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How COGs got into gear and got playing
Since they came together in 2015, Crawley Old Girls – or COGs, as they are better known – have become something of a phenomenon on the women’s recreational football scene in England.
They started with a gathering of just 10 women at the Broadfield Stadium, home of fourth-tier club Crawley Town.
Six years on, the multi award-winning programme now caters for more than 120 women, providing five sessions a week for beginners, intermediates and advanced – the latter for ex-players who want to play recreationally. They also put on walking football sessions.
COGs was the brainchild of Carol Bates, who was nominated for the 2019 Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards in the grassroots category, and was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this June, being awarded a British Empire Medal.
Women’s Soccer Coaching caught up with Carol to find out how COGs took women’s recreational football by storm…
WSC: How did COGs come about?
CB: “Despite being involved in football for a large part of my life, I did most things but play. Many women my age, of 54, are from the ‘missed generation’, who didn’t get the chance to play football when we were younger because it was for boys, not girls.
“I washed kit, made teas, managed a men’s team in the 1990s – despite not really knowing what I was doing – coached a girls’ team with a friend, was a club secretary for about 10 years, followed Crawley Town home and away, and watched my boys play for more than 10 years.
“But it was playing in a charity tournament, where the team included two women, that really got my passion to play going.
“I said ‘pretend we’re under-sevens and coach us like you would mini soccer’…”
“Weeks later, I saw a tweet from the Crawley Town Community Foundation (CTCF), trying to get girls involved in playing for the EFL Trust’s Female Football Development programme.
“I was told the maximum age was 25. I was 48 at the time, so I wasn’t going to let that go. To cut a long story short, the EFL Trust gave the CTCF 10 weeks’ funding so we could introduce some sessions for older women to learn to play football.
“Ten of my friends, who I gathered up from a Facebook post, turned up on the first night and it was a night full of laughter and falling over. But we had a football and learned how to kick and move with it properly.
“I said to the coach before the first session: ‘Pretend we’re under-sevens and coach us like you would mini-soccer’.”
WSC: Who is COGs aimed at?
CB: “There are plenty of women who aren’t ready to go to the gym or do dance classes as they don’t feel comfortable in that environment, so we have made a safe, non-judgemental space for older women, regardless of size, shape or ability.
“In that first session, no-one had any experience, so we looked at encouraging older women who hadn’t played before and who wanted to have some fun getting active.
“The feeling we all got from that first session was incredible. We all took to social media to say how good it was, to try and encourage other older women to join in.
“If we could feel that good after playing football at our age, then how many other women could we get to feel the same way?”
WSC: How have you gone about targeting these people?
CB: “Social media has played a big part but word of mouth also led to friends bringing friends.
“The FA have been excellent in supporting us too. We were invited to go to events to help promote what we were doing, especially around the FA People’s Cup.
“Women around the country saw regular older women playing football and identified with that. The imagery around older women being active and playing football was extremely limited, so I tried to increase that with images of our COGs smiling and playing.
“Some of us are larger women, with red, sweaty faces, but we have fun and learn new skills, so this was something that we wanted to really promote and build on.”
WSC: What has the reaction been like in the local community?
CB: “The reaction has been amazing over the last six years. We are now involved with quite a few organisations in the community and after receiving some funding from the Sport England Tackling Inequalities Fund, through Active Sussex, we will be running some starter football sessions for women from the local black, South Asian and minority communities later this year.
“We have also been in the privileged position of being nominated for some awards from the local community, too.”
WSC: How have you supported other similar groups to form around the country?
CB: “At the beginning, we were very lucky to have a film made about us for [local TV news magazine] BBC Inside Out South East and this inspired some other women to start up their own groups.
“I am always at the end of the phone for anyone who needs help and I have made some great friends who not only now play women’s recreational football but also run their own clubs.
“We now have a Facebook group for all organisers of teams and groups around the country and it’s a growing community.”
WSC: What has been your proudest moment of being involved with COGs?
CB: “I was extremely proud when we won an FA Women’s #WeCanPlay Participation Football Award in 2016, when we weren’t very old. It was at Wembley, in front of some very influential people in football, including the [England] Lionesses and it was a complete surprise on the night.
“However, I’m proudest when I see the women come back week after week, watching how much they’ve improved but still with that sound of laughter when they’re playing.
“Knowing that COGs is successful because there are so many women empowering each other, as well as inspiring other women outside of COGs, is something you just can’t buy and that makes me burst with pride.
“We also ran an Old Girls’ World Cup in France in 2019, while the FIFA Women’s World Cup was taking place. That gave women the opportunity to come to France, play and watch some World Cup games.
“We even had women who came from the US, which was amazing.”
“Some of us are larger women, with red, sweaty faces, but we have fun…”
WSC: What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a similar group in their area?
CB: “Make it fun, safe, non-judgemental, and accessible to all. As long as the women have enjoyed themselves, that’s all that matters.
“Be clear on what your ethos is and always ask for help if you need it. One of the most important parts, to me, is the imagery around the marketing and trying to get women involved.
“Make it about ‘real’ women; women should be able to see women like them and that you don’t have to look athletic to join in. It’s important that any promotional material shows that it’s for older women of all shapes and sizes.
“Also, local County FAs have all the details for funding for setting up, and they will help with coach mentoring or at least guide you in the right direction.”
WSC: Have any COGs gone into coaching as a result of their involvement?
CB: “Yes, quite a few. I, along with another COG, did our FA Level 1 badge in 2016 and went on to coach girls’ teams.
“We now have at least 10 Level 1 coaches, some of whom are involved in a local club which has grown its girls’ section to more than 100 players with the help of some of the COGs being coaches.
“We also have Tracey Thornton, one of our inspirational women, who has now completed her Introduction to Coaching and helps me coach the walking football.
“COGs is not just about playing, we are creating coaches and women’s football supporters too.”