26 October 2020
Emma O'Connor and Rebecca Raper, who set up Wheatley Oaks FC during lck
Older women wanting to play football can often feel as if they are overlooked with an emphasis on creating opportunities for girls and young women.
Teams such as Crawley Old Girls (COGS) are still very much the exception, but thanks to women such as Emma O'Connor and Rebecca Raper, the shift in that balance is starting to move.
Inspired by Carol Bates and the women at COGS, Emma and Rebecca used lockdown to not only come up with the idea of setting up a team for mature women of all abilities - they went ahead and did it, with the team, Wheatley Oaks FC, positively thriving during the most challenging of times.
Taking up the story they said: "Lockdown has proved so challenging for many people. We moved to Wheatley in March and then basically everything shut down soon after.
"We both love football and were looking around for teams to play in, but they were basically 11-a-side, geared towards younger women; we are in our mid-30s and wanted a sport for women our age - we wanted to play on our own terms.
"We had a bit of a brainstorming session and decided to set up a team run by women, for women, over the age of 30, but the challenge came in knowing quite how to get the word out there in the middle of a pandemic."
Wheatley is one of 30 local parishes in Oxford, so the pair got in touch with their local parish council to see if they could help find out if there would be any interest among the local community in a women's team.
After a lot of research about what sporting activities were on offer locally, Emma and Rebecca carefully worded a survey and by mid-July it was emailed to members of Wheatley's parish.
"I thought, 'This isn't going to work'," said Emma, an U16s coach who also works for a learning disability charity. "But we decided that if 10 people were interested, we would run sessions.
"Within two weeks we had 45 women express an interest and we now have 91 sign ups. It has been incredible. When I worked at AFC Wimbledon's Foundation five years' ago it took six months to get eight players signed up - the response to this has been incredible.
"Maybe lockdown has had something to do with it with women feeling more isolated, but we have a great mixture of all ages from 30ish to around 64/65 years old, and a range of abilities from absolute beginners to those who have played before. What was quite clear, and has been shown by the amazing women at COGS, is that is a great demand for older women who want to play football."
Not content with sending out an email invite, Emma's Mum Lesley also played an active, very visible, role in helping Wheatley Oaks FC get off the ground.
"If I am honest, I always find the posters for women's football sessions really boring," Emma continued, "So we designed a poster that had my Mum, who is 64, modelling our kit. We wanted to make the point that older women were welcome and put the posters up in Wheatley to really target the local residents."
Such has been the response that the team now run two sessions, one on Monday night and the other on Wednesday.
Due to the pandemic, places are limited and come on a first come, first serve basis when an email invitation is sent out, with all sessions COVID-19 safe.
The Monday night training is what the pair describe as the main football session, while on the Wednesday they have a personal trainer to focus more on fitness, with the latter open to other players across the county.
Emma and Rebecca also send out a weekly newsletter offering key practical tips about football, such as how to take a throw-in.
"We try to be really visual in our newsletters, but put over pointers that we hope will be useful and can be put into practice out on the pitch at our sessions," they explain.
"We train at Holton Playing Fields, which is an outdoor facility. It is a really good location and although there are rugby and football pitches, there are no other teams there on a Monday, so we have it all to ourselves.
"It is so important that it is a safe space for women to play and not be judged or feel 'Oh, there's a 15-year-old over there looking at me, or laughing because they think I'm no good'. Also, body image is a massive issue and for a lot of women who maybe haven't done any sport for 30 or 40 years, it is vital they have a space where they can relax, enjoy themselves and play football."
And such is the success of the sessions, that not only are the participants enjoying the football, they are making friends and staying longer after sessions to chat and socialise.
"It is a real community project," they add, "But we want to see what else we can do. We have 91 women already, but we want more and to see what else we can do!
"We have been overwhelmed, but in a good way. We had our first virtual meeting last Sunday - some of the women had never played, some have kids, some have played at higher level - so it was great to get lots of us together.
"We may be leading this, but we want input from our members because we're not from this area and want to make sure that what we are doing and how we move forward is right for them."
For the time being at least, Wheatley Oaks FC, which is affiliated to the Oxfordshire FA, is looking to join a five or six-a-side midweek league because 'we listen to our members and a weekend commitment is tough'.
"We are trying to arrange a couple of friendlies," they add, "We are also close to signing a kit sponsorship deal, have been given a grant from the parish and are finalising a Christmas event - it's important to have a social element.
"It's all systems go and although the last few months have been incredibly difficult in so many ways for so many people, this has been such a positive for us both."
If you would like to find out more or register your interest, please email email@example.com or message across social media Wheatley Oaks FC.
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