminder that there are still challenges facing the women's game.
Brown said: “I think acceptance is still the biggest issue in some circles.
“That is slowly coming, but there is still a big barrier.
“It’s being broken down, slowly and surely, and I think it’s going to be broken down even more over the next few years.”
The club have been working on a number of initiatives to make football more accessible and inspiring; from a boot swap to a visit to St George’s Park.
It’s all part of the club’s mission to make football truly a game for all, one girl at a time.