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Football

How a Junior Girls’ Football Team Went Unbeaten in a Boys’ League

You may have heard about the under-12 team that made history in May. Now, they've got their sights set on a national tournament.

by Cady Siregar; photos by Eve Watling
02 July 2019, 11:39am

Minutes after Brazil were knocked out of this year's World Cup in late June by France, thanks to an extra-time goal by Amandine Henry, their star player Marta gave an impassioned speech imploring young girls back in Brazil to take up the game.

"Women's football depends on you to survive," said the impressive forward, who's scored more World Cup goals than any woman or man alive. "There's not going to be a Formiga forever, there's not going to be a Marta forever, there's not going to be a Cristiane," she added, listing some of her fellow Seleção players. Five thousand miles east of Marta's intended target, a group of girls were listening.

Plymouth is the home of SB Frankfort's Under-12 girls' team. They made history last season when they were crowned the undefeated champions of the boys' Devon Junior & Minor league with two games to spare, scoring 75 goals in 18 games. Easy.

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SB Frankfort

SB Frankfort were only entered into the boys' competition at the start of last season to improve their development after they were clearly too good for their own division. "It's not so much about beating the boys all the time," says 12-year-old SB captain Brooke Ellis. "It's to show them that we have the capability to, and that we matter."

Of course they're not playing just to keep it sporty – SB Frankfort are proper competitors. "The feeling [of winning] is phenomenal," Brooke adds. "When you do win, you want to shout: 'Have it!', because we're girls and we've just beaten you. But we keep it tidy. To us, it doesn't matter who we play. But with boys, it's different because we can show people who would normally doubt us that we can challenge."

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Girls winning a boys' league might be a new phenomenon in England, but it's happened elsewhere in Europe. After dominating their own league, Valencia's girls' team were entered into a boys' competition. The idea was that playing against far superior opponents would help ensure their development wasn't stunted. They won the championship easily.

Valencia coach Miguel Angel Ortiz believes that what gives his girls an edge is the fact that they mature faster mentally than boys, allowing them to have a better understanding of tactics, formations and technique. Their dominance is based on strategy. At 12 years old, the difference in strength "hardly shows", Ortiz explains. "That comes later. Girls reach mental maturity earlier, which makes them better at understanding the concepts of football." It's not until 16, when most boys hit puberty, that physiology plays a bigger part. But up until then, the girls' superior tactical understanding is all the advantage they need to outperform their male counterparts.

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Valencia are not alone in Spain – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao have started introducing their girls into boys' leagues to speed up their development. But while this has been happening in Spain, it's relatively unheard of in England. And that's why SB's success has received so much attention.

In May 2016, England's Football Association changed its player development pathway for girl's football, allowing mixed leagues from ages seven to 18. "When we first proposed the idea of playing in the boys' league, there wasn't much opposition, but there was definite nervousness from the players and their parents," says SB assistant coach John Preston. "But we've been fortunate to have a great team who are comfortable with each other. They were really up for the challenge and took it in their stride."

Preston works alongside James Brown-Tunnell, SB's head coach, who only volunteered for the position four years ago when he saw that there were no other girls' sides in their area. "I have a son who's 15, and it's completely different coaching him than it is coaching these girls," Preston laughs. "The thing with coaching girls is they actually listen to you."

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Brooke Ellis (left) with her teammates.

When I meet the girls they are preparing for the 2019 Pitchero ACES national, an invite-only summer tournament hosting 20 league champions from 20 different British towns. It's the Champions League of U13 girls' football.

As part of their preparation, they are playing a friendly against an U11 boys' side. It's their first match since winning the league. After a few warm-up drills, they gather around Brown-Tunnell, who is armed with a miniature tactics board and magnets as he gives them a tactical breakdown for this evening's friendly.

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Brown-Tunnell talks the team through the game plan.

The girls are silent as their manager hands them their instructions, assigning each girl a role – drop deep, exploit the left flank, be wary on the counter. They nod along to show they get it. It's a different mood to just minutes earlier when they were talking up their success.

"Women's football is better because the men don't stay on their feet!" Brooke says, to the laughter of her teammates.

"It's so great seeing the boys' faces after we beat them. There's shock, then anger, and also embarrassment. It's like they don’t think we’re capable of playing well because we’re girls," adds her teammate Ruby Blackaby-Peck. "Before the game, they think they're all hard. Sometimes they laugh as we shake hands. You can tell they write us off immediately, but then we show them."

"I feel like everyone just underestimates what we can do, what girls can do," says SB player Lexie. "We show the boys that we're better, and they don't know how to handle it."

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For the girls, watching the Lionesses in the World Cup isn't just important for representation – it's part of their training. By seeing them on TV, they can study their play and technique, and figure out how to implement it into their own game.

"I pay attention to what decisions they make, and about what I would have maybe done differently," says Brooke. "The women play with more skill," another teammate shout outs. "They take their time. With the men, it's just about their strength."

Aside from the tactical breakdowns, seeing their favourite players Nikita Parris, Steph Houghton and Megan Rapinoe gives them confidence that they can one day tread the same path. "They're definitely an inspiration to me, just by showing that that kind of future is possible for me. For us," adds Brooke.

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As SB's skipper, Brooke is a versatile midfielder who cites Steven Gerrard as her hero, on and off the pitch. "I know my responsibility," she says. "I was nervous when they named me [captain], but I knew what I need to do. It's about teaching my teammates that they've got to stay positive and strong. You've got to set an example. If the manager's speaking, you have to be listening and to show the other girls that they need to listen as well."

The SB girls are certainly confident – deservedly so as they've proven their worth at this level. "My biggest dream is to become professional," Brooke says, in almost a soft whisper. Then her eyes light up. "And to captain Liverpool. And England."

@lallanadelrey / @EveWatling