Pastimes: Tracey Crouch's love of football
In her occasional series, Rosamund Urwin meets up with parliamentarians to discuss how they unwind away from Westminster. Here, Tracey Crouch explains her love of football.
When Tracey Crouch was at primary school, she was “effectively banned” from playing football. The Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, who co-captains the parliamentary women’s team, was told off by teachers whenever she kicked a ball around. “It wasn’t deemed appropriate,” she recalls. “Every time I was caught, I’d go and play British Bulldog or marbles. It didn’t occur to me that I should be standing up and saying: ‘I want to do this.’”
I accepted at the time that there were things girls weren’t allowed to do
At her secondary school, Folkestone School for Girls, football wasn’t on the curriculum, so she did netball, hockey and gymnastics. “I think I accepted at the time that there were things girls weren’t allowed to do,” she adds. “Now I realise it was completely unfair.”
Crouch, 47, first played football in the street. On the estate in Kent where she grew up, almost all the neighbouring children were boys, and so she and her sister played sport with them. Her first proper competitive match was at the University of Hull, where she studied law and politics. She was a natural, going straight into the first team as a striker, and winning “the golden boot” for the top goal-scorer. She says football taught her “respect, the importance of teams, and that you do lose, sometimes comprehensively, but that you’ll have someone around to pick you up”.
After she moved to London, she played in a women’s league, but as she hit her 30s, that started to lose its appeal: “Our opponents were often in their teens, so they’d bang in six goals before half time, have a fag and a beer, then bang out another six goals.” While working as chief of staff for David Davis, then the shadow home secretary, Crouch began coaching a girls’ side, and is now FA-qualified. “I started with the under-10s and then stayed with them until they went into ladies,” she says. “I saw them grow up, turning into these wonderful women.” Three days after she was first elected to Parliament in 2010, her girls’ team won the cup.
A year later, the Football Association stopped her from playing in the parliamentary men’s team, due to their strict rules about mixed football. Thankfully, a women’s team was created, which she co-captains with Labour’s Alison McGovern. “It’s cross-party but we have more Labour MPs – the Tory ladies are not interested,” Crouch says.
Her prowess on the pitch resulted in David Cameron asking her to become sports minister in 2015, but she was disappointed this did not include school sport. Crouch believes there is a wider problem: that many departments – Health, Education, Environment and Transport – all have partial responsibility for wellbeing and exercise, but it is not their priority. She wants the government to create a department of wellbeing to help address chronic illness in the United Kingdom. “We ought to reconfigure Whitehall to have a much bigger focus on improving people’s wellbeing – physical and mental health,” she explains. “You can draw bits from other departments, creating a department whose mission is to reduce the number of people who have to rely on the Health Service.”
For her, this is personal. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020, she read studies that showed exercise could reduce the risk of recurrence. Due to lockdown, football was out, but she became a keen cyclist, and would go for long bike rides between chemo sessions.
Football, though, remains her great sporting love. She shares a season ticket for Tottenham Hotspur, and rejoiced in the recent success of the Lionesses, feeling it reflected years of hard work by people behind the scenes. “It was brilliant,” she smiles. “And no one stuck a flare up their bottom to celebrate!”
Rosamund Urwin is a journalist with The Sunday Times.
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