It’s a Thursday night in Manchester and groups of football players are practising their skills and doing drills under the floodlights on the Platt Fields Sports Complex owned by Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). After around an hour of sharpening up their passing, tackling and moving under the watchful eyes of their coaches, they start playing a game, the ball sweeping across the pitch in the ebb and flow between attack and defence. Every now and then the whistle blows and the players rotate, giving everyone a chance to get in on the action.
This is a training session for the Manchester Laces, the city’s fastest-growing and most inclusive football club that gives women and non-binary people of all ages and abilities the chance to enjoy playing the beautiful game.
The club’s ethos of providing a non-judgemental, kind and welcoming space has proved spectacularly successful. In barely 18 months they have gone from staging their first training session to having almost 150 members playing at five ability levels, each of which has its own team playing matches.
Along the way the club has been given a significant boost in the shape of England’s women’s football team - the Lionesses - beating Germany 2-1 in front of more than 87,000 people at Wembley to lift the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 trophy and send interest in the sport nationwide to another level.
ManchesterWorld went along to meet those behind the club and learn how the Laces ethos was brought north from London to the city, as well as hearing the stories of some of the players for whom the Laces provide opportunities to enjoy football they would struggle to find elsewhere.
How and why were the Manchester Laces created?
Manchester Laces was founded by Helen Hardy, who had played for a Laces team in London and when she moved north for work realised there wasn’t a club with the same approach around the city. And after going to a football club which was not a Laces one, she decided she wanted to start her own.
Helen said: “At first I didn’t realise I had been an inclusive space in London, it was just what it was like. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the club I went to in Manchester but it wasn’t what I had experienced. I realised during Covid it was the inclusivity I had enjoyed, with everyone being empowering and kind to one another.”
Helen asked a friend at the Laces team in London if she could make a version of the logo for her northern home city and the Manchester Laces were born in March 2021. Less than two years later the Laces are the biggest club for women and non-binary players in the city, which Helen says is “crazy”.
However, getting the club off the ground wasn’t that easy. Elena Aragones, one of the leaders, was one of the four people there at the start putting the first Laces team together and admits finding pitch space to train and play was a struggle. Fortunately Whalley Range Sports Centre stepped in and offered the new team a venue.
They then put out a message saying women who wanted to play football could come down, and quickly found themselves receiving lots of calls and messages from people wanting to join in. The club grew rapidly and now has five levels: purple for beginners, orange and green for players developing their skills, blue for the 11-a-side development team and yellow for the first time. The blues and yellows play in the Greater Manchester Women’s Football League (GMWFL) in divisions three and two respectively, with the other three playing in the FA Flexi league.
Numbers mean training sessions have had to be split, with Monday night pay-as-you-go practises and training on Wednesdays for the 11-a-side teams and Thursdays for the green, orange and purple levels. The club comes tgo
What has made the Manchester Laces so successful?
The leaders say the Laces’ inclusive philosophy is at the heart of why people have been flocking to its training sessions to play football with them.
Helen said: “I very quickly realised inclusion was going to be a journey, not a destination. It was always going to be a process and we weren’t always going to be perfect. What we intended to do was ensure that every person was able to play football, no matter their background, demographic, gender, religion or whatever.
“One thing that specifically makes us unique is our stance on ability. Before us I don’t think there were many spaces offering football to absolute beginner adult women. There’s a misconception that everybody in this country is born with a football at their feet, but for me it wasn’t available, it was a boys’ sport, and I should think it was the same for most if not all women in the ‘90s.
“Some people come into the club and put themselves levels below where they should be. It’s something a lot of us feel, a lack of confidence in our abilities. That can be a really challenging thing. The big barriers are age and ability. People think they won’t be fit enough or are too old to play football, but we will make that space for them.”
Elena says: “There wasn’t that space for women and non-binary people. We welcome everyone and there’s no judgment here, on your first day no-one is going to judge you. One of our first goals was being welcoming. That’s so important because everyone is going to remember that first step and their first visit.
“It’s important to feel like we are in a place that’s encouraging, where if you make a mistake it’s not going to be an issue.”
Helen suggested football has a major part to play in combatting mental and physical health crises and said that doing something initially a bit daunting like turning up for a Laces training session has built players’ confidence off as well as on the pitch, with members feeling they can do things like apply for jobs they wanted.
Why people are drawn to the Manchester Laces to play football
When Manaho Yamamoto moved to Manchester from Japan in February after marrying her wife at the British Embassy she found it difficult to meet people as she worked from home as a freelance writer. Manaho’s wife, who is interested in women’s football, had seen the Laces on Instagram and suggested she head down to get to know people in the city.
Manaho plays at the beginner purple level at the club but says she very much enjoys it and has been delighted by just how friendly and welcoming the atmosphere is.
Manaho, who lives in Didsbury, said: “Before we moved to England, my wife recommended I find some community to be involved with. It’s so nice to be at the Laces. Of course I enjoy the football but this is more about a community and making friends and as an immigrant that’s amazing.
“I’m not athletic and I had previously quit sports because I was terrible at them but here people don’t judge for someone’s sexuality, nationality or whatever. I couldn’t find this kind of community in Japan. It would have been super-nice to have this community when I was younger.”
Elena’s story is relatively similar: she moved to the UK from Spain in September 2019, four months before lockdown began. She had met Helen at another team and when the idea for the Laces was created Elena was one of the first people on board.
She said: “It’s not easy to make friends. This was what I needed, this community around me.”
Club founder Helen, who is originally from Newcastle, also arrived in Manchester with her partner knowing no-one and spoke of the importance of the Laces community. She played football until about the age of 13 but had to stop as there was nowhere for her to continue her journey in the sport once she could no longer play in boys’ teams. She spent a few years kicking a ball around in her garden before starting to play once again aged 20.
