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Merryn Anderson

Comparing stops, connecting starts for The Football Girls

Young girls line up in The Football Girls programme, which celebrates all girls learning and growing through football. Photo: supplied

Haley Gleeson slipped on "a magic slipper" at 10 and fell in love with football. Now she's introducing that love to The Football Girls - building a community for kids who may not fit the mould, Merryn Anderson discovers. 

There’s a young girl who's a bundle of energy, a livewire who can’t sit still and struggles with the discipline of organised team sports. 

But Haley Gleeson, creator of The Football Girls, recognises the five-year-old is "incredibly gifted and no fool". She tells the girl's "really stressed" mum to go sit in the car for half an hour and take a break. 

Then Gleeson gets New Zealand U17 footballer Marie Green, a mentor in The Football Girls programme, to run up and down the football field with the little girl, kicking a ball around.  

They do that every session for almost a year until the girl  is ready to join in with other girls her age. But Gleeson knows they've finally gained the girl's trust, and she now feels comfortable and celebrated. 

That's the ethos of The Football Girls, an Auckland-based programme where girls from the age of four through to teenagers are celebrated for who they are, through the vehicle of football. 

“Everyone is so different and the girls aren’t there to misbehave or be naughty or be bad. They’re just figuring us out,” Gleeson says. 

“And we figure out who they are and how they learn and then we go. We celebrate diversity and we celebrate girls who are different.” 

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The Football Girls are like a big family, run by Gleeson, who's a mum to two boys, Stanley (10) and Victor (four). 

As well as being the director of football at St Cuthbert’s School in Auckland, she also coaches around 70 girls every term at The Football Girls. But it’s not just about coaching and football skills. 

At the start of every session, before warming up their bodies, the girls check in with each other mentally and make sure everyone is included. 

“Our motto is 'The comparing stops, the connecting starts',” Gleeson says. She's teaching a range of kids from different backgrounds, including neurodiverse girls, who often aren’t celebrated in school. 

“These kids learn in their own time and once all those levels are in place, the magic happens,” says Gleeson, who always encourages showing up even when it’s hard. 

Gleeson and son Victor, showing up to the pitch in all conditions. Photo: supplied

Growing up, Gleeson was a dancer, but at the age of 10 she borrowed a pair of her cousin's football boots to play in a school tournament. "It was the magic slipper," she says. "I put that on and that was it."

She ended up playing football for Auckland age group teams, and went to the US at 18 to coach for Camp America, then started coaching at Ellerslie AFC when she returned.

Gleeson’s netball coach would always tell her team they could be Silver Ferns, but she never heard anything like that when she was playing football. 

“For me, I didn’t see that... I don’t even remember watching women’s international football," she says.

But the goal for her players isn’t necessarily to be professional footballers, although some have gone on to follow that path. 

“It’s about showing these girls you’re capable of anything you want,” Gleeson explains. “The aim is that no matter what avenue these girls take in life, they’ve got a community in football. 

“We celebrate the people who go on to play professionally or internationally, that’s amazing. But we also celebrate the girl who’s grown up, is a mum and plays division four at her local club.” 

They’ve had multiple Football Ferns and Wellington Phoenix players come and train with the girls, some of whom had trained with Gleeson in the past. 

But Gleeson is quick to stress the programme isn’t about her - it’s about the girls being empowered and celebrated for who they are. 

She credits her parents for always believing her and her support system, including partner, Craig, for being behind her. She also has a lot of support within the football community - she shouts out Maia Jackman, Terry McCahill, Barbara Cox, Holly Nixon and Kylie Clegg. 

When Gleeson started coaching at Ellerslie AFC after leaving school, she was constantly pushing the women’s side of the game, encouraging the club to give opportunities to girls. 

“My goal was just to give the girls a great experience and keep them in the sport,” Gleeson explains. 

“From those girls having good experiences, more girls came to the club so I kind of stepped into a role of looking after girls as a whole.” 

Football Fern Ava Collins spends time training with the Football Girls.

Running on Sunday afternoons, The Football Girls is in its third year now. The sessions are split into juniors (five to seven-year-olds), junior high (seven-nine), intermediate (nine-12) and seniors (13 and up). 

The intermediate and senior girls help out with mentoring the younger girls, creating a community across the age groups. 

Gleeson tells a story of a seven-year-old girl who went to a local holiday programme and joined a team with boys. When she arrived, one boy said: “What’s this bitch doing in our group?”

Other girls who played in mixed teams never got passed the ball by the boys, and said they never wanted to play football again - except for with The Football Girls. 

“I’ve seen girls who are shy and have been with us for a couple of years fall in love with football, gain their courage and their confidence,” says Gleeson, knowing they might not immediately be ready to play for a club or in a mixed environment. 

Setting the standard at The Football Girls means if girls do go and play club football, they have a standard of behaviour they know is appropriate for a team. 

Gleeson recently ran a summer series, where the games had a more social feel. Not keeping score, blasting music and encouraging everyone to add skills to their repertoire, rather than making the games solely about winning. 

The idea of having a more casual approach to the game is a gap in women's football, Gleeson believes. 

“That’s what boys do - they go down to the club and kick a ball around or play a game of 3v3 with their friends or whatever. I think that’s what we’re missing on the girls’ side,” she says. 

“I think that’s where the change for football will come in New Zealand.” 

The Football Girls get to play with members of the NZ U17 team, just returned from their World Cup in India. Photo: supplied

Gleeson also ran The Football Mums League, targeting mums, but also any women of any ability who wanted to play socially with other women. 

“It was just a way for them to move, for them to show their kids, 'Look I’m moving, I’m being vulnerable, I’m trying something new',” says Gleeson. 

Being vulnerable and still showing up is a lesson Gleeson hopes to instill in every kid she coaches, and that they feel celebrated at The Football Girls. 

“My hope is these teachings we talk about at The Football Girls will trickle down into other areas - to their friends, into a school environment. Having that kind of toolbox is really important.”

It’s a toolbox taught through football, but containing the tools to build connections, and grow as a community. 

“I talk to the girls about looking for the similarities, not the differences,” Gleeson explains. 

“You may have different nationalities, speak different languages, look different, you might be fast, you might be slow, you might go to this school, you might go to that school.

“But what do you have in common? You love football, you’re here. It’s such a strong bond you can make through sport because you’re so authentic, you can’t hide.” 

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