This year, the FA changed rules regarding mixed football, allowing girls to play with boys up to Under 14s for the first time. Following the announcement, my daughter Niamh McKevitt gave up her place at Derby County Girls' Academy to rejoin her former club, Millhouses Juniors Boys, who play in the top division of the Sheffield and Hallam League.
She is the only girl in the league. This is her story.
I'll never forget finding out the rules had changed. I was walking home from school when I got a text from my Dad telling me what had happened. He said, "You need to decide - Derby County or Millhouses?"
I was so happy, I didn't need any time to think - I texted right back, 'Millhouses'.
People think it was a big decision to leave Derby, but it didn't feel that way. I had friends there, but football's never really been about friends for me: it's about being the best player I can, which means playing at the highest level possible. So I didn't feel I was choosing between boys and girls either: I just wanted to play for the best team I could. Millhouses are in the top league and that's where all the boys from the development squads at Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday and the rest of the professional clubs play.
Playing for Derby County had turned out to be a little bit of a disappointment. I joined their academy with the mindset that it was going to be a much higher level than I'd ever played before. I was delighted to have been offered a place.
The training was awesome. Getting coached by fully qualified UEFA coaches who teach you everything was fantastic, but what surprised me was how poor the team was. There were some very good players, but there were a few not-so-good players too, which I wasn't expecting. And while our coaches were great, I was less confident about the way they managed the team. A coach teaches you how to play football, a manager sets the side up and tells you what to do to win matches. They are two different things. The upshot was the team I'd joined was nowhere near as good as the one I'd left, so I decided to go back.
Comparing boys football to girls in terms of quality is unfair. Girls' football is growing fast but there's so many more boys playing the game. In our league alone, there are 79 teams and around 1,200 boys. The equivalent girls' league is tiny in comparison. There are very good girl players, but there's a lot fewer of them.
Boys' football is better simply because there are more of them playing and I think most of the other differences are also down to the number of players. The increased competition in boys football means, unsurprisingly, that the matches are more competitive. In our league there aren't really any weak teams, so every point feels like it's been earned.
In a girls' match, I'd usually be one of the fastest on the pitch. That's not going to be the case in a boys' game, but I can hold my own. Boys are certainly more aggressive, and there is a lot more swearing, but the game is more unforgiving all round. Being a defender, whenever we concede a goal, there's a good chance I'll be in the frame to get the blame. In a girls match, the response would be "Never mind Niamh, we can win still this!" The boys are more likely to say: "What the eff did you do that for?"
Girls don't talk or shout for the ball enough, it doesn't appear to come naturally and has to be coached. A lot of matches are played in silence. As a result, girls tend to develop less positional sense as they get older. It's impossible to get the defence organised if no-one's talking. Also in girls' football the good players are under less pressure from opponents and teammates, so the pace is much slower and there's often very little contact or tackling.
There are things the boys could learn from the girls though. I think there is a lot more passing in girls' football. The boys tend to be greedier. That desire to be the best can turn into arrogance in matches as they try to beat players instead of laying it off. The girls just don't want to be tackled - I wouldn't say they're scared - but they are more willing to move the ball around so they give it away less. I think it's a widespread problem, because all the coaches I've worked with in boys' football have been focussed on trying to get everyone to pass more.
The only downside of playing with the boys is the inevitable sexist remarks: "Ooh! Alright darlin'!" during the handshake, that sort of thing. I've also been wolf-whistled quite a lot.
I usually go up for corners to mark the goalkeeper. There was this one team we played who all shouted, as I ran into the area, "Bird in the box! Bird in the box!" During another game, I fouled a winger and he called me a slag, but one of my teammates stuck up for me immediately, so I felt quite safe.
To be honest, you do get used to it and learn how to cope. A few weeks ago I went up for a free-kick and one lad said, "Why have I got to mark the girl?" We were winning so I was feeling quite bold and said "Why do I have to mark the dick?" That got quite a few laughs - even from his own teammates.
It happens off the pitch as well. When people find out I play for a boys' team they usually assume either the team is rubbish or I'm just making up the numbers.
I hope someone from the FA reads this and changes the rules again so I can stay with my team next season. I've played quite a few Under 15s teams and I was physically able to keep up with them, even though I'm a year younger.
I'm not confident though, so I'm also training with John Buckley, who's the first team coach at Doncaster Rovers Belles. It's only once a week, but he's the best coach I've ever had and the set up is excellent. He does a lot of skill based training, which is great for me, because that's the weakest part of my game.
I know I'll never play professionally in front of 50,000 people, but my dream is to get a scholarship and play in the US college sport is huge out there and there's nothing I'd rather do."
Visit Steve McKevitt's blog Everything Now Book it's updated occasionally.
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