Ben Gilby speaks to Helston Athletic’s Sasha Sparkes, who is quite probably the greatest woman goal scorer that you may not have heard of.
Sasha Sparkes is a player with a quite phenomenal scoring record for Helston Athletic. A tally of 135 goals in 42 games of which this season 32 goals have been scored in just 12 games. Sasha is one player that is worthy of huge respect.
We started our conversation with the Cornish hotshot telling me about her background: “I come from a big happy family! I was born June 24th 1991 in Truro. We lived in Penryn and then moved to Falmouth when I was four. I’ve lived in Falmouth ever since. Falmouth for me is more than just a base, it’s the definition of home. It really is a beautiful place to live. I consider myself very lucky that I am only a two minute drive away from the beaches.”
Sasha moved on to fill us in on her footballing story: “I’ve been playing football since I was about 10 years old. I have my Dad to thank for that. He has always been very passionate about Smara (my twin sister) and myself playing the sport. We have always been quite sporty since we were little. We lived across the road from a field and any chance my dad wasn’t working he would take us over to the field and practice our basics. Kicking, dribbling, all of the stuff needed that I use today. It was in that field where we got spotted from a manager from Falmouth Town Girls U12’s.”
“We weren’t long with Falmouth Town U12’s as our friends played for Falmouth United U12’s, inevitably being young we wanted to play with our friends. Our manager Steve Oliver was a fantastic coach. It was there that we won the league four seasons on the trot. We were unstoppable. After that, for a couple of seasons, football kind of just halted. Back then there wasn’t really much of a transition from U14’s to U16’s. My friends and I played for the school team but not many games were organised so we found ourselves back in the field where it all started playing BUTT slaps or World Cup.”
“I finally turned 16 and I was introduced to the ladies game. What a difference! Seven a side to eleven a side. Thirty minute halves to forty-five minute halves. It was a huge transition but one that I welcomed. I played for Penryn Ladies for a couple of seasons and we did well, but like most ladies teams after a while the team folded. It was there that I had a phone call from Neil Phillips, a manager that played a massive role in the player I am today. He asked me to join Falmouth Town Ladies as he had a good set up with lots of decent players signing on. I signed on, worked hard and that team was one of the best teams I have ever played for. Neil worked us hard at training, hours and hours of hill sprints, bleep tests and two touch football. At the time I hated the training but the team he created and the fitness, skill and stamina of all on the pitch was truly noticeable against other teams. It was here I was partnered with Katy Barker up the top and what a truly awesome partnership we had. It was either one or the other for league top goal scorer through the seasons, we didn’t mind who got it as long as it was someone from our team.”
“I can’t remember which way around it was, but between Falmouth Town Ladies and Truro City Ladies we became 1st and 2nd in the league and were promoted to Premier Division. With players going off to university and other reasons, Neil took the chance to merge the two clubs together at Truro City. It was very hard putting the two together as we all played differently. It didn’t take long though before we started gelling as a team and our first season in the Premier Division we became league runners up. What a great finish after being promoted. It was then where players decided the travel wasn’t worth the next division. Being all the way down in Cornwall and being hundreds of miles away from top teams its hard finding committed players to travel on a Sunday.”
“I had a season out after that and that’s when Helston Ladies was formed by Stu Massey and with the help of Charlotte Sparkes-Bond. Helston had great facilities and a great pitch. Steve Massey was always helping to run the line for us and supporting us in any way that he could. Stu drove us to success and we became League Cup Winners and League runners-up. For whatever reasons, Helston then decided to fold and I had a season out. As any player would say I hung up my boots, everyone knows it’s never for very long.”
“My sister signed for Illogan Ladies and I would go to support them. It didn’t take very long for myself to miss football and I signed for a few games. My heart was still with Helston and its set up, so when I got a message from Paul Parfitt that he was setting the women’s team back up, we had a chat over coffee and I liked the plans he had for the team. I signed for the team and that brings us up to present day.”
We then moved onto Sasha’s incredible goal scoring record. For her, part of the story is down to circumstances: “Helston lost the battle to enter a higher league when the club was first set up. The appeal caught attention from Richard and Warren from Cornwall FA who supported Helston with their case, but unfortunately it was unsuccessful. This then meant we had to enter the Cornwall Women’s Football League (CWFL) at the bottom of the football tier. I’m an experienced player and have been playing for 18 years and found my experience within that league beneficial to these statistics. My role as a striker is to put the ball in the back of the net, regardless of the team and the ability in front of me. That being said, I score against everyone I’ve played against regardless of their perceived level, teams such as Illogan, FXU, Saltash and Marine Academy Plymouth in the FA Cup. I have the ability to score at all levels.”
Like any good striker though, Sasha recognises that she is only as good as the structure of the club she is part of and the players who surround her: “The set up I have at Helston is like no other team I have played for. It’s honestly incredible the facilities and coaching that is offered at Helston. Firstly the manager Paul Parfitt puts the women first in everything he does. He makes sure the morale in the team is up, organises all the matches, the training, all of the social media posts, picks the team every week and liaising with our coach Martyn Pennington who is also a massive part of Helston. Paul and Martyn are a great team who work so well together. They make the smooth running of the club look very easy and behind the scenes I see how much effort they both put in and it reflects on the team. They personally give me constructive criticism after every match which I look forward to in order to improve my game, without it I wouldn’t learn to be a better player.”
