Westminster's Lionesses: Meet The Women’s Parliamentary Football Club
Members of the Women's Parliamentary Football Club
When Jo Tanner founded the Women’s Parliamentary Football Club, she could not have anticipated its impact. Six years on, Sophie Church discovers how it has helped to bridge divides, forge friendships, and been a great source of fun
“If you got caught playing football, you would get told off.”
Any teacher punishing a child for playing football today may be met with angry parents knocking on their classroom door. But this was the 1980s, and Tracey Crouch was – whisper it – female. “It just wasn’t for girls,” says the Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, matter of factly.
“When I first got elected in 2010,” she says, “I wasn’t allowed to play [in the predominantly male parliamentary team]… which was slightly ironic given the fact I used to play when I was a researcher.”
Crouch says the reason she was banned from playing was a result of the Football Association taking over the team’s management and their rules around mixed-football and referee insurance.
But in 2017, she was approached by political strategist Jo Tanner, who asked whether she would like to form a women’s parliamentary football team. Though Tanner had never played football until that point, she’d watched the game as a “full-on soccer mum” and thought: how hard can it be?
“It was wonderful,” says Crouch, looking back on the club’s early days. “Parliament itself had changed. There were more young women in Westminster and people who wanted to do things to keep themselves fit. It was a reflection, I think, of the changing times in Westminster.”
Now, the team runs drills on a small pitch just behind Waterloo station every Wednesday morning, under the tuition of coach Joshua Panda.
“Poor old Josh; when he told us at the beginning it was like training six-year-olds, it was hilarious and slightly demoralising,” laughs Tanner. “I think he is pleased we have all improved a bit!”
While attendance dwindles some weeks – Brexit “was dire” for boots on the astro, says Tanner – the team members make sure that if they cannot play football for whatever reason, they still do something together.
“During lockdown, everyone was a huge support,” she says. “We did group activities. Kim Leadbeater ran an aerobics session for us one night. We did yoga with [England footballer] Theo Walcott’s yoga teacher. We just did stuff that kept us as a community.”
The team also plays in a five-a-side league on a Monday evening against teams from the Bank of England and accountancy firm PWC, among others. “It’s a really good league,” says Crouch. “A lot of people, you can tell, have played at a high level in those games, but that’s fun. I try to work out whether or not we’re going to have votes on a Monday at that particular time and, if we haven’t, then I can get out and play.”
Where Crouch was once punished for playing football in the playground, she has now been inspired to write to primary school headteachers in her constituency ahead of next month’s Fifa Women’s World Cup, suggesting they promote women in sport by temporarily renaming their school’s houses after female players. “Being able to say that to schools and for them not to think: but girls don’t play football. It’s extraordinary.”
Setting up the team six years ago, Tanner says she never expected it to have supported its players through major life events – such as cancer, depression and bereavement.
“I just thought it was going to be a bunch of people having a kickabout,” she says, “but I’ve been really surprised at this community…[where] if any one of them had a problem, everyone would have their back. It’s really amazing to have managed to find that.”
Speaking of her experience on the team, Kim Leadbeater, Labour MP for Batley and Spen, says: “I love this hour a week on a Wednesday morning where we can get together, women who work in politics, to just de-stress. It’s really good for looking after our physical and mental health, and also having a good old laugh.
“You get a different crowd every week; women who are working across politics in different areas, whether that’s as politicians, staff who work for MPs, or journalists and various other people in this sector. So every week, there’s always something entertaining going on.
“It’s that sense of togetherness, that sense of camaraderie, that I think sport is really powerful in providing.”
Another team member, Arianwen Harris, former senior parliamentary researcher to Fay Jones, says: “I used to play football a bit at primary school and naturally fell out of playing football at secondary school; I don’t think it’s promoted that much for girls. I love playing again. It is great that it’s cross-party, and also just SW1 stakeholders. It’s really fun with massive community spirit. The training on a Wednesday morning is the best bit, in my opinion; you get a good chat with everyone beforehand. Now it’s summer, the mornings are gorgeous. Even in the winter it’s fun, because there’s a sense of collective perseverance through the frosty mornings.”
Hannah Short, parliamentary assistant to Margaret Hodge, says: “These are people I grew up watching on TV and admiring – thinking I would give anything to work alongside. To actually come on to a football pitch where you’re playing as equals, and you get to tackle them or play on the same team – it’s an incredible feeling.
“Then you go across to Westminster and they become your bosses again, and there’s someone you respect and admire. To have that sort of community sport with them is absolutely fantastic.”
Any awkward moments? “I did a massive sliding tackle on Kim Leadbeater in my second week and felt absolutely horrendous. I was very careful [after that]. I hurt her ankle, but other than that, I think we’re OK.”
Lucy Wake, government relations manager at Amnesty International, and Martina Blake, head of the office of project and programme management at the UK Space Agency, also feel they have benefited from the club:
Lucy: “Westminster and Parliament isn’t always the most open place. [Jo Tanner] was so friendly and like, ‘the more the merrier, doesn’t matter your skill level’ – so I thought: this is the team for me.”
Martina: “I loved playing football when I was younger, but… I went to an all-girls school so wasn’t allowed to play. About four years ago, I joined the team and I love it. [Although] it’s sometimes a bit of a challenge getting up very early on a Wednesday morning.”
Lucy: “I missed two alarms this morning – the third one got me!”
Martina: “It’s a lot of good fun, and just gets you going on the day, before you start work”.
Lucy: “Last year… we got absolutely hammered by the Afghan youth programme who had fled the Taliban about nine months earlier, and drummed us about 100-nil. “But that love of being together and getting fit and playing football transcends everyone’s life experience and cultural barriers. And it is a way we can welcome new people; whether it’s someone from the Cabinet Office or someone from Kabul, everyone’s welcome to come along.”
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