International Surrey Women’s Football: Offering Opportunities & Breaking Down Barriers

At the weekend, it was announced that Impetus were sponsoring the coaches polo shirts for the International Surrey Women’s Football (ISWF) team. But what is the ISWF? Ben Gilby chats to Danny Clarke, president of International Surrey Football (ISF) about their women’s representative team which they aim to launch later this year to play against other counties and potentially non FIFA teams. We also discuss what their selection process involves and their aims over the medium term future.

The International Surrey Football women’s team is a newly established entity which was launched in order to try and bring more county representative football to Surrey.

Clarke outlined more about the ISF: “The International Surrey Football women’s team is the second team launched by International Surrey Football (ISF), organisers of the only county representative football team for Surrey. I founded the team as a means of promoting Surrey’s local footballers to a new platform and providing them a means of facing new opportunities away from just club football.”

“Historically men and women’s county football was fairly commonplace in the early 20th century, and the Surrey FA organised many teams to play against other county FAs, but as time went on there had been gradually fewer and fewer teams, under the FAs umbrella, less than a dozen of the FA’s fifty-one county FAs organise county women’s teams, a similar number organise Under 18 and Under 16 county teams, and only a handful organise senior men’s teams, with only the three military FAs, Army, Air Force, Navy as well as the Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man organising teams for every category. This has left a large number of counties without representative football opportunities for players once they leave school (where under 18s and below is organised by the English Schools FA). Especially in Surrey’s case, Kent, Essex, Sussex, Middlesex, and the neighbouring Army FA all organise women’s representative teams, meaning we’re virtually surrounded by potential opposition we’re not yet tapping into.”

“International Surrey Football was created as a means to bridge that gap, with an aim of providing these inter-county football opportunities for players. We don’t get involved in club football activities, and we don’t have any plans to organise our own club competitions or offer a club affiliation that might conflict with the work of the Surrey County FA, it’s not in our interest to work against the Surrey County FA, but instead aim to work with them with the hope of being able to eventually reach an agreement with the Surrey County FA to enter teams into the Southern Counties Competition, for senior county women’s teams and the FA County Youth Cup, for county youth teams. However, we also have other ambitions to compete in non-FIFA (international football outside FIFA’s umbrella) competitions in order to provide even greater competitive opportunities for our senior men and women’s teams.”

In terms of which levels of the women’s football pyramid system the ISF would be looking at in terms of potential players, Danny Clarke is keeping their options open: “We don’t restrict players based on level from signing up to be selected, although the manager will get a final say to decide which players are actually selected for each game. Players of any level are welcome to make themselves available for selection by signing up on our website, we’ve had interest from players from AFC Wimbledon, Woking, Whyteleafe, Dorking Wanderers, Millwall, Alton Town, Molesey, the University of Surrey and more.”

In terms of how widely known within Surrey the ISF are, it is very much early days, but awareness is growing: “By this stage most teams in Surrey are at least aware of us and what we’re doing,” Danny said.

Above: Impetus are proud to be able to sponsor the coaching staff’s polo shirts for the International Surrey Women’s Football Team. Graphic via ISF.

“Some teams we have closer relations with than others and we aim to make ourselves as a benefit, not a hindrance, to club football. We encourage players to prioritise club football where necessary and try to limit how often, if at all, we play during the season. We then actively try to promote clubs to a new audience through our growing social media, going to games, sponsoring matches where possible, and working with clubs when organising our games making ourselves a potential new revenue source for teams that host our home games, especially important given the financial situation many teams have found themselves in this past year.”

I asked Danny whether the ISF Women’s team would potentially be limiting itself to fellow county representative sides. His reply suggests that the county could be looking at opposition from near and far: “Surrey’s opposition will likely fall into one of three categories, clubs, our trial game is expected to be against a club side, this is a good starting point for the team as it means we’ll have plenty of potential opportunity in this category without having to travel as far as we would against teams of the other two categories, it can also help us promote our existence to more teams, players and even fans. Another category would be County FAs, our hope is to eventually be playing regularly against other County FAs. Some of the nearest full fixture opposition for us would be county teams, with the Army FA, Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Middlesex all on Surrey’s border, as well as the island teams of Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man, all theoretically within reach due to existing flight routes from Gatwick and Heathrow. Finally, the third category and perhaps our highest profile opposition, is non-FIFA teams. These are international teams outside FIFA and could be members of the World Unity Football Alliance like us or members of CONIFA (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), although teams that are members of these organisations are more likely to be based overseas currently, with no member of either organisation currently running a women’s team in the UK, we hope the formation of the Surrey women’s team might encourage teams to expand with multiple teams having senior men’s teams based in the UK.”

