SWINDON Town Ladies have targeted a place in the Premier League within the next three years as they look to make Wiltshire a hotbed for women’s football.
While clubs such as Bristol Academy, Oxford and Reading have revelled in the growing appeal of the sport among the region’s female population over recent years, Town have been left behind somewhat - struggling against a lack of funding and the difficulty of attracting talented youngsters away from more refined set-ups along the M4 corridor.
But times are changing and ambitions growing. Following the amalgamation of the senior club side with Swindon Town’s girls’ Centre for Football Excellence, a blueprint for long-lasting success has been implemented at the County Ground. It’s already starting to take hold.
When the development centre was originally set up four years ago, programme leader Shane Hewlett and his band of dedicated coaches had just 65 enthusiastic girls to nurture. This year 160 turned up to trial for the various age group sides, ranging from under 10s to under 16s, with a natural pathway to senior football starting to emerge following the merger with Swindon Town Ladies.
They currently sit in Premier League South West, a tier below the Premier League and two off the Women’s Super League - and the ultimate goal for Hewlett & Co.
The growth and size of their grand plan is remarkable, given the fact the girls’ development programme is not funded by the club and relies on fundraisers and generous benefactors, as well as a tireless but small-scale staff, to continue. From humble beginnings, Swindon’s girls now play and hold their own against the likes of Tottenham, QPR, Reading and Southampton.
However, Hewlett is confident the hard work will pay off as he and his coaches look to inspire at grassroots level.
“Four years ago we were coming back from the Gothia Cup. We’d had a team from all over the country playing for us - Chelsea, Bristol, Hampshire - and we decided there was a gap for there to be a development programme within Swindon,” he said.
“In the first year we had a really tough time in the first season, where we lost a lot of games, but it’s progressed every year.
“It’s been magnificent.
“We don’t get any funding at all, other than we have two companies in particular that have really got behind us - Trak Employment and Verelogic. They’ve supported the programme not just financially but advice as well, and they’ve been instrumental in the last two to three years.
“We’ve just amalgamated with Swindon Town Ladies and we’re absolutely buzzing about that. There’s a lot that’s said about finding England players. For us, it’s about making sure we develop players enough to go on and play for the national team but the only way we’ll do that is to get a local football in this county into the highest league in women’s football. That’s our aim - to get Premier League football for Swindon Town Ladies and then to progress from there and hopefully into the Super League.
“If we can get into those levels then hopefully our girls have more chances of being recognised by England.
“We’re really pushing to be in the Premier League within three years.”
In pursuit of their lofty goals, Swindon have appointed a new first-team manager in Steve Robertson, who will work alongside Kim Reeves and Hewlett, with Jason Brizzell taking charge of the development squad.
“We’re really pleased with those appointments and hope those two guys can steer us,” said Hewlett.
“They’ve got some great ideas. We’re out there trying to sign players from bigger clubs. There is no budget whatsoever but we want people to be inspired by our story and think that there’s a group of people at Swindon Town who want to be somewhere.”
Hewlett certainly feels the support from the community is there and, in time and with on-field success, he is confident funding from the club and sponsors will quickly generate.
But it’s not just about making the Swindon Town Ladies first team a success. Hewlett points out that if the senior side clamber into the top two or three divisions nationally, the drip-down effect will spark the area’s women’s and girls’ football scene into life.
The club are actively encouraging that sort of growth already, with a tie-up with Highworth Town meaning the Hellenic League side will be able to start an under 10s girls team from next season. And more is to come, according to Hewlett.
“It takes a huge amount of time but we don’t get funding to run the programme, Swindon Town run the programme because we want to. We want to make a difference to girls’ football. We want to be looking back in 10 years’ time and saying we started something,” he said.
“Swindon Town have been languishing in the lower leagues. Every other team in this region have teams playing in higher leagues, Wiltshire has always been a county which has always struggled to get teams into the higher leagues. We want to change that.
“We want to inspire girls to want to play at the highest level. That isn’t going off to play for Bristol Academy and Oxford, that’s playing for us. That’s actually playing for Swindon in the highest league. We don’t want to keep producing players to go off and play for other counties and other teams, we want this county to be proud of something and we really feel if we can get the ladies up to the next level we’ll get support from Swindon.
“Already we’ve had fans follow our ladies’ Twitter and Facebook pages.
“It’s not just about taking all of the best players. Next weekend we’re going down to Highworth Town to help set up an under 10s team next year. We’re sending down seven or eight girls to help them. It’s not just about Swindon Town. The fact is, if Swindon Town go up the leagues and we get into the Premier League, the fall-out of that will be that other local teams move up leagues.
It’s our plan to establish women’s football in this county and look back in years to come and be proud of it.
Over the next two weeks, around 120 youngsters will try out for the Centre for Football Excellence. Next month, the under 12s, 13s and 15s will head out to the world’s biggest youth tournament - the Gothia Cup in Sweden. In May, the centre celebrated their first England international - Carolayne Byrom - who had been with the programme since the age of eight.
For a four-year career it’s a remarkably impressive CV. If Hewlett and his staff have it their way, however, this is only just the beginning.
“Bristol and Oxford are established academies that have been running for years and receive a huge amount of funding. For us, we’re still in the infancy of our time,” he said.
“We want to be established and be recognised as a talent pathway and for us now, people are suddenly realising Swindon Town is the place we want to join.
“We’ve got girls coming in from Bristol, from Oxford, from Gloucester to trial at our centre this year. We’re really positive that in the future we can have teams we can be proud of and put Swindon Town Ladies on the map.”