Prudence Wade discovers why Natasha Harding set up a football academy for girls in her Welsh Valleys hometown
With the Women’s World Cup in June, visibility for the sport is at an all-time high. Even though Wales narrowly missed out on qualifying for the competition in France, it’s still an opportunity for the sport to be celebrated.
Natasha Harding has been playing for Wales for over a decade, both in the under-19s team and for the seniors. She couldn’t be more excited about women’s football slowly making its way into the mainstream – it is, after all, something she’s been fighting for her whole career. Here’s her take on the beautiful game…
Like many footballers, Harding began early. “I was four when I started,” she says. “I was the first girl in my family – there were all boys before me, and they played football.” Without thinking anything was different about her, she joined in.
Unfortunately, Harding soon realised there weren’t many opportunities to play football in a girls’ team in or near Caerphilly, where she grew up. “The nearest team was in Cardiff, and when I was growing up in the Welsh Valleys, getting there was quite hard,” she explains. “So, it was just about playing at school, biding your time, and hoping that someone would see or scout you.”
Luckily, Harding did eventually make her way into professional football and started her career playing for Cardiff City. After a stint at Liverpool FC, she now plays for Reading.
Harding knows only too well how tough it is to make it as a women’s football player, and now at 30 years old, one of her main priorities is giving the younger generation more opportunities than she had. Harding is an upbeat and warm person and is known as the joker of any team she’s on – whether it’s the Welsh national squad or Reading FC – but she’s totally serious about inspiring young girls.
“It’s hard going back and seeing they still haven’t got a girls’ team,” she says. “So, I’ve used my own money and opened up an academy. It’s from the ages of five to 16, it’s girls only and alongside the boys’ academy. They’d never even thought of opening a girls’ one, because they never thought there was any need for it.”
She does feel positive about the direction of women’s football. “It helps that the national team has recently done really well – we got to the World Cup qualifiers and were toe-to-toe with England, so that built so much interest,” she explains. “For me, it’s always been about exposure – if no one can see you doing it, no one wants to be you.
“Growing up, I never really encountered women’s football players, and I didn’t see it on the TV either. I signed my first professional contract when I was 22 (I say professional, I was probably on four grand a year, but that’s what it was then). Now there are girls 18, 19 signing 15 thousand-pound contracts – that’s grown in the last few years, but it’s taken a long time.”
There’s no doubt that academies like the one Harding has set up will give young girls a clearer path into the game, and lead to even more role models.
Why we still have a long way to go…
Even though Harding has seen a definite improvement in access to women’s football and visibility of the game, a lot of work is still to be done.
“Being a Welsh player, we’ve had to fight for so much,” she admits. “It really puts things in perspective when you realise we’ve never had names on the back of our shirts before – this the first year, and I’ve been involved with the seniors since I was 17.”
Compare this to men’s football – when was the last time you saw a national team playing without their names on the back of their shirts?
Harding is aware of Wales lagging behind England when it comes to women’s football, saying they’re “still playing catch-up”. This being said, she adds: “It helps having England be that spearhead, so we can see how to [grow the sport] in a sufficient and sustainable way.”
But she’s still baffled at how far even England is behind other countries. “Other countries buy into women’s football – Germany, France, America – all unbelievable, whereas here, people struggle to buy into it,” she says.
What Harding wants to hammer home is they’re not trying to compete with men’s football. “Supporters from the men’s side are coming over because they see it as a football match, and see it has differences and different qualities,” she explains. “That’s the thing; we don’t want to compete against men’s football, we want to be alongside it and treated with the same respect.”
Even though Wales didn’t quite make it to the World Cup this year, it was still a solid effort for the team to reach the qualifiers. Instead of heading to France, as the season winds down, Harding will be able to finally relax from her gruelling daily training sessions.
“When our season’s done, I like nothing more than to do nothing,” she says with a grin. “For me, it’s literally all about resting – I’ll go home, shower or have a bath and literally relax in comfy clothes. I’ve had a lot of injuries in the past, so I focus on icing and compression, as well as eating loads and napping where I can.”
In terms of her diet, she’s reached a level of balance. “I’ve been on two spectrums – I’ve been at a club where diet is massive and the focal point – I was weighed all the time, which can make you restrict. Now I’m at a place where I do sometimes eat what I want,” she says. “For me, it’s about being happy and if food makes you happy, then why not? You work too hard in the day to say no. I’m not saying ‘go and eat your body weight’, it’s about balance.
“Male footballers would probably tell you the same.”
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