The inspirational story of the Leeds United Ladies team

Leeds United might be in the Championship, but they are still one of the most well-known clubs in the country, but how much do people know the story of the Leeds United Ladies team? They’ve been on probably an even more emotional journey than the men’s team, and 18 months ago they didn’t have a team, a name, they weren’t even a club.

Over the past decade, Arsenal have been far and away the most dominant side in women’s football, but Leeds had been their most consistent opponents until everything went wrong with the introduced of the new Women’s Super League. But back in 2002, everything seemed bright and rosy for Leeds United. They had just achieved promotion to the Premier League, and they consolidated their position with a run of mid-table finishes. 2006/07 was a real breakthrough for United, league leaders going into the new year and reaching the Premier League Cup Final, losing out to a 90th minute winner from Arsenal.

The club established themselves as one of the big guns and were producing plenty of England internationals. Gemma Bonner, Jess Clarke, Sophie Walton, Olivia Thackray and Mel Sutcliffe among them. Future England internationals Steph Houghton and Carly Telford would join in 2007 and with the new link-up with Leeds Met University, the sky was the limit for the girls at Leeds. Sue Smith was a focal point of the side and another regular in the England squad, and a future England star Ellen White was about to join.

2008 was another successful year for the club, Premier League Cup winners, another FA Cup final and they were just three points away from European qualification. But disaster struck the team in January 2010 when the University announced they were pulling out their application to the Super League, and cut all their ties with the club, leaving the girls in turmoil. Current General Manager Gary Taylor wrote on the Guardian Sport site: “We told the players after they’d won an FA Cup tie the day before the announcement was due. Ever seen 18 grown women walk out of a changing room in tears, after winning a game? I have. It’s not nice.”

It was clearly a difficult time for the players, and the club as a whole. But as most players went elsewhere, it was left to Gary and then secretary Sue Walton to run the team’s off-field affairs. Sue was parent of Leeds player Sophie Walton, and felt a need to step in and organize things such as match officials, transfers, programmes, dealing with the FA, hotels, coaches, whilst Gary concentrated on publicising the club, running the club website, writing previews and reports and eventually running the clubs Twitter feed.

It was this attitude that made me so determined to write this feature, and get to know the current crop of talented young girls at Leeds United. Amazingly, the team at the time found the spirit to go and win the Premier League Cup again before it appeared the Leeds United name would die in the women’s game. But fortunately, in the summer of 2010, the Leeds United foundation took the club from the ashes and re-adopted the Leeds United name. Local business Steve Russell funded the club and put his company Ringways on the club’s kit. Reserve team manager Gemma Grainger stepped up to manage the first team, before former manager Rick Passmoor returned as the club struggled for form. The established England internationals had all but departed and were replaced by a growing crop of talented youngsters, Jess Round, Leah Galton, Chloe Foster and Emma Lipman were amongst many to come into the first team regularly in the 2010/11 season, joining the more experienced heads of Tanya Rich, who had returned to Leeds after a few years away, Nat Staneff and Claire Sykes.

But it was still a turbulent season for the club, finishing just four points from relegation and starlet Foster departed back to Nottingham Forest. Gemma Bonner also left, along with Jade Pennock, Rachel Lee, Lou Hunt and Letesha Cannonier. Sue Walton also left the club to go and follow her daughter who departed to Lincoln.

Chris Welburn stepped up as the new manager and this season things are looking much better for the girls, joint top in the League as I write this, and despite promotion not yet being open to the Super League, it looks only a matter of time before Leeds could re-establish themselves amongst the big guns. The summer saw the arrivals of more young talent, Billie Murphy, Amy Turner and the more experienced Vanessa Holmes were brought in to a new look defence. Jess Holbrook, Sarah Danby, Emma Johnson and Millie Bright also signed and things were going much better at Throstle Nest.
The previous young girls such as Emma Lipman and Leah Galton had become key first teamers, as another talented youngster Jess Round departed for Sunderland. Inspirational leader Nat Staneff left to travel the world, one of few who stuck with Leeds through the bad times, along with goalie Jules Draycott and striker Carey Huegett. The squad comparison of the 09/10 season against the 10/11 season shows the task Leeds had to recover. Telford, Houghton, Smith, White, Clarke and Holtham were all key players in 2010 before they all moved on to pastures new, leaving the young girls to come in and bring Leeds back to glory. Only six of the current squad were born before 1990, so it shows how much maturity the girls have had in the face of adversity.

After much inspiration, research and a cold trek through Pudsey, I went to watch the girls in County Cup action against Huddersfield Town in freezing cold conditions, in front of a plucky, spirited crowd. There was something nice about the atmosphere, a world away from the men’s game, but bacon butties and cups of tea aplenty. There were changes to the team, I watched on the sidelines with 17 year-old star Leah Galton, as herself and Millie Bright had just found themselves being called up for the England U19’s for the first time. The quality of football was clear to see, even against lower league opposition. Leeds won convincingly, 5-0, and afterwards I sat down and felt rather guilty about dragging Emma Lipman, Emma Coates and Tanya Rich back out of the changing rooms for a quick chat about the club. A few weeks later I also sat down with Leah and the other remaining 17 year-old in the squad, Bekki Bass, along with Millie Bright. Emma Lipman had come in the summer of 2011 from Leeds City Vixens and made a good impression, Emma Coates came through the Leeds United Centre of Excellence, and Tanya Rich had returned to Leeds in 2007 to play for the reserves after being at Leeds as a youngster. Leah Galton had become an England youth team regular whilst also coming through the Leeds Centre of Excellent, whilst Bekki Bass graduated through the North Yorkshire Centre of Excellence, and Millie Bright had gone through Sheffield’s Centre of Excellence.

Read the interviews with Emma L, Emma C, Tanya, Leah, Bekki & Millie in part two.

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Tags: Football, Leeds, United, Women's

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