From L to R, the girls who took on the task of replacing the former side. Top row: Amy Turner, Faye Birkby, Tanya Rich, Jules Draycott, Emma Lipman, Millie Bright, Vanessa Holmes. Bottom Row: Billie Murphy, Emma Johnson, Clare Sykes, Carey Huegett, Stacey Emmonds, Jess Round & Leah Galton.
Leeds United might be in the Championship, but they are still one of the most well-known clubs in the country, but how much do people know the story of the Leeds United Ladies team? They’ve been on probably an even more emotional journey than the men’s team, and 18 months ago they didn’t have a team, a name, they weren’t even a club.
Over the past decade, Arsenal have been far and away the most dominant side in women’s football, but Leeds had been their most consistent opponents until everything went wrong with the introduced of the new Women’s Super League. But back in 2002, everything seemed bright and rosy for Leeds United. They had just achieved promotion to the Premier League, and they consolidated their position with a run of mid-table finishes. 2006/07 was a real breakthrough for United, league leaders going into the new year and reaching the Premier League Cup Final, losing out to a 90th minute winner from Arsenal.
The club established themselves as one of the big guns and were producing plenty of England internationals. Gemma Bonner, Jess Clarke, Sophie Walton, Olivia Thackray and Mel Sutcliffe among them. Future England internationals Steph Houghton and Carly Telford would join in 2007 and with the new link-up with Leeds Met University, the sky was the limit for the girls at Leeds. Sue Smith was a focal point of the side and another regular in the England squad, and a future England star Ellen White was about to join.
2008 was another successful year for the club, Premier League Cup winners, another FA Cup final and they were just three points away from European qualification. But disaster struck the team in January 2010 when the University announced they were pulling out their application to the Super League, and cut all their ties with the club, leaving the girls in turmoil. Current General Manager Gary Taylor wrote on the Guardian Sport site: “We told the players after they’d won an FA Cup tie the day before the announcement was due. Ever seen 18 grown women walk out of a changing room in tears, after winning a game? I have. It’s not nice.”
It was clearly a difficult time for the players, and the club as a whole. But as most players went elsewhere, it was left to Gary and then secretary Sue Walton to run the team’s off-field affairs. Sue was parent of Leeds player Sophie Walton, and felt a need to step in and organize things such as match officials, transfers, programmes, dealing with the FA, hotels, coaches, whilst Gary concentrated on publicising the club, running the club website, writing previews and reports and eventually running the clubs Twitter feed.
It was this attitude that made me so determined to write this feature, and get to know the current crop of talented young girls at Leeds United. Amazingly, the team at the time found the spirit to go and win the Premier League Cup again before it appeared the Leeds United name would die in the women’s game. But fortunately, in the summer of 2010, the Leeds United foundation took the club from the ashes and re-adopted the Leeds United name. Local business Steve Russell funded the club and put his company Ringways on the club’s kit. Reserve team manager Gemma Grainger stepped up to manage the first team, before former manager Rick Passmoor returned as the club struggled for form. The established England internationals had all but departed and were replaced by a growing crop of talented youngsters, Jess Round, Leah Galton, Chloe Foster and Emma Lipman were amongst many to come into the first team regularly in the 2010/11 season, joining the more experienced heads of Tanya Rich, who had returned to Leeds after a few years away, Nat Staneff and Claire Sykes.
But it was still a turbulent season for the club, finishing just four points from relegation and starlet Foster departed back to Nottingham Forest. Gemma Bonner also left, along with Jade Pennock, Rachel Lee, Lou Hunt and Letesha Cannonier. Sue Walton also left the club to go and follow her daughter who departed to Lincoln.
Chris Welburn stepped up as the new manager and this season things are looking much better for the girls, joint top in the League as I write this, and despite promotion not yet being open to the Super League, it looks only a matter of time before Leeds could re-establish themselves amongst the big guns. The summer saw the arrivals of more young talent, Billie Murphy, Amy Turner and the more experienced Vanessa Holmes were brought in to a new look defence. Jess Holbrook, Sarah Danby, Emma Johnson and Millie Bright also signed and things were going much better at Throstle Nest.
The previous young girls such as Emma Lipman and Leah Galton had become key first teamers, as another talented youngster Jess Round departed for Sunderland. Inspirational leader Nat Staneff left to travel the world, one of few who stuck with Leeds through the bad times, along with goalie Jules Draycott and striker Carey Huegett. The squad comparison of the 09/10 season against the 10/11 season shows the task Leeds had to recover. Telford, Houghton, Smith, White, Clarke and Holtham were all key players in 2010 before they all moved on to pastures new, leaving the young girls to come in and bring Leeds back to glory. Only six of the current squad were born before 1990, so it shows how much maturity the girls have had in the face of adversity.
