Echo Through The Mountains - An Interview With Nina Wilson

We get the same crowds and generate the same amount of income as the men because of how much gets put into us. It just goes to show that when women’s football is given the right backing and resources, it is in high demand.
— Nina Wilson

"We have it in our power to build the world anew".

When Lewes resident Thomas Paine wrote these words in 1774, he could well have been describing the town’s football team in 2019. For Lewes FC are building the world anew - and they are creating it more equally.

Female & male players alike are paid the same wages by the club. The share the stadium - The Dripping Pan. They have created Equality FC. In short - they are practising what they preach. And what they are preaching is starting to echo through the mountains.

They recently addressed an open letter to the F.A. calling for a closing of the gap in the disparity of pay between women and men in the F.A. Cup. To put into stark contrast the context of the imbalance - the winners of the Women’s F.A. Cup receive £25,000 in prize money - the winner of a first round match in the men’s version receive £36,000.

The annual running costs of a team in the F.A. Women’s Championship is upwards of £100,000. If we are serious about creating a more equal game - instead of just paying it lip-service for the sake of good PR - then this gap must be reduced. It is great to see Lewes challenging the status quo.

Nina Wilson, their promising young goalkeeper, embodies the values of Lewes so well. Eloquent & passionate about the challenges women in football face, she uses her voice to support and further the causes her club are advocating & fighting for.

There is still a long way to go, but with clubs like Lewes and with people like Nina Wilson in the game, the echos are getting stronger and stronger and soon enough they will create an avalanche that will sweep away the old and wash it all with pure white snow.

This is a brave new world. I spoke with Nina about how to create a more equal game, about how she fell in love with the sport & about how we can redress the balance.

by J.S. Leatherbarrow

What made you fall in love with football as a kid?

NW: To be honest I couldn’t narrow it down, my earliest memory of football was going to watch my brother play at my local soccer school. I think my dad just took me & my sister along to get us out the house, but after watching I was soon asking my dad to let me play too, even though there were no other girls. So I think from a young age I’ve has this idea of if boys can do it, why can’t I. From then on you couldn’t keep me away from a football. Any ball I came into contact with, I’d have to kick it around. I used to get in trouble a lot for booting basketballs around the playground. I even used to kick socks around the house, which my mum wasn’t a big fan of! I was a decent player on pitch, but fell in love with being in goal so always found myself back there despite being dragged out a few times! I think I just liked being different, the diving around and saving my team. Plus there was the added bonus of not doing all the running!

How did you first start playing organised football? Was it a local team - or at school?

NW: My first actual team was a boy’s team called ‘Southern Rangers’. I was about 6 years old, and probably about half the size of my team mates. I absolutely loved it, I was very headstrong and loved the challenge of trying to prove I was as good as them. To start with it was a little bit ‘I’m better than her, she’s just a girl’, but I think overall I was really valued and welcomed into the team. I just got on with it, and was respected for that in the end, showing on the pitch there was no reason for me not to be there. The boys and parents were great and it gave me that platform to then move on to a girl’s team.

What challenges did you face as a young woman trying to make it in the game?

NW: The main thing for me was definitely the lack of opportunity. As I said, I was very headstrong as a kid and so the attitudes towards me didn’t really phase me. I often think about girls who don’t have my kind of confidence, to join a boy’s team or be the only girl playing. Where do they go? The amount of girl’s teams has increased since I was that age but I still see a big gap in girl’s grassroots football. From little ones to teenagers, in terms of Sunday league standard I think more can be done to engage girls who just want to enjoy their football. As recently as 2014 I almost had to give up playing, because my options to play had run dry at age 15. I wasn’t old enough to join an adult league. There weren’t enough Grassroots teams in Sussex to form the youth league which I had been playing in. And that’s where a lot of girls like me hit a dead end. I knew I wanted to pursue football so I applied to Brighton & Hove Albion’s Centre of Excellence as a last resort, I didn’t even think I was good enough. It was really lucky I was accepted. But girls who don’t want to be at that level or aren’t quite good enough yet, that’s it for them. How do they carry on just enjoying the sport they love?

For me personally growing up, I also never had the realistic motive of becoming professional. It wasn’t something that was seen as possible, it couldn’t be your job. Obviously that is the main thing which has changed now, which is absolutely amazing and is why it means so much to me. Girls can have that dream now. But throughout my younger life I always had to almost put football to the side, it felt like something I just had to grow out of, shake off and get into the ‘real world’. My dreams were laughed off so I had to keep quiet about them and put my energy into studying for a more ‘suitable’ career. I totally understand that and it was important to focus on my studies when I had to. But I kept my dream alive inside, hoping it would become a reality. Now the FA reforms have put that within touching distance, I have to keep going until I get there.

Do you see a shifting tide in attitudes towards women’s football? What are the remaining barriers for women wanting to carve out a career in the sport?

