Above: Caister FC 2021/22. Photo: Caister FC.
In this first of a two-part feature, Caister manager Sophie Gillett and captain Hayley Muir, speak to Darrell Allen (17/2/22).
Caister FC manager Sophie Gillett has been involved in the sport since the age of four, and has had some truly memorable experiences she takes up the story.
“I then went on and played youth football at the age of eight. I was scouted by Norwich City and from the age of nine to 16 I played for the Norwich City Centre of excellence girls programme. At the time if I’m honest I didn’t really appreciate what I had but looking back now the opportunities to travel the country and parts of Europe on tour was fantastic we had a quality side and beat everyone.
“My favourite memory was going to Manchester and playing at United’s old training ground, and as a United fan respectively scoring against Liverpool in a tournament was up there as my favourite goal! With my time as a youth player I represented Gorleston Girls for eight years and also played for Norfolk girls for four.
“I gained many sport coaching badges and now because of that I am coach and manager of not only Caister Ladies, but also Gorleston Rangers u15s girls too.
Captain Hayley Muir is a legend of the local game in Norfolk with a career which began over 40 years ago.
“At the age of about nine, I got my first ever minutes playing in a proper match for the team my brother played for as there were no opportunities for girls wanting to play and the ‘no girls allowed in football’ was in those days ‘normal’. In order to be on that pitch I had to pretend to be a boy and my team mates were told to call me ‘Harry’. I loved it and as I ran on to that pitch my Dads’ words of “Get Stuck in!” rang loud and clear and I certainly did just that!
“When I was almost 13 (Back in the day women’s team did exist, but you needed to be 13 years old to join), my mum saw an advert in the local paper , an Ex Women’s England footballer was starting a new team called Norwich Ladies and trials were being held in Earlham Norwich, for any girls 13 and over and women looking to play.
“My dad took me and I got offered a place, I had four-five seasons with Norwich, we were very successful. We won all our local leagues, before joining the Chiltern League (lots of traveling) and if my memory serves me right we won that too! Our team was extremely strong. I played alongside three England internationals and one Welsh. We played our way into the W.F.A Cup Final, our opponents were Doncaster Belles.
“It’s such a long time ago, I missed out on the final due to illness, but I am sure we won! (They did, 4-3, and below is the photo to prove it!) I do remember our team being invited to the City Hall to collect our medals. I won league honours at U16, but can’t remember many games concerning that.
“Illness, two operations for a swollen kidney saw me stop playing at the age of 18/19. I didn’t then return to football for some 20 years, I joined the newly started Sprowston Ladies. I enjoyed several seasons there before moving to Gorleston Ladies and finally now onto Caister Ladies, for whom I’m very proud to be captain of”
After incredible careers, both now find themselves spearheading operations at the newly formed Caister, The Step eight club are in their first season. Sophie was quick to praise the work of her assistant coach Matthew.
“It is our first season at Caister and although many outside the club may see me as the Manager, I lead and am the head coach for the ladies too. So I do everything from match preparation, admin after the game, to training and wouldn’t want any part of my role to change. Matthew assists with the running of the team and has been a great coach in leading sessions to support the goalkeepers”
Hayley’s role is very much one of leadership. “It’s our very first season as Caister Ladies, my role as captain is to lead by example and to support our management and squad in all they need or do”
In the Norfolk scene much a much talked about story is how the bulk of the former Gorleston squad are now at Caister just a few miles up the road, whilst Gorleston now have a new team and are going well in Step eight themselves to, Sophie told me her group are very happy to have made the move.
“I think it’s fair to say that publicly its been brought to people’s attention that we weren’t happy at our previous club, as a team lots had said they wanted to leave or were looking elsewhere and despite what some may say, this team is built on a foundation of friendship and to keep that together was more important than anything else.
“There were a few things mentioned from a third party on social media and at the time I was approached by four different clubs about going over as a team. However, the one thing that stood out for me with Caister was the one club motto, how approachable they were, how, yes football is about success but it’s the foundation of the club from youth through to the first team.
“We would be treated as part of the Caister ‘family’, on board with all decisions and given the same opportunities as the men. It was also lockdown and had club representatives checking in on players they’ve never met to check they were OK, that to me spoke volumes, being at a club who genuinely cares about the club as a whole and the interests of their players.
“So with all this in mind and a meeting with myself, Matthew and Hayley and a tour of the facilities we spoke to the girls about wanting to keep together and it went from there and I’d go as far to say best decision we’ve ever made.”
Hayley was also quick to support Gillie in confirming the right decision to join Caister was made. “Caister happened because of 21 squad players feeling frustrated, let down, dictated to and filled with false promises at Gorleston. Our manager Gillie, a green since a child whose life was Gorleston and who’s family have been involved in the club all her life had the strength of character and the guts to listen to her players and take the appropriate steps to keep her well established squad together by moving us to Caister.
“Had she not have done that the team would have folded, of that I am sure. Gillie, myself and Matthew were invited for a tour at Caister and within seconds I felt at home. Gillie put all the blood sweat and toil in!”
The Norfolk Women’s Football scene was going to include divisions at Steps seven to nine of the pyramid system, but this was reduced to eight close to the start of the season, I asked Gillie if she was happy with the decision.
“Personally, I’m pleased about if I am honest, People and teams moaned that we should be in Division One let alone Division Three. I think being in Division Three would have been hard. It would mean two seasons of promotions back to back before we got to the stage of Division One.
“Division Two was where the league respectively placed us despite other options and from the lack of of confidence, results from the previous year I think it was the right call. Others may disagree and looking at the results I wouldn’t blame them. However they’ve not walked in our shoes or been through the experiences we have had as a team, set back, knock backs, lack of respect for us individually and as a team and comments on social media.
“For me the fresh start, rebuilding, re grouping and attracting new players has been a blessing and I am so proud of our journey to get to this point, so yeah Division Two for me was the right call. At the end of the day you have to enjoy what you do, we don’t get paid for this, and to be enjoying our football again and growing as a team in confidence is more important than others opinions.”
Hayley also supported the decision to play at step eight. “Personally, I was very pleased on finding out we were to start in Division Two, the girls are more than worthy at competing at this level, although I know their confidence took a knock at Gorleston. The season so far for this squad has been brilliant, not only because of results but because of the team atmosphere, the improvement in players’ confidence, all working to better themselves, individually for the sake of their team. Couple that with brilliant, well organised training sessions from Gillie and Matthew working with our goalkeepers too and the easiness of Caister Football Club as a whole, things are going really well.”
Part Two of the article will be published on Sunday morning when Sophie and Hayley reflect in detail on Caister’s first season so far and look ahead to the day’s big England v Spain match just up the road from them in Norwich.