After much inspiration, research and a cold trek through Pudsey, I went to watch the girls in County Cup action against Huddersfield Town in freezing cold conditions, in front of a plucky, spirited crowd. There was something nice about the atmosphere, a world away from the men’s game, but bacon butties and cups of tea aplenty. There were changes to the team, I watched on the sidelines with 17 year-old star Leah Galton, as herself and Millie Bright had just found themselves being called up for the England U19’s for the first time. The quality of football was clear to see, even against lower league opposition. Leeds won convincingly, 5-0, and afterwards I sat down and felt rather guilty about dragging Emma Lipman, Emma Coates and Tanya Rich back out of the changing rooms for a quick chat about the club. Emma Lipman had come in the summer of 2011 from Leeds City Vixens and made a good impression, Emma Coates came through the Leeds United Centre of Excellence, and Tanya Rich had returned to Leeds in 2007 to play for the reserves after being at Leeds as a youngster.
The main point all three brought up was maturity, brought on by the experiences of the last couple of years and what some of the girls had been through. “The group dynamics have changed, the maturity level has gone up, we know what we have to do and all the girls here want to succeed,” said Tanya.
Last season, promotion to the Premier League wasn’t an option due to new ruling, I questioned whether motivation was an issue for the side, but all three put me straight! Emma Lipman said “The standard of the league is still great and whatever the girls think between games, as soon as you go out there you want to win. As a footballer it’s a natural drive to win and to do your best.”
Tanya added: “The spirit here is great, some here have been through a lot and we owe it to do the best we can.”
“It’s an experience helping the young girls, it’s a young team but everyone gets on great. The older girls take the younger ones under their wing but there’s no separation, everybody gets on, the banter’s great and we all have a laugh.”
The team prides itself on its Centre of Excellence which many of the new look team came through, including now Reserve Team coach Emma Coates. “It’s for the U13’s mainly and as I came through the Centre it’s great for me to get something back,” said Emma C.
“It’s an enjoyable thing to do, like Tanya said, everyone gets on here through all the age groups, we’re a close group but I love being able to put something back into the youth system.”
Emma had been out of action for a while through a long-term injury, but came back into the first-team more determined than ever. “It was so frustrating. I felt isolated at times but I had a lot of help and it’s all about making the first steps back into the team now.
Tanya was at Leeds United as a youngster before moving away, but when the chance came to return to Leeds to help her home club, she couldn’t turn down the opportunity. “I moved away to further myself because Leeds back then had such a competitive squad, I’m local and it feels like home being back here. I knew I’d play a fair bit so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
Unlike the Steph Houghton’s and Sue Smith’s of the world, the girls at Leeds live a fairly normal life, keep low-profiles and are able to fully enjoy what they do as a hobby.
“We have to keep disciplined and keep fit so we can’t be completely normal youngsters,” joked Emma L. “This is a hobby at our level rather than a job, it’s all off our own backs.”
Emma C echoed the sentiments: “You just have to be the best you can, there’s a balance between having a normal young girls life and keeping fit for the weekend. For me especially coming back from injury I had to be careful with what I could and couldn’t do over the last few months.”
Leeds United Ladies is an ever evolving side, on and off the field, but all three have a fair idea of where they’d like to be in five years time.
Tanya said: “I want to finish my career here. I’m Leeds through and through, I’d love to start a family here when I’ve finished. I’m one of the older ones so I don’t try and think too far ahead.”
Both Emma’s added: “We just want to be at the highest level we can, to be consistent and to hopefully one day help the team back to the top division.”
Emma Coates also has the ambition to carry on her coaching development. “I want to work my way back into the team but I want to carry on coaching too. Get more UEFA licenses and take it from there. I love playing but I love coaching too so there’s a good balance for me to improve here.”
The end to the 2011/12 season saw Leeds finish second in the league to Sunderland, but the story had allowed me to fall in love with a team whom I had hated for years in the men’s equivalent of the sport! Finally there seemed to be some sort of stability coming to the team. Chris resigned his post as manager but was replaced by former professional footballer Andy Burgess, and gone were the days of a revamped squad during pre-season. A few went out, such as Sarah Danby to Manchester City, Millie returned to Doncaster and Leah moved across to the US to play over there.
In came another batch of youngsters ready to prove themselves, Abbie Lee, Erin White, Charlotte Bennett and others joined a squad which had kept the spine of Hayley Sharp, Emma Lipman, Clare Sykes and Carey Huegett together and they were all set for another crack at the title. So far, 1 win and 1 defeat as the new players gel in with the old, but the signs are there for more improvement as Leeds look for a way back to the top.
There’s a great foundation through the Centre of Excellence for the very best girls to prove themselves in the first team. In 2010 the likes of Olympic star Steph Houghton were playing for Leeds, so the reputation is there for big players to grace the squad again, less than three years after the England internationals were a plenty in West Yorkshire.
I’m personally taking it upon myself this season to sponsor one of the new girls, I haven’t decided who yet, and if you want to help the club in any way just visit http://www.leedsunitedladies.com, it’s a great story, and it’s a great team of great girls who deserve the very best ending.