NW: Obviously there are a few derogatory attitudes still out there, but on the whole the change has been overwhelmingly positive. I think the great work of women such as Alex Scott really highlight that. She does an excellent job presenting, and the wide majority of people, rightly, are big fans and are so supportive. She gets some stick which is totally unjust, but it is important to realise it is the minority of people which don’t like it. So that is a barrier which needs to be faced and continued to be built upon to stamp out the remaining sexism. But overall I feel women’s football mirrors this; most people now really get behind it and see the quality of it. I’m not sure it was like that a few years ago. Again it shows the demand and support for it when given the chance.

The main problem is still that, for the majority of players, being a full time professional is very rare. Only the Super League is full time at the moment, so most players below that need a job on the side of football. A lot of top players can’t focus their time on football, it becomes almost secondary. That makes it even harder to get to that full time status. Hopefully with more being put into the game, more players will get the chance to go full time, which will only keep improving the standard as a whole.

What could the governing bodies do better to help redress the gender imbalance?

NW: Ultimately, I feel it is actually a joint responsibility and a case of working together to close the gender gap. Yes, governing bodies play a big role, but clubs, sponsors, broadcasters need to play their part to promote women’s football more. Even as players, we need to all think ‘How can I represent the game better?’

I feel the main responsibility which needs to be improved is the accessibility and broadcasting of the game. I don’t think women’s teams get promoted enough in order to build the fan-base. I’m a huge believer that the demand for women’s football could absolutely be as big as men’s; girls don’t inherently dislike football. So I feel that sponsors and broadcasters are missing a trick at the moment. Governing bodies could do more to help get that ball rolling further, to bring in more sponsors, to push broadcasters to show us on main channels, to ensure clubs are promoting their women’s teams equally. At the end of the day though, we know it’s not going to happen overnight. Credit needs to be given where it’s due, because I know there is and has been a lot of great work going on behind the scenes already. For example the recent reforms to the league systems have been fantastic in making the game more professional. It’s clear to see that’s paying off, so it’s a case of dedicating to continue this, and ensuring what is put in reflects the huge growth which is happening.

What lessons could other clubs learn from Lewes?

NW: I would hope that certainly some of the smaller clubs are looking at what we do and recognising that it’s firstly not impossible, and secondly justified. I understand some bigger clubs aren’t in a position financially to bring the women’s pay all the way up to the men’s, but I’d hope they can see the rewards Lewes are getting from doing so, and look to close the gap even a little bit themselves. We get the same crowds and generate the same amount of income as the men because of how much gets put into us. It just goes to show that when women’s football is given the right backing and resources, it is in high demand.

Another key factor I think is that we play at the same stadium as the men. It’s very important in generating the crowds, and is definitely something I would hope all clubs look at. Currently the majority of women’s teams play in a stadium which is very out of the way and hard to get to compared to the men’s stadium which those fans would go to week in, week out. Even the bigger clubs, I think having more women’s games at the main stadium would contribute massively to engaging more of the club’s fan-base.

Do you feel a growing momentum behind the women's game? Will the World Cup be a turning point in its popularity?

NW: Yes definitely, even since I was younger the difference in popularity is unbelievable. I barely even knew the England team or any other female players growing up, it just wasn’t accessible. There’s still a way to go but some great work has been put in so that a lot more of the public know about the game now. I feel the 2015 World Cup was a big turning point for its popularity in this country, with how well the England team did. So hopefully this year can top that. And again, I really hope the broadcasters will seize the opportunity; put more games out there, promote it the way it should be so the whole country can get behind the girls.

What message do you have for young girls and other young women who want to get into the game?

NW: To those who want to start playing but might lack confidence, I’d say now is the perfect time to get involved! Women’s football has come such a long way even just in recent years, so there is definitely a future in football for you if you want it! The same people which used to make fun of me for playing are now the ones which are jealous of me. So please ignore anyone that might not like it, remember they are the minority. Girl’s football is cool now, and will only get bigger! Enjoy it and be proud of what you do.

To those that really want to make it, I would say don’t let anyone take your passion away from you. Whether that’s societal expectations as a whole, or a few people which say you aren’t good enough. It’s the only thing which will make you achieve your dream. You can’t let other people’s opinions or criticism hold too much weight. Equally, no one else is going to hold your hand to ensure you make it. That’s entirely up to you. It’s your responsibility to keep your passion, trust it and ignore anyone who doubts you.

Joker Question: Mia Hamm or Marta?

NW: I know Hamm was a world-class player, but to be honest I was much too young to really follow her career! So I have to say Marta, one of the greatest players out there.

Words by J.S. Leatherbarrow. Artwork by FATC. Original photograph of Nina Wilson by James Boyse - courtesy of Lewes FC. All rights reserved.

J.S. Leatherbarrow