Sheffield United’s Charley Docherty loving the boost Lionesses have delivered to women’s football
Like many her age, the feeling of the world being at her feet must be inescapable, and a far cry from what her contempories must have thought even a decade ago. But women’s football is undergoing a rapid transformation, hastened by a move towards professionalism in the national and club set-ups, a men’s game making up for the guilt of ignoring it and sneering at it for too long, and a television deal with terrestrial and satellite broadcasters to increase the number of eyes on the product.
All that, and we’ve not even mentioned the Lionesses yet.
Their rise offers a microcosm of the boom in interest. When they reached the final of the European Championships in 2009 they were part-timers up against a full-time professional German side who crushed them, a game played in front of 15,000 and broadcast to a niche television audience back home.
Thirteen years later England beat Germany in the final of Euro 2022 in front of 87,000 fans at Wembley and the biggest television audience of the year.
“It’s brilliant for players like me,” Docherty tells The Yorkshire Post, “just a really exciting time to be involved.
“This wave of optimism is good for the club I’m at, it might be beneficial if I move onto another club in the future and it’s impact can be felt going down the divisions, it’s helping those clubs as well.
“The Lionesses have completely changed women’s football.
“When I was growing up watching football I didn’t have any direct access to women’s football, it wasn’t anywhere, you couldn’t watch it on the television, you had to know people, know players to find a way in. I didn’t get into the England system until recently and my Dad used to say to me ‘Jill Scott didn’t play for England until Under-19s, so that path hasn’t shut off for you yet’.”
Scott, like all her England team-mates and the many European stars who entertained audiences from Milton Keynes to Manchester during a balmy July, has a story that is relatable to Docherty and the many thousands of young girls now considering starting their own football journey.
“I’ve always had resistance,” continues Docherty. “Even when you show you’re quite handy and play for a girls team you’re always getting boys saying ‘you’re not very good, you can’t be any good because you’re a girl’.
“I still get it now.”
Her journey into football came along by accident. Aged six she was taken to a summer football camp because her older brother was going and there was nowhere else for her to go.
“Literally within about five seconds someone had booted a ball in my face and I just got straight back up,” she remembers. “I think my Dad realised there and then that this was the sport for me. I must have gone through about six sports before I landed on football. I tried gymnastics, cricket, did all sorts.”
But football seemed a perfect fit for the young girl from Rotherham.
“I was a striker back then – I think everyone is a striker at that age,” laughs Docherty.
As the years progressed she dropped back to her current position of full-back, and – look away now Blades fans – no matter how many times she said this week when signing her contract that United is the only club for her, she actually started her career in the blue half of the city.
“We saw an advertisement in the paper for Sheffield Wednesday ladies just down the road,” she says. “They started playing games at Under-9s so I was about seven when I started.”
A few years later, word had spread of Docherty’s talent.
“I did a player development camp, United came to watch me at Wednesday and approached my mother and invited me to come and have a trial,” continues Docherty, who perhaps has the rare distinction of representing both Steel City clubs at the same time.
“Alongside playing for Wednesday I was training with United on a Monday night, and from that I ended up getting a six-week trail at United and it ended up going well for me.”
Docherty was 13 at the time and the pathway to where she is now was well laid out at United, with an Under-14s team, an Under-16s team, a development side and the senior side; the contract she signed this week, the second successive summer in which United have extended her a professional offer.
She still has to work and still wants to study around her footballing career – women’s football is catching up with the men’s game but there remains a long way to go. Docherty works part-time as a chef at a restaurant in Meadowhall and got her A-level results from Thomas Rotherham College only on Thursday, with a physiotherapy degree at Sheffield Hallam University her preferred choice for continuing her education.
Her footballing education is being closely guided by Neil Redfearn, the Sheffield United Women’s manager, a coach renowned for promoting youth on both sides of football’s gender gap.
“Redders is great. He brings you into the environment when he knows you’re ready, I’ve seen it with a lot of girls,” says Docherty, who made her Blades debut as a 17-year-old a season and a half ago.
“There’s a lot of youngsters in the squad which is making me feel old, and I’m only 19!
“But Redders knows the right time to bring them on and when to give them the experience they need.”
United are Yorkshire’s highest-placed team in the women’s football pyramid and have finished no lower than seventh in the 12-team FA Women’s Championship – the second tier – four seasons in a row.
Full-time professionalism is the long-term goal but they will not be rushed.
“We’re taking small steps towards it, we don’t want to be jumping in full-time without a plan,” says Docherty, ahead of Sunday’s season opener at Blackburn Rovers.
This season they will play their home games at Bramall Lane – starting next Saturday against Durham (5.30pm) – which is a significant step for the club.
“I’ve enjoyed going to watch games on that pitch and it’s a major moment for the club to have it as our home pitch.
“Off the back of the Euros hopefully we’ll see a few more people down there.
“I went to the Lane to watch Switzerland v Netherlands in the Euroe,” adds Docherty who made her England Under-19s debut at the start of the year.
“It’s fantastic the women’s game had such a platform and it just made me realise how close I am, that it’s not as far away as I perhaps thought it was.
“Attitudes around women’s football are changing. I’m getting a lot more comments like ‘I’ve never seen so much women’s football’.
“That’s very enjoyable to hear.”