“It’s not girls football or boys football, it’s just football.”
It is this attitude that has seen Brighouse Town become a force for equality and empowerment for female footballers in Calderdale.
Women’s football is undoubtedly on the up. England’s World Cup defeat to the USA in the summer was watched by 11.7m viewers, and their friendly against Germany at Wembley in November was witnessed by a record-breaking home crowd of 77,768.
At Brighouse Town, they have their own success story.
Every week, around 100 women and girls train and play for the club at various age groups – the first team, the elite development team for 16-23-year-olds, the Under-18s, Under-13s, Under-12s, Under-11s, the ‘tiny Towners’, for younger children, and sessions for more mature women.
Not bad considering the first team was formed just six years ago.
“My partner was playing for a team called Kirklees, and I went down to watch her in a game,” explains first-team coach Rob Mitchell.
“The manager left to go travelling, they only had four or five players and it looked like they were going to fold, so I said I’d help out.
“We rebranded them, brought them into the Brighouse Town family and from there it’s gone from strength-to-strength.
“We’ve gone from playing on a park field at Leeds Road Sports Complex, on the back pitches near the canal, to playing at the Yorkshire Payments Stadium, and adding our junior set-up as we’ve gone along.
“We’ve not just got more women and girls involved on the playing side but volunteering.
“The first-teams are on the same level, they play on the same pitch. We get treated equally. If we need something I can speak to the men’s first-team manager or the chairman and they’re quite accommodating.
“It’s very much one big family.”
Mitchell has been involved in women’s sport since he was 18.
“I don’t do things by half. When I do something, it’s full on,” he says.
“We emphasise family values, professionalism and enjoyment. If you get it right, it can be successful, we’ve proved that.
“The junior sides were just a natural progression. Instead of going out trying to recruit players, I thought ‘why don’t we develop our own?’
“I set-up some sessions at All Saints High School and I was getting three or four girls and it was a bit frustrating.
“I got to the point where I was thinking ‘this isn’t going to work, I’ve done all I can but it’s not going to work out’.
“But I persevered, we managed to get a team together of under nines and in that first season they absolutely stormed it.
“We got some good girls in who hadn’t played before or were maybe playing elsewhere just through open sessions.
“They won the County Cup in their first season and it’s gone on from there.
“A lot of hard work has gone into it, hosting open events, our approach to how we run things, having the Brighouse Town name behind us.
“We’ve got a slogan ‘one Town, one team’ which strengthens what we’re doing.
“It’s been an exciting journey and, hopefully, we will continue to grow over the next couple of years.
“We want to get the first-team promoted into tier three and we really are starting to knock on the door of the big teams.”
His first-team play in the National League Division One North, the fourth tier of the women’s game.
“It’s like League Two in men’s football. We’ve been in that division for four seasons. We’ve come sixth and then second every year since.
“We’re doing pretty well, and we’ve had good success in the FA Cup in the past, getting to the third and fourth round.
“We had over 400 people watch us when we played Everton, which was really good. We got Sunderland the year after, who were the fifth best team in the country at the time.
“We’ve pushed on from there, we’ve got a good set of girls, and a good coaching staff.”
The range of age groups at the club means girls can be developed as players throughout their adolescence.
“I take the youngest group, and some of the girls that come in don’t even know what a football is at first,” says Mitchell.
“They’ll say ‘we thought it was just for boys’. They’ve looked at the session and gone ‘there’s no boys here, it’s all girls, maybe I can play’.
“Having the positive female role models in the first-team is massive, because they come down to training sessions with the youngsters, and coach the teams.
“We host junior days where the girls are mascots and get to see the first-team play. It inspires them to say ‘I want to be at that level’.
“We don’t just prepare them to play in the first-team, we want them to push on and be successful.
“We’ve had a couple of girls go on to join Manchester City, we’ve had a girl who was at York, so the progression’s there. We’re not just about us, it’s about the girls.
“It gives them that confidence and social awareness that they can do it. It’s not girls football or boys football, it’s just football.
“We have girls who travel from Sheffield and Manchester to be part of it, and that’s credit to the coaching staff and how we do things.”
Mitchell says a stigma still remains around the women’s game from some sections of society.
“There are still silly comments on social media where people say they don’t care about it, but they cared enough to comment in the first place didn’t they.
“I just think when they’re a bit older and their daughter wants to play sport, and they’re as negative as they are now, how do they think their daughter’s going to feel?
“I’ve got a daughter myself, she’s one of the reasons I do it, and why I’m an advocate for women’s sport.
“I think it’s improved massively. The stigma behind women’s football has decreased.
“It’s improved in terms of awareness and attendances. We’ve got a few lads who come and watch us.
“It’s growing. Some people might come to a game and decide it’s not for them, which is fine.
“We had 411 supporters against Everton, and we get decent attendances for our level, around 80-plus.
“It’s not just the level of players that’s gone up, it’s the level of coaching as well.
“The inclusion of teams like Manchester United has improved the branding of the sport because you get more followers, which brings more money into the game, which brings in better facilities and better players.
“When these bigger clubs produce these better players, others will filter down, which can only be a good thing for the game.”