‘Normalising girls playing football is important’

Grace Gillard is the captain of the women’s team at Hashtag United – a unique club with a massive online following helped with their games being uploaded to YouTube.

But a recent study by Women in Sport has found there’s a 16% difference in the number of girls who take part in team sports as opposed to boys, and this is something Hashtag United’s official partner Fridays (formerly T.G.I. Fridays) wants to change.

The restaurant chain has recently launched the Goals for Girls campaign which encourages girls to participate in the beautiful game and prizes are up for grabs for clubs who write in to tell them what their team’s goals are.

Gillard can’t wait to meet some lucky winners of the competition and explained how passionate she is to promote the women’s game and get more girls involved in the sport.

The 25-year-old also spoke to Female First about her footballing journey, explains how she juggles football with her job as a physiotherapist and revealed how it feels to play for Hashtag.

Why did you want to start playing football?

I am one of three siblings, and my older brother is two years older than me, and I’d be about four or five and going to his training sessions and just be badgering my mum about wanting to join in and stuff like that. Every now and again they’d let me join in and I just loved it and my brother loved it and wanted to practice it in the garden, so I’d be out there in the garden with him at the weekends, going to the park with my dad and my brother to just play football. Once I was old enough, I joined an age group team, I think it was under sixes or under sevens and I just played from there. Just loved it ever since really.

What’s been your proudest footballing memory so far?

I think it’s probably one of two, when I was at Watford, we played in an FA Cup game against Chelsea and at that moment in time I was on the pitch with the players I’d watched when I was growing up. That high end player was suddenly the person I was marking and that was almost a bit surreal, like what a game. I was at the ground going into the changing room and the person I’d watched was going into the other changing room, like hold on I’m about to play against you? That’s been the moment where it’s been like, wow, not made it as such but at this moment, it’s happening.

The other proud moment was when I’ve been on England camps and things like that, it’s always been like youth level, but actually being there in the thick of it at St George’s Park and again I was surrounded by some of the best players in the country and I was just thinking yeah, you’re doing alright.

How do you juggle playing football with your job as a physiotherapist?

For me I do physio in a hospital, so my shifts are very much 8.30am to 4.30pm so I have the evenings free for football. It is a limiting factor in terms of how far you can go, you can’t do both at the higher levels, so the top two leagues are professional, but you can’t do that with a full-time job. So, you get limited slightly but I think it’s helped me to be honest, it’s helped me because I know my body better because I understand it more, my recovery, even like niggles I can roughly tell when it’s more serious or when it’s just a little niggle and you can carry on.

It can be a bit busy and it’s balancing things like I’m on call sometimes, so I’ve got to time that with training and games. Sometimes I’ve worked Monday to Saturday and then got a game on the Sunday, so it can have an impact, but people have a lot worse shift patterns than me to be worrying about, but it works.

Why did you want to play for Hashtag United and how does it feel to be captain of the team?

Hashtag was a funny one for me because Hashtag were founded in 2016 by Spencer Owen, but they only kind of formed with the women’s team in 2020 but I was already at the club which became Hashtag, so I got embedded into it. It was then kind of a case of, do you want to stay in that environment? As a club we had more funding which was the biggest thing, but we actually had a club, before we were a team and now, we’ve got a club, so we’ve got the men’s team, the youth teams from all the age groups.

They made me captain and obviously with Hashtag most of our games are on YouTube so there’s a lot more of, you’re kind of in the spotlight and I like that, I like the pressure of being on the camera. Obviously, you have to hold yourself right by being on the camera, but on the whole, I like it and there’s a big media team who are all lovely. Hashtag has enhanced the team we already were tenfold and we’re only just really starting because of Covid, and this is really the only season we’ve had so we’re only just getting started. It’s already an unbelievable contrast to what it was beforehand.

A study by Women in Sport has found that there’s a 16% difference between girls’ participation in team sports compared to boys, so what are your thoughts on that?

I think my age group is a really interesting age group, because I think we were in the transition where when I was five, six, seven you maybe had like a handful of teams you could choose from whereas with boys it was bigger and there were so many different teams you could choose from, so many more opportunities. Whereas as the women’s game has grown, we’ve become a part of as we’ve got older. That’s then inspired the younger generation to do more, and it’s also inspired clubs to get more involved as well. So, like Hashtag took over a team called Forest Glade who had both men and women’s teams and I think some female players up to a certain age actually played in the boy’s team, but now you’ve got people similar to you.

When I was younger and in the boys’ league, I was like six or seven and oppositions would turn up and be like, ‘oh my God they’ve got a girl’. You’d instantly be isolated but now because there’s two or three girls or a team of girls, it gets somebody’s friend to think ‘oh I’ll come’, and it’s normalised a bit more. It’s no longer like a stereotype or a stigma, it’s more like ‘ah, are you any good?’ And it’s actually more of a conversation.

I think having the teams like Hashtag who are big and have a big online presence and having a women’s team, normalising that also says to the kids who watch that that there’s a place for them in football. The boys then think girls playing football is normal and for the girls it gives them an option, whereas before it hasn’t always been an option. I think it’s really important to increase the participation side of things.

Could you explain what the Goals for Girls initiative, which has recently been launched by Fridays is?

Fridays have launched this campaign to try and enhance that participation and my involvement is obviously there’s prizes to be won which include kids to come to our games and meet us or have little personalised prizes and bits and pieces and I think that’s really nice. The fact that we can make one kid happy it’s a really nice thing to do and again them coming to our games and seeing that we’re normal people and thinking, actually I could do that, is only going to enhance Fridays’ vision.

They’ve got other clubs involved in the campaign; I think we are the lowest ranked club female wise which Fridays are associated with but I think we’ve probably got one of the biggest followings. So, you’ve got the professional athlete, but you’ve also got the athlete who works 9-5 Monday to Friday. It normalises that you don’t have to be the best of the best, you can still do these sorts of things.

What would your message be to girls who are currently playing football but might be thinking of stopping?

I think there’s so many parts of football which are beneficial like the socialising aspects, making new friends – and as much as we shouldn’t be promoting this people are bothered about how they look but football makes you healthy and well. You don’t have to go out for a run which you don’t want to do, but you can go and play a sport with your friends and that should be encouraged. It doesn’t matter what level you want to play at, if you enjoy it, you should do it because you’re going to get so much out of it.

Some people I’ve been with for years through football, we’ve met, gone our separate ways and now we’re back at the same club again. You meet so many different people, you have different interactions which you wouldn’t normally have, and I just think there’s so many fun things about it, it doesn’t have to be that you want to be the next best thing, but you get enjoyment, you get healthy, so why stop?

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Stevie Flavio
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