The coronavirus outbreak has pushed back the first potential game for the Surrey women’s side as Clarke reveals: “At the start of 2020 we partnered with our main sponsors Merrist Wood College, based near Guildford, with the hope of running our first trial game in May 2020, but due to COVID-19, this has been repeatedly pushed back. However, encouraging signs are pointing that an early 2021 trial game is very likely as long as we get the green light of Surrey and Greater London being moved out of Tier 4 into Tier 3 or below. The trial game would see the team play its first game behind closed doors against a club side opposition, we’ll then be aiming to play a game in front of fans in the early summer 2021, details to be confirmed. Our men’s team however which launched in 2018 has played 4 games between 2018 and 2019 against Barawa, the Army FA, and twice against the Chagos Islands.”

The ISF has a coaching staff already in place to start the women’s player selection process, with Danny Clarke identifying them: “The coaching staff is lead by our Director of Women’s Football, John O’Brien, who helped to appoint manager Stephen Statterly and assistant manager Leah Ambridge are responsible for the team. John has a UEFA B license, Futsal Level 2 Goalkeeper Level 2. He has worked with Aldershot Town Youth academy, Arsenal in the Community and spent time coaching in Italy, plus the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire FA Girls Development Centre, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire FA Disability Talent Identification Centre and was Maidenhead United Lead Community Coach and Reading Women’s Reserves Assistant Manager.”

“Stephen has fifteen years of coaching including a UEFA B license. He was Aldershot Town’s Youth Academy coach for three years and was an adult disability coach for three years including two years as the lead disability coach for Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. In addition, he has coached at grassroots level for women’s, men’s and youth football, and 3 years coaching with Bracknell Town youth.”

Above: The International Surrey Women’s Football team shirt. Photo: Ben Gilby.

“Leah has nineteen years of coaching experience, including working with two professional clubs, Watford and QPR boys academy. She managed Hampton and Richmond Borough Ladies for three seasons and has coached at grassroots level for fifteen years and is UEFA B qualified, with work for the FA as a safeguarding tutor.”

In terms of the potential selection and scouting process for women to play for the ISF women’s side, Clarke said: “We operate eligibility criteria similar to what players may expect from international football. Players will need to fall into one of three categories to be eligible for selection, either they were born in Surrey, this can include areas that are considered historical Surrey because they were part of the county of Surrey before 1889 when the county of London was first created using areas of Surrey, Kent, Essex, and Middlesex. Some examples of these historic areas include Southwark, Croydon, Wimbledon, Wandsworth, Lambeth, Clapham, and many more areas which are now part of Greater London. Players with parents or grandparents from these same areas of Surrey are also eligible, and finally, players who may not have been born in Surrey, but now live in Surrey and represented any Surrey-based club at a youth level for at least one season are also eligible.”  

Post coronavirus, I asked Danny what the ISF women’s team schedule would look like. “A full schedule for us would ideally aim to include up to six friendlies, likely spread across the season with some games after the season has finished and followed by a tournament. Typically training would be focused on preparing for tournaments rather than individual friendlies, however, this will be lead more by the players and coaches rather than by the admin side of ISF.”

“There are currently no non-FIFA women’s tournaments, but one of our main ambitions is to participate in a non-FIFA tournament, perhaps even establishing our own to fill the void if other organisations aren’t able to do so, but we’re not aiming to overcrowd a player’s schedule, or that of club football by scheduling a large number of games. We may also look at more ambitious targets including overseas tours involving multiple games as many non-FIFA women’s teams are currently based overseas and not in the UK, but this is something that would need to be looked into before we actively pursued it as we don’t currently have the budget to offer such a great opportunity.”

In terms of the immediate future, I wondered what Danny’s aims were for the ISF women’s team in 2021: “Our main plans in 2021 are to get the team finally together and hit the ground running with some early fixture opportunities with our trial game and our first full debut in front of fans. This would be our minimum target, covering two games, but if we could build on this with additional games we would, but aren’t yet actively arranging any more than these initial games at the moment.”

In terms of the slightly longer term future, “Our primary focus once the team is up and running will be influenced by what the players want us to do,” said Danny.

Above: Putting pride into the shirt – the Surrey International Women’s Football team shirt. Photo: Ben Gilby.

“We doubt we’ll be able to convince the Surrey FA to allow us to participate in the Southern Counties Competition any time soon, but we’d like to see more women’s teams like ours take to the pitch, both expansions of existing men’s teams like Yorkshire, Kernow (Cornwall), or others, and even other independent county teams like us and even look at creating a new regional federation of county teams specifically to help our women’s team to play more games and participate in more localised tournaments, but we’d also like to take the team overseas and play some of the other existing women’s teams not based in the UK like Karen, Darfur, and Matabeleland, based in the US and Africa, but this would be more heavily reliant on sponsors and funding compared to more localised options.”

Danny was delighted to be able to announce the sponsorship deal that sees Impetus branded polo shirts for the International Surrey Women’s Football team’s coaches. He said: “The support of Impetus as part of this sponsorship will help to enhance the work of the Surrey women’s coaching staff with polos that will help them to stand out clearly when working with players and clubs across Surrey. The logo will be seen across Surrey’s website, in our match programmes from our first full home debut and at games, training and more.”

This story looks like having some exciting twists and turns to follow in 2021, and it is one we will be following closely on Impetus.

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