“On the pitch, I’m only as good as the service I receive, which is bloody brilliant. I honestly play with the nicest bunch of women who know exactly how I play. Without my team mates I wouldn’t be able to get to the stats I have today.”
The obvious next question to ask though is, with such an incredible goal scoring record and goals-to-game ratio, does Sparkes have any desire to play at a higher level?
“I’m very happy with where I am at with Helston Women,” Sasha replies, “Our goals are to win this league and get promoted and then win the league after that. This plan is near enough in the distant future but not so far we can’t reach it. I believe a back to back promotion is a sufficient challenge for myself and Helston Women as a club as a starting point. This season we did very well in the FA Cup and we played FA Women’s National League side Southampton FC Women at home – what a tie that was – I hope next season we can go through the rounds and at least make the First Proper Round of the FA Cup.”
Earlier in our conversation, Sasha mentioned playing football with her twin sister Smara as a child. The pair are still going strong together today at Helston: “I absolutely love playing with my twin. All of my success with football I have shared with her. We have quite the trophy hoard! Smara is quite modest and doesn’t actually know how much of a good player she is, I think that’s a great quality to have, she doesn’t need to boast as her football does the talking.”
“She’s played sweeper for many years and I trust her back there with any challenges she faces! Smara is one of the most technically gifted players in the team and her main strength is her faultless ability when she has a ball at her feet. She is one of the best sweepers I have ever come across along with Tyler Mathews from Callington Ladies. When they played together at Truro City they were a force to be reckoned with.”
With Sasha well into her eighteenth year playing the game, I wondered what was the greatest challenge she has faced in that time? “My biggest challenge I would say for myself would be the transition from U16’s to Ladies football. It was a massive thing to do and adapt to the adult game. Luckily U16’s in this day don’t have to worry too much about it. I think there is now a great stepping stone for the girls especially at Helston Women where next season we look to set up a development squad to introduce the adult game to them.”
So far we have heard what an impressive and ambitions club Helston Athletic are, but I wondered what specifically makes them so forward looking and what they are aiming for in the next few seasons.
“Our club ambition of the team is to win the Cornwall League, then take promotion and win the South-West Women’s Football League (SWWFL), progress further in the FA Cup next season and win a County Cup in the next few seasons. This we hope will then create a platform for the best local players to come to us, meaning they will not have to travel to other clubs to meet the expectations. I would love to play alongside Keri-Ann Moxom again, but she felt the need to travel to fulfil her ambitions of playing in the SWWFL. I believe when Helston gets promoted this season in to the SWWFL we will have the very best infrastructure that meets the needs of the very best local players as well as retaining the current players by matching their personal desires and pushing them to their targets. The ambition of Paul Parfitt and Paul Hendy is to turn Helston in to a powerhouse for women’s football in Cornwall. It is extremely exciting and inspiring to be part of, let alone captain the team!”
Whilst Cornwall has not quite suffered as badly as some other areas in the coronavirus pandemic, there have still been a number of restrictions imposed in the area. Sasha explains how it has impacted on the club: “It has had a massive impact on grassroots sports, but apart from the most recent lockdowns we still managed play some matches previous to that. All of the rules and regulations were adhered too and it wasn’t the same as what I’m used to but I was just glad that we could be together as a team and still play football. Lockdown 2.0 was hard as we just came together as a team and really gelled together and then we were told there would be a four week lockdown and grassroots football would be suspended. But our manager Paul Parfitt set us the ‘Lockdown Challenge’. Paul challenged us all to run at least 1km a day and with that he would donate to the Helston and Lizard Foodbank for every player that completed the challenge. Paul Hendy our chairman and Sandra Bell personally matched this also by donating a Christmas hamper to the foodbank for every player who completed it. We ended up running 400km which is a great effort by all.”
We ended the conversation by exploring what makes Sasha tick as a person. In terms of her own sporting heroes, despite having been an unashamed Red, her real hero can be found in Cornwall.
“To be honest with you, I used to be a glorified Liverpool fan and used to follow players back in 2010 when the likes of Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso played (world great players). But for me my footballing hero is a bit closer to home. My dad, as cliché as that sounds. He was a great player when he was younger. I hear many of stories about how good of a player he was. He’s taught me everything I know and has always been there for me and Smara, the cold Sunday mornings, the summer football tournaments, the football night’s out and presentations, Cornwall trials and the training sessions. He hasn’t missed one of our games, and believe me that is a lot of games! I owe a lot of my football success to him.”
Off the pitch, life for Sasha revolves around her job and partner Ellie: “I’ve worked in the cash office for Tesco’s for just over 10 years and I love my job. I have the perfect work hours and having the weekends off means I can still play football without having to get it covered. When I’m not at work or playing football I’m normally in the gym or out running. I’ve always liked to take care of myself. Having a partner who also likes to do them things is a bonus also. Our cheat days are Saturdays so we always like to find a new restaurant that we haven’t been to around Cornwall and get ourselves a well-deserved coffee and cake.”
The conversation concluded by looking at the goals that Sasha is setting herself for on and off the pitch over the coming few years.
“Well in five years’ time I shall be 34, and not sure I will be as agile as I am now. My plan in the future personally is to start a family with my partner Ellie. There will be a time that I hang up my boots and stop playing the sport. Before I do, there are a lot of achievements left that I would like to contribute too. Ellie also plays for the team and is a great centre back. I’m worried for her little head with how many headers she connects too. We will absolutely be there on the side line cheering on Helston Women and supporting them in any way that we can.”