South London Laces: How women's club is making a difference in community

The team celebrate
The Laces project was started in 2016

'This is what a footballer looks like'.

That is the motto of south west London women's football group South London Laces, who are an open-to-all socially inclusive club. They welcome girls of all ages, race and abilities.

The founders Emily Hill and Beth Towle are themselves both players in their mid-20s.

The project started three years ago in Clapham Common, a free open space, where the call was for girls and women to just turn up and play.

For those living in nearby Battersea, a chaotic part of London renowned for its traffic and noise, this was a welcome change and opportunity.

The fundamental value of the club focuses around community, development, inclusion and enjoyment. There is an understanding of the importance of a balance between enjoying themselves as individuals and a team, while also striving to achieve.

Open sessions see the girls, coaches and spectators buzzing with excitement to get fit while also having fun, sometimes with music playing in the background.

Co-founders Hill and Towle are dedicating time and effort into promoting the benefits of physical health and training, in tandem with behind-the-scenes support to the girls.

"We played for a local team and people drop out because of life circumstances," Towle told BBC Sport.

"We witnessed the trend and we didn't want to be part of that."

She recalls the popularity when the club was still getting started and how they engaged more than 100 women to get active. It was then that the idea transpired into reality for the pair.

'You know what, we're going to start our own football team,' Towle remembers saying.

The role of being ambassadors and encouraging the girls is a key principle to how they have built their team values.

Laces have succeeded in winning local community awards and a promotion into the Greater London Women's League 2 for their first team.

"We wanted to create something where people can come and express themselves," Towle said.

An important factor that underlies the sessions is for women to play regardless of their ability. Some of the girls have never played before.

The Women's World Cup has generated even more interest, and the friendly atmosphere draws people in to enjoy themselves, while overcoming personal struggles.

A young girl recently joined the club because her counsellor had asked her to get active. Her confidence and well-being were key motivators for her looking up Laces on Google. She had never played and searched online for a local girls' team.

The initiative behind the open sessions is that no one female player should be categorised, the club welcomes anyone to come along and join the sessions and just play.

Having such a big pool of players actively participating and getting involved helps generate more interest from the community development and volunteer sector.

However, the downside is the lack of facilities available - the club have the potential to scale up but lack the resources.

It clearly is so much more than just a sport for these girls, whose smiles and enthusiasm would never make you wonder about the diversity issues that they face every day, simply because of where they have grown up.

"We can't go anywhere to play in London in the evening - the pitches we get offered are small and not equipped for the big turnout we get, especially now winter is coming up," Towle said.

Sharing the ethos of fun and keeping fit is the motto for marketing the club.

She has played since she was 7, returning from a break
Flo is a striker for the Laces first team

'We are a family'

'This is what a footballer looks like' is printed on t-shirts from Kate Hui, founder of the affiliated club Hackney Laces. Social inclusion, identity and creating more playing space are high on the agenda for the face of girls' grassroots football to evolve.

One of the proud wearers of the t-shirt is 26-year-old Lorrell, known as Flo to her team-mates, who has been playing for South London Laces since they started.

She was sceptical at first that she may be rejected, but as stated by Towle: "We won't ever turn you away, whether you grew up in Oxford or grew up in a South London council estate flat. We are all inclusive - we are a family".

She returned to football thanks to the opportunity they offered and has not looked back since.

"When I was 17, I took a break for personal reasons and living in London was hard. I wanted to be a professional but couldn't see it happening and it kind of defeated me, which wasn't really the right spirit to show, so I took a break" she told BBC Sport.

She started going to the drop-in sessions, where they connected, played music and it was a fun atmosphere and she liked doing it. So, she continued to attend.

"I didn't like the gym but I liked football. I wanted to keep fit. Laces gave me a platform to develop my skills and now I come regularly and have been here since day one".

Flo, like many other girls, had to overcome issues to participate in sport, especially with the gender stereotypes in the football arena. But she has achieved positive changes in her physical health and well-being.

"It's given me opportunities I wouldn't have had before," she told BBC Sport.

Her gratitude and appreciation is clear. She is looking forward to a brighter future, professional opportunities, and structure for positive influence, all created through her hard work with the club.

It is a testament to the club's endeavours to assist, so that she may perform at her best. She is motivated to pass on the same to new participants.

Young people are now able to find communities that are truly inclusive: it is bringing people together in a city that can be isolating and it is smashing gender stereotypes in the process.

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women's sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women's sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.

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