Carol, COGS and a Queen’s Birthday Honour – June 2021

This seems a little strange writing about myself, but it was too important not to recognise the parts a few people and the inspirational COGS have played in helping me being awarded a British Empire Medal, in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List 2021.

I’ll go back quite a few years first, probably to when I was about 7/8 when my life even as a youngster sort of revolved around football and possibly the lack of playing it.  Me & my Sister, Marian, lived with my Dad growing up in the 70s and he was heavily involved in the local football scene as “a very good goalkeeper” according to a few people who have said that to me.  This meant that every Saturday, in the football season, we would bundle into Dad’s Singer Vogue estate car, along with the kit, and be driven to either Reigate Priory FC or various other non-league grounds around the Isthmian League, the best one I remember being the Bank of England (mainly because the post-match food was the best!).   The drive into the narrow entrance of the car park in Park Lane, Reigate was always a case of “we hope there’s no one coming out, as you’d end up getting stuck or you would need to negotiate the large tree to get round the very small car park and hope there was a space left if you were late, which we often were!”  Funny, the things you remember.  Then it would be a trip up the 3 very noisy wooden steps (while taking in the constant strong smell of liniment) to the bar area in the Clubhouse, where everyone met before either getting changed or going in convoy to the away club. Jim was a mainstay at the Club, often sleeping there to make sure it was well maintained, and he would look after us in the Clubhouse when it was pouring. Otherwise, we would just hang around the edge of the pitch watching Dad play and sometimes kick a ball to each other.  These childhood memories with Marian and my Dad are some of my favourite times and this would be the start of a life-long love affair with football.  From then being old enough to wash the kit under Dad’s supervision (albeit not quite enough supervision to make sure the red socks didn’t make the white shirts pink!) to becoming a teenager and being in charge of making the dinners and tea for the post-match food, in the tiniest of kitchens, but it all worked and it gave me a sense of purpose.  It made me feel part of something, a part of football, especially when the players would come up from getting changed and it would be my responsibility as they came to get their food, to give them their teams’ results – I tried so hard to remember them all!  Most of them were Arsenal fans if I recall rightly…  Anyway, I digress.

During those years growing up at school, football was only allowed to be played by boys and the nearest you got to touching a football was when the ball went out and you were able to run after it and return it or just watch the boys play.  Fast forward a decade and onto managing a team of men in the Redhill & District League in the 90s.  The lads in the warehouse, where I worked asked me if I could manage a team for them.  I had absolutely no idea about managing or coaching but I could pick a team and keep an eye on the admin. to make sure the lads paid their subs and we were entered into the right League.  I bought a couple of football tactics books and learned a few bits from there but I don’t think I was much good at it, the lads just played their own game.  It was like role reversal in those days because football was still very much a man’s game; I’d go out on a Saturday afternoon with my kit bag and end up in the pub with the lads and I loved it.  That lasted for a couple of years and then one of the players took over and they climbed the Divisions.  I think that says a lot about what I didn’t bring to the side!  Happy times, nonetheless.  Fast forward another decade and a bit and my boys started playing and it was a period of another 10 years watching and taking them to matches every weekend.  I wouldn’t have rather been anywhere else.  Then they both stopped playing and not long after, I started…..

This was to change my life and I couldn’t be any happier.  I think this photo sums me up!

The Crawley Old Girls FC vs Lewes FC Vets at the Dripping Pan, Lewes, East Sussex, England on 01 May 2021
Photo by Jane Stokes (DJ Stotty Images)

