PUBLISHED: 16:48 23 September 2019

Tia Hoope from Southampton Women FC skips over a Maidenhead player (Photo by John Bilcliff)

Following England’s impressive World Cup run, Sandra Smith meets the stars of Southampton’s 49-year-old women’s team

This summer will be remembered for entertaining and skilful performances watched by millions.

I am, of course, talking about women’s football. The England World Cup team has triggered a surge in popularity of a traditionally male-dominated sport. And no one has been more inspired than Tash Angel, captain of Southampton Women’s FC.

“The more we can expose women’s football to a bigger audience, the more people will realise how good it is,” says the Southampton-born 32 year-old. “I’ve enjoyed it ever since I kicked a ball around the playground at Kane Hill Primary School. I had opportunities to play but the women’s game was still under-developed then. Now opportunities are endless so I’m a little envious!”

The attraction of the club, which is keen to secure sponsorship and kit sponsors, extends to attitudes both on and off the pitch. “It’s one of the nicest teams,” says Tash. “We want to win and do well; no one is there for themselves but for the team which is supportive.”

Newcomer Gracie White is similarly enthusiastic about the club she joined this season. “The set up is fantastic. It’s always been my dream to be the best player I can be; I hope to reach a better level.”

A series of injuries may have set the defender back for a while, nevertheless she took encouragement from one particular World Cup player. “Ellen White had a similar bout with injuries but had an outstanding World Cup. I watched every single World Cup game; England shone.”

Southampton Women’s FC, whose first team plays in the Women’s National League South West Division 1, was formed in 1970. As well as a senior squad, the all-female club consists of a variety of youth teams. This season’s home matches are being played at Romsey Town FC and Eastleigh FC. Twice weekly training sessions ensure players are physically fit but how does Tash prepare psychologically for each match?

“I have a routine on a game day morning and might give myself a self-talk. Being captain, I want to make sure everyone else is doing okay; sometimes that’s a helpful distraction.”

Travelling together to away matches is one of the new regimes installed by manager Aaron Smith. “Some of the biggest things that can motivate a player are the environment and other players so travelling to games together is a must, something that I have brought in.”

Proud of the backroom staff available, including a physio, nutritionist and UEFA-qualified coaches, Aaron has modified his personal approach for the women’s game.

“I have had to adapt my communication style. In men’s football it’s commonplace to shout and scream at players; in women’s football this causes more issues than it solves. I remain calm in the team talks and always allow the players to have a say. We treat our staff and players well and our behaviour with other clubs and officials is of the highest order.”

One player who has come up through the youth system is Tia Hooper. Not that football was always her priority. “When I was younger I did kickboxing.” The 17 year-old, currently studying at Alton College, attained her purple belt before making the transition, ball skills having been instilled into her by her father. And her role on the pitch? “I used to play striker but realised I like to assist, to work behind the striker.”

“The World Cup inspired a lot of girls,” Tia says. “Seeing women play makes football more accessible, provides more opportunities. If top league matches are broadcast on TV, the sport will definitely get bigger.”

Tash is confident in the new manager. “If you’re performing well, you’ll get your opportunities. It’s a challenge to soak up pressure and achieve what we know we can.”

This tall “born and bred” defender (“If I’m the last person before the goalkeeper and I have to stop this person getting past me, I enjoy the challenge”) has advice to youngsters: “Just get out there and enjoy playing. Most people start because they want to kick a ball around with their friends. If you want to apply yourself you have to commit but don’t forget to enjoy it.”

Such advice blends with Aaron’s ambitions. “Winning our league has to be a target. Everyone is chomping at the bit; this is the season where the players want to show they are good enough.”

With an inspiring manager, and the legacy of this summer’s World Cup to feed off, Southampton Women FC looks set for a successful season. And I reckon they’ll achieve their goal.