Little Olivia - An Interview With Olivia Hancock

Like many girls I have had sexist abuse from boys – and even some parents – simply for being a girl playing football. As if football should only be played by boys!
— Olivia Hancock

By Karen Dobres

Will girls ever really be whole-heartedly allowed to play football? It’s a question young activist Olivia Hancock is wrestling with of late.

This Mother’s Day, Liv - who at 13 has already raised thousands for the Teenage Cancer Trust and helped homeless children’s’ charities in Brazil - dragged Dad Gary all the way from Leicestershire to see FAWC side Lewes FC Women take on league high flyers Durham. The teen had watched the victorious Rooks beat Crystal Palace Ladies away just a few weeks previously, but this was her very first visit to The Dripping Pan in Lewes, where both the men’s and women’s first teams play.

Not only this, but Lewes Football Club is also famous for being the only club in the world to assign equal playing budgets to both first teams.

I met up with both daughter and father Hancock on the terraces of the Pan to ask about Liv’s current initiative and the unusual quantity of philanthropic work she’s already done.

Firstly, why had she come to watch Lewes FC Women specifically?

‘The equality,’ she enthused immediately - ‘all female players should play on the same pitch as the men and be paid just the same.’

The visit to Lewes FC’s home ground also constitutes background research for Olivia’s latest campaign, however, which involves taking a creative stand against sexism in the beautiful game.

Sadly, Olivia was punched in the stomach by a boy when she tackled him, and consequently scored, during a recent school football match.

‘He didn’t like that a girl played better than him’, she said, ‘So I asked him if he loved his Mum, and what would he think if a man punched her in the stomach whilst she was walking along the street? That made him think twice’

Always up for deeds more than words, the experience prompted Olivia to take matters into her own hands and ‘turn a negative into a positive.’ She aims to make an educational film about sexism in football for school kids to watch.

This decision has given her, and the ever-supportive Gary, a real mission to fulfil.

The footie-mad Exeter City fan has been very busy garnering support to raise funds for her planned documentary. Over the last few weeks she’s met the likes of Lioness Millie Bright, England manager Phil Neville, Premier League star Wilfried Zaha, and celebrities Stacey Dooley and Davina McCall.

Lewes FC Women players have also got behind  Olivia’s activism on Twitter saying they are ‘proud of what she is doing’.

Lewes striker, and New Zealand international, Katie Rood, called her ‘an inspiration,’ whilst other team members have shared Olivia’s story on social media urging people to get behind the young football player’s initiative by following her and contributing to the crowd-funder.

Gary estimates that his daughter has personally given out nearly 1500 flyers over the last two months. On her ‘Go Fund Me’ account Olivia says ‘I have played the game since I was four years old. Like many girls I have had sexist abuse from boys – and even some parents – simply for being a girl playing football. As if football should only be played by boys!’

Of course Olivia is no stranger to activism. It seems that when this girl cares about something, things start happening. At the tender age of 7 she raised thousands of pounds for the Teenage Cancer Trust after reading a book about a 7 year old dying of a brain tumour. By baking cakes, recording a song, and starting a Twitter account to spread the word, young Liv made a real impact. As if that weren’t enough, she then responded to a request from a Brazilian charity for homeless children to come over ‘to see their work and help them’.

Undaunted by the cost of flights Olivia raised the money by auctioning her signed GB team ball. Gary says ‘This was the only object in her bedroom she cared about. She had been so happy when she went to watch the women’s team GB match in Cardiff and they signed this ball that she slept with it that night’. Determined Liv sold her beloved football on a TV show, went to Brazil armed with football shirts donated by Leicester City, and, by all accounts, brought joy to lots of kids.

She repeated the trip a couple of years later, thanks this time to BA and various other uber-impressed organisations and individuals. In fact, her Twitter profile picture features herself and HRH Prince Harry - just one of the movers and shakers Olivia has already hung out with to raise awareness for her chosen charities.

So, when this girl says she’s now tackling sexism in the male bastion of football, it needs to be taken pretty seriously – she’s already proven she’s no average 13 year old.

I asked her, going forward, what’s the plan, then, for this documentary?

‘Well, I need to get it funded first. I have a lot to raise because I want it to be the best I can possibly make it. It really means a lot to me.’

She says she’s spurred on by the responses of other football-playing girls who have got in contact, having heard about her quest to stop sexist abuse and violence in their chosen sport.

Gary says ‘If I didn’t have a daughter I would never have known what girls go through when they try to play football. It’s unbelievable! Olivia has been called all sorts of names by boys, who cover up their hands with the end of their shirt sleeves so as not to touch her ‘girl skin’ when they shake hands pre-match. And I’ve heard parents shout things like ‘Softie! You’re letting a girl get the ball!’ from the side of the pitch when their sons are playing against Olivia.’

Girls are the future of women’s football, and if we want the Lionesses to keep displaying the kind of prowess we’re getting used to, then it makes sense to squash this kind of abuse at grass roots level - on school playing fields and in playgrounds across the country.

In her fundraising flyer Olivia writes: ‘I may be 13 years old, but I’m on a mission to safeguard the future of women’s football.’

As she continues meeting celebrities of the pitch, the screen and the reality dance show (nodding to her recent encounter with a supportive Dooley here,) Olivia has her eye on a prize that will change outmoded behaviour both on and off the pitch.

I asked her what it felt like to be meeting so many celebrities? Does it make her happy? Is it scary?

‘It’s ok’, she says in her soft, quiet, voice, ‘It’s ok, as they are normal people, just living their dream. Except for when I had my photo taken with my idol Chris Martin of Coldplay. Then I was starstruck.’

Just lately the young campaigner has been tweeting about clubs who say they believe in equality but have yet to allow their female players to play on the same pitch as their men. An angry Olivia wrote in response to her beloved Exeter City that ‘they shouldn’t have a female day as you put it without equality as the @ExeterCityLFC team play 20 miles from SJP the home of Exeter City FC So until this changes I think it’s embarrassing to make it sound like the club supports girls and women #Equality’

Clearly cross that it’s still a rarity for females to play on the pitches graced by their male counterparts, she wishes things were different for girls like her, who must travel to less accessible pitches and less glamorous stadia, to watch their role models hard at play.

So, talking of grounds, what does she think of Lewes’ ‘Dripping Pan?’

‘I love it.’ says Olivia, ‘because at the moment boys can have a dream of playing for big clubs, but girls generally can’t. They’re changing that here in Lewes - girls can dream right here! I’m coming back to watch Lewes FC Women take on Sheffield United at the end of April’, she said, munching cheesy chips, ‘I like it here.’

Later I see Olivia chatting to the Lewes and Durham players after the match and telling them about her awful experience. I see how supportive they are, how well they can relate, and how much they want to encourage her to just keep going, not to lose her passion.

One day, when the women’s game is just as popular as the men’s, girls like Olivia will be able to concentrate purely on the game, and not about the freedom to play it without abuse. Until that day comes though, Olivia is kicking off.

Words & Interview by Karen Dobres. Original photograph by courtesy of Karen Dobres/Lewes FC. Artwork by FATC. All rights reserved.

Editing by J.S. Leatherbarrow

Karen Dobres