In early 2015, my friend Sandra asked me to play in a charity tournament which was being held to raise money for Great Ormond Street Hospital and I think this must have awakened something in me.  There had to be 2 female players in each team and we really didn’t know how to play properly and just listened to our male team mates giving us instructions.  However, I think I managed one run down the right and touched the ball about twice.  I was in heaven, I’d actually just “played” football.  Then what happened next must have been fate, like everything else seems to be in my life.  The timing couldn’t have been better.  At the time I was Chair of the Crawley Town Supporters Alliance and so was following the Crawley Town Community Foundation’s Twitter account when I saw a tweet from them which was promoting a girl’s session, as part of the Female Football Development programme from the EFL Trust.  Behind that tweet was Amy Fazackerley (aka Faz as we all call her) and I replied to that tweet thinking I could join in to have a kickabout.  The programme was aimed at girls 14+ so I was keen to know what the maximum age was and Faz said it was 25.  I was 48 and had just played my first game of football and I was convinced it wasn’t going to be my last so I went back to Faz and asked if there was something we could set up if I got enough women together “like me” as in no long spring chickens and not fit, to learn to play football.  Faz went to Nicol Meredith at the EFL Trust and after a few discussions it was agreed that we could have 10 weeks of funding.  The first night, on 16th April 2015, was something that will live in the memory for a long time.  Laughter, fun, aching for days afterwards but a brilliant session of an hour’s football.  I said to the Foundation, treat us like U7s, coach us like mini soccer and it worked, with Claire coaching us, we learnt and had a lot of fun.  Soon enough, one session a week wasn’t enough and over the next 6 odd years, it was steadily increased to 5 per week, where each session is catered to cover for all different abilities from beginners to walking to experienced players.  During those 6 years, and this is where countless women have inspired others and helped me to be in this position today, we have been afforded some great opportunities to promote the game for “older” women and no one could have given us more opportunities than Rachel Pavlou, the FA’s Women’s Football Development National Manager.  We have been extremely lucky to have been involved with the FA in promoting the FA People’s Cup for example, which has given us memories to treasure and also inspired other women to play.  The women who have been coming to COGS are a shining example of inspiring others to join in and are always promoting to their friends what a safe and supportive environment it is, as well as being fun and learning to play.  The positive comments and sharing of good news stories never goes unnoticed and is always greeted with positivity.  This is why COGS has been successful, it’s the ethos we have and the women who make it successful, the same as with other groups, as they come back week after week for more!  They care about others, they support others, they have fun, they’re very welcoming and above all they are good people who just want to shout about how lives have been changed by learning to play football.  It goes without saying that there are some great male allies too.

These women are why I choose to spend my spare time doing something I love and that’s sharing and helping to promote Women’s Recreational Football to others.  To me, it’s always been about the feeling I get from being able to play and the joy it brings.  That’s something I want to share with the tens of thousands of women out there who could feel the same thing.  It’s a sort of sharing the fairy dust, you just want to pass around the joy because you know how it makes you feel, having the opportunity to play, make new friends, increase your well-being and fitness and all while having some fun.  Not to mention the great social events and hotel stays for tournaments!

It’s quite a simple formula really and the more we can spread the benefits and joy that being able to play at a later age gives us, the better the health and happiness of women like me will be.

I’m so, so grateful for this Honour, although I don’t think it’s quite sunk in yet that an average woman on the street like me could be afforded one.  I’m, especially, indebted to Mat Cowdrey (who I found out nominated me), as without him and those who supported the nomination this wouldn’t have happened. I’m also grateful for Sandra & Carol who have been there from that first session and who have always supported me along the way, as well as Jo from the Canterbury Old Bags while, despite being in Kent, we still manage to work together.  It just means that I will work even harder to get more women involved and with the help of Pav, the 7 new Women’s Recreational Football Officers, all those who run teams or groups and those who promote the Women’s Rec. game and the £1M worth of funding from Sport England, we will get more women playing and enjoying all the benefits of playing the truly, wonderful game that is football.  Watch out for more opportunities from the WEURO2022 Host City Legacy Projects around the country, in the run up to WEURO2022 and beyond, it’s going to be an amazing future for Women’s Recreational Football!

Mark Dunford, Editor of the Crawley Observer wrote this wonderful article ready for the Public Announcement of the Honours:

and followed it up with this amazing front page.

Sussex County FA also produced a lovely article too, which you can read here:

The citation reads:

Order of the British Empire Medallists of the Order of the British Empire Medal of the Order of the British Empire Carol Geraldine BATES Founder, Crawley Old Girls. For services to Football and Inclusion Crawley West Sussex

Finally, I’ve been overwhelmed by the many messages, emails, letters, cards & champagne that people have generously given to me and can’t thank everyone enough for their kind words.

Carol Bates BEM, I can’t quite get used to that, yet!   Amazing, humbled and so proud!