“Too many people say they support equality but do nothing about it.”
Jacquie Agnew was the driving force behind a women’s football programme which inspired her local English football club to make history with pay equality.
When I started my career in women’s football, the sport was so intensely male-dominated it refused to take us seriously. More than twenty years on, I see a game that at long last is embracing women and equality and giving female players the credit they deserve.
I felt at times during my managerial career that my gender was both a handicap and an enormous selling point for my club Lewes FC. Being a woman in a male-dominated environment such as football can be a tough space to be in; you must be agile, and you must be comfortable feeling uncomfortable as you push for things in the name of progress. I have always been driven by the need to make progress, even though the pain and struggle to not only be heard but taken seriously, takes its toll. But it’s because of the things you achieve and the coming together of like-minded and progressive people that opportunities are born and glass ceilings are smashed.
In July 2017, Lewes FC became the first football club in the world to have the same playing budget for its women and men players. In life, generally, too many people say they support equality, but do nothing about it. Lewes FC is different in that regard; after much soul-searching and debate, the club decided to pioneer pay parity for its players, and with that decision created a first, and a new normal. With such momentous change came the highs, lows, dramas and sacrifices, and throughout the process you know that with each battle you fight in the name of equality, you will have the scars to show for it.
We’ve come a long way since I built the club’s – now successful – women’s section from the bottom up. A generation ago, the taboos were more deeply ingrained than I ever believed possible. And the lack of opportunities for female players was dismal; those who governed our ‘beautiful game’ showed a total disregard for the women’s game at any level. I don’t think I made myself too popular with many as I tried to pave the way to be treated the same as our male counterparts. At national level, it was obvious the senior administrators were only interested in the men’s game, and even the departments which specifically governed the women’s game were blind to the benefits of local-level development and the aspirations of local clubs.
When Lewes FC asked me to establish and manage the women’s section back in 2002, my response probably set the tone for the rest of my football career: “If we don’t play on the same pitch as the men, I’m not coming”. They did agree to this demand, but there were still plenty of other battles to fight both on and off the field of play, to ensure what we did was taken seriously and respected. I wanted to set the tone for how we did things at the club.
In the early years having access to all the things our men’s team did was essential to progress. Things such as full access to the main pitch, training facilities and use of the club house. My philosophy was for us to operate at the level above, simply because when we got there nothing would feel alien and then we would just re-set the dial and go again, and that is exactly what we did and is still a key part to our success.
During my time as the Women’s First Team Manager my number one goal was to get us promoted into the top flight of the women’s pyramid. I remember looking up the table and thinking that’s where I want us to end up. We built steadily on every year’s achievement to get promotion to the FA Women’s Premier League - only to learn the FA would prevent us continuing this way. In 2014 the FA wanted to disband the then Premier League, to focus solely on a restrictive and elitist Super League. To counter this, I launched the ‘Every Player Counts’ campaign which was spearheaded by Lewes FC and had the support of 24 clubs across the country. It was tough, but we did make the FA open up promotion by merging two leagues to create a set up with 72 clubs. This meant the Premier League name was kept, as was a level of financial support and importantly, the ability for clubs to progress to the Super League on merit, through promotion.
In the summer of 2017, the club presented its community credentials on an international stage with the creation of ‘Equality FC’; a club within a club that makes the game more accessible to everyone in the community. Among many activities, it presents the women’s game on an equal footing to the men’s.
Diversity in all its shapes and colours is where the magic happens - and as one of my mentors used to say: ‘Fortune favours the bold’. The impact of Equality FC is still being played out, but I have no doubt that in the longer term, it will shift the mindsets and conversations being held in the boardrooms of football clubs. My hope is that women will be seen everywhere in football and that soon they will make up half the big decision-makers – it will become the norm! My advice to those who face similar struggles: ignore every set-back and start with the end in mind. Never look back, always look forward.
I’m immensely proud to have been part of the journey at Lewes FC as a Manager and member of the Board of Directors. Crucially, with the adoption of Equality FC, the club retains its focus firmly on the community it serves, with an ethos that offers everyone of any age, race, gender or orientation to play and watch the game without prejudice.
I always said I wanted to help the women’s first team at Lewes FC to get into the top flight of the women’s game in England, and it’s brilliant that the team now stands on the verge of achieving that dream.
Jacquie Agnew / Women’s Football Champion - Lewes FC
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