Lady Clarets making history in FA Cup
While the men's team, under Sean Dyche, have set a series of milestones in his five years in charge, Burnley FC Ladies have also made huge strides, in the space of just over 12 months.
The Lady Clarets make history on Sunday when they play in the first round proper of the SSE Women’s FA Cup for the first time, as they travel to the north east to face Alnwick Town at St James.
And it is another marker on a journey they hope will one day see them emulate their male counterparts and compete in the top flight, in the Women’s Super League.
Previously functioning separately from Burnley FC, the strategic decision was made prior to the 2016/17 season to bring the Girls’ and Ladies’ team in house, within the operations of the club’s charity, Burnley FC in the Community.
A new Female Football Development Officer, Matt Bee, was recruited, with the aim to restructure the club and to offer sustainable support for the long term.
Applying on and off the pitch initiatives for girls and women, including the Female Football Hub and Premier League Girls sessions, it is a testament to the staff that Burnley is seeing a growth in hunger and desire to play women’s football.
The club, which now engages with over 500 women, one of the largest programmes in the North West of England, has set out to create a team that is credible yet inspiring for the next generation of girls.
Bee said: “The first 12 months when I took the role was about building a platform for more girls in the area to play.
“Burnley FC in the Community is central to that.
“And it made sense to provide a base for the first team, so the first three or four months was about raising the professionalism, and the club has made massive strides.
“We have a new club ethos, and there is pride in playing for, and having the ambition to play for the first team.
“The target in our first season was to remain competitive, and we did that, with a record points tally, and all the players bought into the vision.
“This season, the ambition is to win promotion. We are in the fifth tier, and ultimately we want to climb higher.
“We are aware of what we have to do, and there is still a lot of hard work ahead, but the badge on our shirt demands a level of expectation, which is crucial.”
One year on and the club’s initiatives have fast proven their effectiveness in the development of grassroots players right up to the first team.
The side that will run out at Alnwick, will be a mix of youth and experience, with Bee’s ethos as a coach to give young players a chance: “We’re progressing in a fantastic direction with a great mix of both experienced players and young players. We are confident they have a big future ahead of them.
“We wanted a pathway, which is crucial, so the girls in the different age groups can see a route to the first team.
“We looked at what we had internally rather than bringing people in, and it is important for the longevity of the club - we have to have players coming through.
“It’s important to have experienced players as well, for that know how and calming influence under pressure, but younger players have that energy - Georgia Payton has done very well, Evie Priestley had a really good spell last season and is getting back to her best.
“We have players coming through, and down the age groups, we want that Burnley FC DNA, that all the teams have similar aspects.”
Bee is well aware of the increased focus on the women’s game, helped by the exploits of the England team, of which Burnley-born Rachel Brown-Finnis was a trailblazer in an international career taking in over 16 years.
Manchester City are certainly taking women’s football seriously, pouring great resources into making their side a huge success, and Bee admitted: “It’s the best time the women’s game has ever been in, the FA has made a lot of changes, and the support for the game and credibility is growing.
“Manchester City are going in a really good direction, and hopefully English teams will continue to be successful in Europe as well.
“The key for us, is we would like to get to the stage where girls look up to the Burnley first team, in the same way they do Manchester City and Arsenal.
“It is a dream, and we are very grounded, we know the work we have to do, but you have to have ambitions.”
Taylor Gregson, who plays in Burnley FC Girls and Ladies’ first team has come up through the club’s development scheme, and said, “This club means a lot to me – it’s the only place I’ve ever wanted to play. It has undergone some big changes in the last year and this has massively improved the quality of all aspects of the club. The future is bright and I’m excited to be part of it!
“Generally this has been the best time I’ve had at the club, the standard of coaching, the atmosphere, even through the younger age groups, which I coach as well, all the groups have Community coaches, and overall it has improved the whole club.
“The men’s team playing in the Premier League over a longer period has helped as well, with the badge being seen by more people.
“I’ve been with the club since I was eight, 15 years, and it’s just more professional.”
And ahead of the biggest game in her time with the club, she can’t wait for kick-off: “I’m looking forward to it, I’ve been here a long time and it’s the first time I’ve been involved in something as important as this.
“It’s an exciting time, the older players are learning a lot, as well as the younger players, from the coaching we are now receiving, and are getting better and better.
“We’re creating a bit of history for the club.”
The FA is looking to shed light on women and girls’ football as part of its Gameplan for Growth - a pledge to double participation of women and girls in football by 2020.
And Matt Pounder, Head of Sport at Burnley, knows the importance of those programmes: “Every programme we deliver as Burnley FC in the Community is about being self-financing, so we’re not reliant.
“There is the Premier League girls’ football programme, with money from the Premier League, which allows us to go out into the local community and make a difference with programmes.
“It gives us a bit of a financial incentive to drive things forward.
“It ensures that professionalism, and means we can put resources into coaching, rather than volunteers, who have done a great job down the years, but we can provide trained coaches and improve standards.”