5pm on a cold February afternoon and I’m sitting with Katie ‘Macca’ McIntyre in a hut at The Dripping Pan, Lewes FC’s home ground. After 7 years on the Lewes Women's team Katie has recently taken over the captaincy from outgoing Kelly Newton, and, as a recent convert to football fandom, and one of 1300 owners of the community-owned Club, I'm interviewing her. I’m surprised at myself for being slightly starstruck.
My timing’s not great. Macca’s team - my team too of course - have just been defeated 6-nil by Everton in the FA Cup and neither of us is used to this kind of thrashing. Our last games have been resounding victories, whether in leagues or cups and for my part, I'm not quite sure how to handle losing yet. Should I commiserate or say “You played really well”? Neither feels right so I look to the Captain to take the lead.
Macca, true to her new role, knows how to handle the odd lost game. Living up to the new armband on her wrist, she glows (pride? sweat? determination? all 3 I guess) when she tells me that the girls played well against a stronger side, but now she'll need to ‘encourage’ the team. Although she’s not exactly buoyant (what sportswoman likes to lose?) she tells me she'll ‘take positives from this game’.
Everton play two leagues above Lewes and, crucially, are full-time footballers. Lewes’ women don’t have that luxury, all working or studying in regular 9-5s, they get to train together just twice a week. The relative lack of training showed today against the more practiced side, but Macca and her team were resolutely respectful in defeat, patting their rivals on the back. Of course. They’re not part of ‘Equality FC’ for nothing.
Equality FC was formed when Lewes Football Club became the first club in the world to pay its women's team the same as its men's, guaranteeing parity in conditions of play. This bold move attracted national and international press attention, and is the reason I started to follow my local team. You don't sit back when your town is changing culture. Our womens’ team play on the same pitch as the mens’ team, and benefit from the same standard of kit and coaching too.
The only thing they don’t normally get is the same amount of spectators. That all changed today when 975 people turned up to watch. A crowd deserved by the would-be giant-slayers whom I’ve watched fight their way into the fifth round of the FA cup, drawing this match against Everton.
By getting this far the team have made history for the club, and I ask Macca how Equality FC has affected her. ‘It’s created a real buzz around the club. Football should be a level playing field. The girls have raised their game and it’s more attractive to play football here, so we bring in new talent. This season our talent is showing on the pitch, making equality a step forward for other clubs to follow. Look how far we came in the FA cup’.
Macca's love for the football club she calls 'little Lewes, my Lewes' is evident. ‘This is my club’ she says passionately, 'win or lose’. I suspect she’s reflecting on the game just played. I give her a moment and ask how she motivates her team at times like this.
“We always knew it would be a tough game. So now we’ve got to re-group. Go back to basics. We’re a strong and growing team – we’ll bounce back’.
As the new leader, how will she inspire this same resilience in the team though?
‘I try to encourage them. To say ‘it’s not that bad’, to pick them up with little comments, giving them positives, not negatives’.
Is that how the captain, known for her personal commitment to every tackle, has bounced back herself in the past? Has she had a lot of encouragement?’
“When I first started here I remember feeling intimidated, there were some big voices, big personalities. Now though, I personally try to keep a middle ground, and know it’s not about an individual player it’s always about the whole team. So if I say to one player “Don’t worry, try again, take her on, you’ve got her there”, for example, other players will encourage each other in the same way, so that the team is supporting each other. It’s a domino effect.’
'What’s morale like in the changing room generally?’
‘Generally good, but there was such a good atmosphere in the squad today. We’ve just played in front of nearly 1000 people – that’s a record-breaker for us. It’s exciting.’
Post-match right now, Macca must still be processing what just happened. There must be a million emotions inside, and I sense she’s a little guarded. So I steer away from football for a moment and ask ‘What’s your favourite film?’
She laughs and says, ‘Calamity Jane’. A so-called ‘tomboy’ when young, Katie’s grandparents used to joke with her that she was like Doris Day’s famous character, and Macca has fond memories of watching the film with them.
As Equality FC breaks new ground, could football be changing from a male-dominated abode just like Deadwood did in the movie I wonder... and suddenly we’re back to the beautiful game…
“It was fantastic to see all the men behind us here in Lewes today” says Macca.
I mention the surprisingly large number of kids I saw in the terraces today too – girls and boys chanting in full voice to support their beloved Rookettes.
Macca smiles at the mention of the fans. “I’m so excited to get back to the league matches now. We wanna be in the top 3. We wanna stamp our authority', she says brightly.
I’m excited too. There’s a league match next Sunday, and I’ll be back to the Pan to support my team again. I feel proud of Lewes FC for their pioneering stance on gender equality, and privileged to watch these women play with proper support. I'm excited as much by the prospect of the next match as I am by the potential of the game to change culture.
It's clear as a ref's whistle that footballers like Macca are great role models for the little girls watching. These girls won't need to be labelled 'Tom Boys' or 'Calamity Janes' for very much longer. As they cheer on the talented women racing around the pitch, these youngsters take in the fact, as do I, that women can be strong, determined and fast... and valued for it. Stereotypes are dissolving before our eyes. Womens’ football is having a moment, and nowhere more than here in lil ‘ol Lewes.
Karen Dobres, Chief Freedom Fighter