Above: Luci Middleton in action for Long Stratton. Photo: Darren Gilham.
Long Stratton attackers Samantha Walker and Luci Middleton speak to Darrell Allen about (27/2/22).
Sam wears the number 10 shirt and joined Long Stratton from Bungay Town in 2018, she began our chat by introducing herself. “I’ve been with Long Stratton for four seasons now, but always knew of them prior to that as a decent up and coming team in the area.
I took over as captain from the famous Jenny Head (now Nichols) when she retired her at the end of the 2018/2019 season. Adam Race took over as coach for the 2019/2020 season and as they say, the rest is history.”
Luci’s football career is one of over 20 years and has an impressive CV. “I have played football for 21 years. I was involved with Norwich City from the age of four until 14 when I moved to Hethersett to begin playing ladies’ football. I moved to Norwich after a County Cup Final at 16 then followed my manager to a newly formed North Walsham before retiring at 24 with a head injury that I had suffered with since 16. Three years later and I went to watch Long Stratton in a friendly, ended up playing and signing that day! I only became a striker when I was 16, playing on the right side of midfield for 12 years.”
The pair agreed that, on the whole it has been a successful campaign for the club so far. “I think it’s fair to say we’ve had a good share of success this season, but we’ve also had a few knockbacks in fixtures we would have liked to have won to secure a more solid position in the top half of the table.
As a squad, I think we are working hard to cement a winning mentality in order to finish the season on a high. I think we have some really fabulous players and a group of ladies who can grind out some tough results when we face difficult fixtures so I have high expectations for the team going forward.”
Luci agreed.”‘We train hard regularly with good numbers and a fantastic management team. We’re challenging technically with some of the top teams in the league but have had some unfortunate results. At the beginning of the season, I was just happy to be back on the pitch and told myself I wouldn’t let results or performances bother me but, after playing one game, I could see I was surrounded by determined, talented players and I wanted to win. I think with the talent within our squad, we should be challenging amongst the top half of the league but results haven’t gone our way at times.”
Back in January, Long Stratton controversially exited the Norfolk Women and Girls League Cup on penalties after a 3-3 draw at Fakenham Town but the cup rules were not followed as the tie went straight to penalties when extra time should have taken place.
Luci revealed that the situation has been remedied. “The match is being replayed on Sunday 27th February. We had a few players out with injuries and some carrying some so I’m excited for the replay. It’s anyone’s game as both teams will be determined to win and will be really up for it. I love a gritty, leave everything out there kind of game, it suits me perfectly so I am really buzzing to get out there and do the club proud. We are of course really happy with the decision to replay and hopefully, we get the result we want.”
Sam also gave her thoughts on what has been a really difficult situation for all involved. “This was a really difficult situation, but as a squad and with the backing of the wider club we fought and campaigned for what was right. We went toe to toe with Fakenham in the original fixture, and I don’t think anyone can say what would have happened if the game went to extra time, obviously, there was a lot of controversy around the rules being broken and what the right course of action should be, but fortunately, the league and the FA worked together to decide a replay would be the most fair option.
“Obviously, both sides will be going out for a win, and I think it’s anyone’s game at the moment, but we’ll leave everything out there and we’re just thankful that a replay in line with the rules of the league cup has been granted’
Sam then went on to talk about stars of the season so far. “Special mentions have to go firstly to Jody Todd, our goalkeeper, she broke her radius in pre-season and was out of action for a large part of the season. However, she has come back fighting, works harder than ever in training, and has pulled out some incredible saves to keep us in some big fixtures since her return.
“Secondly to Luci Middleton, although she is a Rangers fan which is shocking from her, she really has come on leaps and bounds with the team this season. From missing about 15 sitters in her first game to hitting the back of the net nearly every week, she’s a real asset to the squad. Finally, to Kayleigh Gallant, who is just a top-tier club person, she washes the kit every week, she runs the bar on home games, always the first in and the last out.
“On top of that, she’s an NHS nurse and has had a couple of the roughest years, but throughout, she has remained the most kind-hearted and cheerful person. In all honesty though, I could say something exceptional about all the girls I share a pitch with, they really are a fantastic bunch.”
Luci also acknowledged some of the club’s heroes. “Kate Ransome-Farmer for me has been excellent. She is consistent, strong, creative and has been a key asset for us. Also our captain, Sam Walker. Sam has scored 30 goals so far this season and assisted most of mine! She causes opposition defences issues each game, I’d say she’s the most clinical striker in the league, the stats speak for itself.
“We also have Kayleigh Gallant and Harriet Hunwicks Rush who contribute so much on and off the pitch. They do so much behind the scenes and ensure the successful running of the club from working behind the bar on match days to fundraisers to putting in a shift on the pitch. They’re incredible!”
Luci identified her stand-out moments of the season so far starting with “…our 15-1 cup win in December. It was the best we’ve played as a team and the scoreline reflects how dominant and clinical we were. Nothing can top Milly Cawcutt’s bullet header against Thorpe though. Highlight of the season for me. I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated a goal quite like that! I honestly just love every second. Training is always so much fun and I’m grateful for every minute I get on the pitch, especially with my injury.”
Sam didn’t have a specific moment but just wanted to emphasize her love of the game. “I’ve just enjoyed being back out playing normal football. I’m a fan of all things football so I’m so happy to see it back and thriving. Long may it continue.”
One of the highlights all round is the ethos at Long Stratton. Sam said: “I think all football clubs are finally seeing a shift in the way their women’s teams are viewed, however at Long Stratton we have always had the backing of the club and the support of our club committee.”
Luci agreed. “Long Stratton is one club. Something I really love is how united all the teams are. Everyone supports everyone. We have some of the youth team players regularly attending our matches which is so lovely to see.”
Luci also highlighted her connections to Norfolk’s most famous women’s football product, Lauren Hemp. “I’ve been fortunate enough to know Lauren since she was an academy player at Norwich alongside my sister, Hope and I also played with Lauren’s sister, Amy, when I was at North Walsham so I know how much hard work and dedication Lauren has put into her career and it’s amazing to watch her play professionally and see her succeed.”
The pair concluded our conversation by outlining targets for the campaign. “I want to see us finish strong in the top half of the table,” said Sam. “I’d also like to see us progress to the next round of the cup after our replayed fixture. On a personal note, as a striker I just love to score goals, so I’d like to finish in the top five of the Division One’s top goal scorers chart.”
Luci is also aiming high and gunning for goals. “I’d like to score 30 goals. My Year Five class set me a target of 20 goals this season so I’m happy to have reached that, however, I think I’ve got a few more in me! I’d like to assist more too. I’ve always been that typical number nine, but not sure how many more years of pace I have left so I’m definitely looking to improve my creativity and assist a lot more.
“As a team, I want to keep winning. We’re currently undefeated in 2022 and it would be incredible to keep that good form up. We also recently managed back-to-back clean sheets for the first time since February 2019 which just shows you how solid our defence is. Regular clean sheets are definitely something we’d like to aim for as a whole team.”