She said: “Starting again now feels super-empowering. I’ve still got my friends in London but now I’ve got this massive family of people. I walked down the street not knowing a soul but now I can’t go past the Arndale without seeing a Laces player. It feels like my home city now and I can’t imagine not being an honorary Mancunian.”
The Laces have also provided somewhere for orange team captain Jo McDonald to realise ambitions long set aside of playing football. She loved kicking a ball around in the streets when she was young as well as going to Old Trafford with her uncle and dad but at that time there were very few opportunities for women to play the game.
After lockdown, though, she was looking for a way to get fitter and do a bit of outdoor exercise and found the Laces. She started attending training and the football bug bit very quickly.
Jo, from Crumpsall, said: “The Laces had just had their first session and I thought I’m going to give it a go and see what it’s like. The first time I went I was very unfit and at the end thought there was no way I could do this again, but one of the leaders said to come back next week and I would be surprised how quickly I would get my fitness. I didn’t believe her but thought she sounded like she knew what she was talking about so I did come back and was totally hooked. I just loved it.
“I became a bit obsessed with coming down to training, running after the ball and trying to get it. I get so much joy out of it and I want everybody to get that same joy that I do.”
Someone who had a very different experience before coming to the Laces was goalkeeper Yasmine El-Gabry. She was brought up in California and experienced the high-level training system for young players that has made the USA a powerhouse in women’s football, including winning the last two FIFA Women’s World Cups.
Her dreams of going onto college football on a scholarship, though, were dashed agonisingly aged 16 when she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a particularly terrible injury for a goalie relying on agility and reflexes.
Fast forward a few years and Yasmine moved across the pond for postgraduate study before getting a job in politics. Earlier this year a work colleague said she went to the Laces and suggested Yasmine come along. Having not played the game for a decade and a half, Yasmine admitted she was extremely nervous about turning up.
She said: “I was really anxious about getting injured again in the first few sessions. As an adult recovery would be harder and you would be trying to manoeuvre real life without someone taking care of you.
“It’s good to be back, I like it. We’re competitive but not professional and I like that, it’s what I want. Younger me thought my life was over when I got injured but older me says this is so much fun, having this as a social activity. It’s a really nice group of people to be around. Moving from somewhere else it’s really hard to make friends, so that has been a really important part of it for me as well.”
How has the Lionesses’ victory in the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 competition changed things for the Manchester Laces?
Women’s football was one of the stories of the sporting summer as England’s Lionesses captured the nation’s imagination on their way to winning the UEFA Women’s EURO 2022 tournament on home soil. It provided iconic moments along the way, most notably the 87,192 sold-out crowd at Wembley for the final and Chloe Kelly’s winning goal against Germany which secured the precious trophy.
The victory has certainly helped the Laces, with membership almost doubling from around 80 to 150 since the tournament. Jo recalled the first Monday night training session after England’s win on the Sunday, saying: “There were so many people who just wanted to get involved because they had been inspired by the Lionesses.
“The stories were so similar, people saying they didn’t get the chance to play at school or felt intimidated. Some of them didn’t even know if they could kick a ball because they had never tried, but we’ve such a safe space here and everybody is so supportive.”
Jo reflected on how the opportunities for young girls wanting to play football are now totally different to when Jo was at high school and the choice was netball or rounders, but while she is delighted to see how much has changed she stressed that the job is still not done when it comes to ensuring girls who want to are able to play football.
She said: “The first time I went to Wembley was for the Euros final and I cried. It was incredible seeing Wembley Stadium full of happy families watching women’s football. It was such a great game as well. It was a very special moment. I’m amazed by the women who play at that level.
“I’m still surprised, though, by how many girls who want to play football haven’t had the opportunity, even now. I was so proud of the Lionesses when they issued that letter after they won saying they wanted this to be the beginning and to make sure everyone gets the opportunity to play football.
For Helen, too, the Lionesses’ victory was a moment to savour and cherish but she is also determined to keep issues around accessibility and building a legacy for the women’s game in the limelight and ensure they are not lost in the euphoria of a tournament triumph.
She said: “It was incredible seeing England win something. The Lionesses are my absolute passion, I’ve got a Chloe Kelly tattoo, I’m a big fan. For us as a club it also empowered women to lace up their boots and get out there and give football a go.
“What is not talked about very much is how many adult women wanted to try football for the first time. Everyone talks about kids but as much as I’m keen to invest in the girls game and grow it we have a lost generation who never had access to football and deserve to be able to play. Adult women can inspire a generation too.
“If a little girl walks past our pitches and sees adult women playing football that’s also inspiring. If I saw my mum or my auntie playing football every week for the Laces that would inspire me as much as Leah Williamson. My niece started playing when the Euros were on but she was getting into it because she saw me in football shirts. Adult women playing football is a game changer too.”
What is next for the Manchester Laces?
The Laces have already begun to receive recognition for their inclusive approach. It was named Grassroots Football Club of the Year by Football v Homophobia and has been invited to the MCR Sports Awards after being nominated. The club also donated items to the National Football Museum for its exhibition about the women’s game.
Helen also has dreams of building on the club’s work to help two other age groups. She wants to start a walking football team for older women, and she is keen to start a junior side for younger girls in the early years of secondary school, when research shows a lot of them drop out of playing sport.
She said: “I want to bridge that gap for young women who are often really disenfranchised from football and have had bad experiences. I want to create a fun environment which can empower that young group of teenagers to enjoy football. That would help young girls feel they can do anything and support them through that horrible period of wanting to give up on exercise.”