AFC St. Austell: Big Progress In Cornwall

Ben Cooper, assistant coach at tier five AFC St. Austell spoke to ImpetusBen Gilby about the team’s rapid development over the past three years and how they are building towards a place in the FA Women’s National League (14/4/22).

Above: AFC St. Austell 2021/22. Photo: Ben Cooper.

Whilst women’s football in the Cornish town has a longer history, the present AFC St. Austell side has only been going for three years as the club’s assistant coach Ben Cooper takes up the story.

“St. Austell had a women’s team in the early 2000s, but after over a decade without a team, the current management team and squad were set up in 2019 when manager Simon Parnell contacted chairman Jason Powell about starting a team. We were placed in The Earthbound Electrical Women’s Football League for the 2019-20 season.”

That first season of course coincided with the onset of the pandemic. There were mixed feelings during the time. “Covid stopped us in our tracks as we were seven wins from seven in our first season and flying high at the top of the league.

“The long break from March to August 2020 really damaged our momentum and quite a few players’ motivation to play football. Nevertheless, we were granted upwards movement into South West Regional Women’s Football League Western Division and started brightly. However, in January 2021 we were, again, stopped in our tracks with five wins and a draw in six league games. Again, we were granted upwards movement into the tier five South-West Regional Women’s Football League Premier Division for this season.  

The league for us was a bit of an unknown entity. We had some knowledge of the more local teams such as: Torquay, Marine Academy Plymouth, and Bideford. However, the teams further east were relatively unknown to us, so we’ve gone into lots of games not knowing what to expect.

“We have just tried to approach each game in the same way and to play our game each time because we believe in our system and our game model. It’s been a demanding season in the sense that there have been maybe three or four teams that have been almost flawless in their results, and a little bit like the Premier League is now, to finish top of this league you have to be almost perfect. We have a handful of games to go and we are in a good position, but we are still just taking it one game at a time.

Above: AFC St. Austell’s togetherness is a big part of their great progress in such a short period of time. Photo: Cornwall Sports Media, supplied by AFC St. Austell.

“With such disruption in our formative years, the main challenge for us was to keep the team together and motivated. We didn’t have the luxury of a large squad or multiple teams with a few years of playing behind us. We were brand new and there were times when we would struggle to get more than six players to training, let alone games.

“In a way, that could perhaps be one of the reasons why our current squad is such a tight-knit bunch. As a team, they have experienced quite a lot together over the past three years and I definitely think that that has formed some mental toughness and grit in the girls, so perhaps there is a silver lining to it all.

“We have five or six players in our current starting 11 who have been with us since we formed. I would say that between them, they have missed maybe five games. Without them, and everyone else in the squad, we would not be where we are today.”

All Cornish clubs from whatever sport they play face the challenges of long and expensive challenges. Ben highlights how this impacts AFC St. Austell.

“At the present time, one of the biggest challenges is the financial burden of being the most South-Westerly club in our division. Our closest away game is Marine Academy Plymouth, and that is around 50 miles. We’ve had some very early mornings and late nights on away days to the likes of Royal Wootton Bassett in Wiltshire and our final league game of the season will be at Forest Green Rovers in Gloucestershire. The financial implications of these away days are quite substantial. The coach costs alone have doubled our expenditure this season. I’m sure this is only going to get worse with the current fuel prices!

“Another big challenge for us is player recruitment. It is fantastic to see so many new women’s teams popping up everywhere, but in a place like Cornwall, where there is a limited number of players (although this is changing!), it means that the pool of players to choose from is getting smaller and smaller. It’s not been uncommon for us to have a bare 11 or 12 to 13 players on matchday over the past few years and if you look at some of the other teams in Cornwall and Devon, you can see the same thing happening. Combine that with the distance we have to travel, injuries, and covid and you quickly begin to see why matchday squads can be pretty thin on the ground.”

Above: AFC St. Austell’s Izzy Berks and Char Whitmore pictured against Marine Academy Plymouth. Photo: Cornwall Sports Media, supplied by AFC St. Austell.

One of the positives for the club is the strong link between the men’s and women’s teams at AFC St. Austell as Ben outlined.

“We have a fantastic relationship with the men’s team. Our chairman, Jason Powell, has been fantastic from the get-go in ensuring that we are an inclusive club. When Simon Parnell approached Jason about setting up a team in 2019, he had two non-negotiables: the women play on the first team pitch and don’t have to pay a penny to play football, including tracksuits and training, and the chairman stayed true to his word on this.

“The men’s team come and support the women at games and vice versa. We’ve even had a few training sessions together. Our management team across the club are very close and keep in regular contact with one another. One good thing that came from the pandemic was that we created Zoom coaching group where we would share ideas with one another.

“One of the most disappointing things in professional football is seeing the dissociation between the men’s team and the women’s team and there are plenty of examples of that up and down the country- we are proud of how inclusive we are.”

As the team has made such rapid progress in its three-year history with two promotions seeing them move up to Tier Five in this period, Ben highlights the fact that he believes that his squad can push ever higher.

“When we started in 2019, we had a five-year plan where our target was to be playing Step Four football, so we have always been extremely ambitious and that target still stands. We want to put Cornish football on the map in terms of the women’s game and be a hub for the women’s game in Cornwall.

Above: AFC St. Austell 2021/22. Photo: Ben Cooper.

“In order to achieve this, I think we need to just keep doing what we are doing and trusting the process. Our team is very young and will get stronger and stronger as the seasons’ pass, so we believe that the future is bright for us.”

One of the aspects of the future of the club is branching out further to attract local girls to play, and Ben believes that there are opportunities there.

“As it stands, we only have the capacity to run a first-team and therefore don’t have a development or reserve squad. Fortunately for us, there are a number of very well-run girls’ and women’s teams in the surrounding areas of St Austell. Biscovey, Bodmin, Charlestown, and Foxhole have all helped to produce some brilliant players that are currently in our first team.

“This definitely links into how we can progress as a club. If we want to move on and become a hub for the women’s game in Cornwall, we need to look at building reserve and development squads.

“Long term, we want to achieve our aim of getting into Step Four. Ideally, we would like to establish ourselves as a permanent member of the FAWNL Division One South West.

“The women’s game is only going to get stronger and stronger. The FA Cup prize fund has increased for next season –finally – which is fantastic. We had a brilliant cup run this year, making the Second Round proper and it would be amazing to see some of those massive crowds from the professional game trickle down into grassroots women’s football.”

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