“I got a call from one of our coaches, who was panicking. Sixty new people had turned up, never kicked a ball before, but they had all watched the Lionesses.”
The day after Georgia Stanway put England into the European Championship semi-finals, Manchester Laces’ open training session provided the best kind of problem for Helen Hardy, who founded the inclusive women’s football club in 2021.
“How many women felt empowered to try to kick a ball for the first time? That was only the quarter-final stage. It only went in one direction,” says Hardy. “Everyone training in England shirts, whether it was a ’90s one or the most recent Leah Williamson shirt.”
Six months on from the Lionesses lifting the Euro 2022 trophy at Wembley, the Laces are now 550-strong. Other clubs have told BBC Sport about a similar growth in interest in women’s recreational football in England.
Becca Todd, founder of Team Brave in Bristol, says: “We had massive interest. It gave people a lot of inspiration and made them realise football is not only for men.
“It’s great seeing the Lionesses being such role models and becoming celebrities.”
Aimee Brinn and Jessica Irving, who founded Peaches FC in east London for beginners during the Covid lockdowns, have also seen big changes, having initially struggled to find a suitable league.
“We couldn’t find a beginners’ league and ended up losing all the time,” says Brin. “Now there are games five times a week, two Sunday leagues and a Thursday league, because there is so much demand.”
According to the Football Association, there was a 12.5% rise nationally in registered female players from September to December 2022, while between June and December there was a 5% increase in female affiliated clubs.
Brin believes the Euros showed a wider audience how welcoming the game is.
“People realised it’s not just playing a sport, it’s a whole community and the Euros provided that platform,” she adds. “It feels more legitimate – not like taking up a random sport.”
Also, the atmosphere people experienced in stadiums at the Euros carries over on to the pitch, according to Irving, who says that has resulted in envious glances from some people involved in men’s grassroots football.
“I have had male friends in grassroots teams say: ‘I wish I could join the women or a mixed team.’ We’re aggressive on the pitch, but we take photos with the team at the end. It’s not like we’ve come to take out our aggression from the week on rival teams.”
While the boost in popularity has been welcome for those involved, grassroots football can be challenging, not least in the scramble for facilities.
Since the summer, the FA’s own tracking system has shown bookings made by women’s teams have risen 196%.
Already an acute situation in men’s leagues, it is now something Brin and her team are all too familiar with.
“On Thursdays, because of lack of availability, the pitch gets split into three for three different women’s games at once,” she says.
“Everyone is running like sardines together. There are pitches next to it that have been booked long-term, and those leagues aren’t going to stop.”
Irving adds: “There was one hilarious time we were playing directly outside a floodlit pitch where the men were and we were in the dark, in the mud, trying to use the lighting from their pitch. But we do it because we love it.”
Hardy, meanwhile, says it’s not as easy as just finding a pitch.
“You can’t have a 10pm training session – people won’t come if they don’t feel safe,” she says.
“It’s a different experience walking across a dark car park if you’re a woman than for a man. And for a lot of people, it’s their first time playing football – it’s already daunting.”
While the Euros inspired many more women to take up football, Hardy believes it also caused some traditionalists to kick back.
“All the experiences of abuse I’ve had have been post-Euros,” she says. “We’ve trained on the same pitch for two years, but now there are comments from men walking behind the pitch – ‘go on darlin’ put it in the top corner, show us what you’re made of’.
“A week after the final, we were training and a guy came to the fence and stood for 40 minutes shouting expletives at us. He stood behind the fence taunting players, not even attempting to hide his disgust for women playing football.”
And for the future? Well, Todd is keen that the opportunity to capitalise on the Lionesses’ landmark achievement last summer is not missed.
“The Lionesses called for more football in schools, and that’s going to be important,” she says. “We need to have equal opportunities at all levels.”
Hardy, meanwhile, underlines the importance of ensuring there is also funding for adults who are new to the sport.
“We have a 55-year-old coming to play for the first time because she was inspired by the Lionesses,” she says. “That’s life-changing. She didn’t have the access routes. We have to welcome adult women because they will have an impact as much as [England international] Leah Williamson will.”
Another boost to participation numbers could be just around the corner, with the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand less than six months away.
“The World Cup will be an amazing month,” says Hardy. “People want to play women’s football, and long may that continue.”
Brin hopes newcomers will continue to take up the sport.
“It’s important you don’t feel like you’ve missed a boat,” she says. “We started as 10 people that had never played before, and joining an established team might be more scary.
“I don’t want people to get complacent because it’s normal now – although it’s still 100 steps behind men.”