12 September 2019

EXCLUSIVE: 'How football's big boys can learn a lesson from Lewes FC - starting with how to treat women'

On the face of it, Lewes FC is an unremarkable football club in East Sussex. Its men's team currently sit three places off the bottom of the Isthmian League's Premier Division, the women are fifth in the FA Women's Championship.

But scratch just a little beneath the surface and it becomes clear that Lewes is in fact a quite remarkable club, and has achieved something no other in the world has yet managed.

In a sport where there is  much talk about levelling the playing field between the men's and the women's game, and especially after an opening weekend of the Women's Super League which is being widely hailed as the start of a new dawn, Lewes have been there, done it and proudly worn the T-shirt.

Maggie Murphy first visited the club's ground as a 13-year-old making her debut for Shanklin Ladies and scored a hat-trick. 

Today she is general manager of Lewes FC Women and in an exclusive interview with NewsChain explained how and why she wants the rest of the footballing world to copy the Lewes model - a club, owned by its local community, that treats and pays its male and female players exactly the same.

"Both sides play on the same pitch, at the same ground. They both have access to all our facilities, they share the same amount of kit and the marketing budget is the same across both teams. In the match day programmes, we have men leading one week and the women the next," said Murphy.

“It’s become so normal to treat the players equally that you don’t have to make an intentional effort to make sure that the female players are profiled.”

Lewes Women FC playing against Blackburn Rovers (PA Images)

Murphy appreciates that her players know their club ethos is unusual, something none of them have ever experienced before. It is only when they settle into the Lewes environment that they start to understand how very different things were at their previous clubs.

Says Murphy: “One of our players used to play at [one of the top Premier League clubs], she tells the story that they [the women players] were told that they weren’t allowed to be in the same kitchen or make their tea at the same time as [a high-profile England international player].

“It may have not ever happened that the women players would have been there at the same time," she says, "but the fact that they were even told that they weren’t allowed to says something. They were also told when they were walking into the ground to train that they weren’t allowed to take any photos of the men. They were like ‘we are here to train- we are football players not fan girls'!'"

Following the equal pay initiative two years ago Murphy thought others would follow suit. “When the club announced the news we thought it would be the start to a couple of dominoes and that hasn’t happened yet. We think those clubs might regret not investing [into their women’s side] sooner.

“You see clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea investing in their women but then you also see other clubs who have the name but not necessarily the backing.”

During this period of change at Lewes the board was 60 per cent male, there were 1500 owners, the majority from the town itself and an additional 25 internationals, all vitally believing in Lewes’ values.

“Those [rich] clubs think we are lucky because we are a small town or the only reason we have been able to do pay parity is because we are a poor club, but we think we are poor and we’ve still done it," said Murphy.

The men and women are paid a weekly fee that ranges from under £100 to over £200.

“It’s not easy, if it were easy I would push for more people to do it, it’s really challenging. Every single decision we make comes under scrutiny whether it’s fair or not.

“Clubs with larger backing might be able to turn on resources quicker and faster than we have, but just because we value our female players doesn’t mean we have loads of money."

Murphy talks about the positive impact equal resources for the men's and women's teams at Lewes FC has brought to the 17,000 residents of the town. She has noticed that people from Lewes, who may or may not be football fans, are so proud of the club for what they have achieved.

“It’s astonishing, it’s something that you almost have to pinch yourself at. It’s a testament to the grit and determination from the people in and around the club, it just shows that you can change someone’s mind.”

Lewes women had the second highest attendance in the championship last year behind Manchester United, who were promoted to the WSL. And Murphy believes that is helped by the fact the women share the same stadium as the men, forging a one-club ethos.

Lewes Women had the second highest attendance in the championship last season (PA Images)

“I believe it really helps that they play in the same stadium. It’s not somewhere in the middle of the countryside where you have to have a car to get there, it’s a one minute walk from the train station in the heart of the town.

“We know we are punching well above our weight, we remain in the same league with the likes of Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and Coventry. When you put Lewes next to that, it’s amazing.”

Murphy does have hope for the women’s game but is aware that it is going to take a very long time for real steps to be made.

“Take the FA Cup prize money for example, it is drastically distorted when it comes to how much is available to women. If you are the winning men’s team they get roughly £6.7 million, if you are the winning women’s team they receive around £57,000.

“If they just evened up the numbers then some clubs could say at the start of the season ‘we should try and get the men's side to win the FA Cup or we could try and get the women to win.’ You will see a lot of investment in the women’s team if the prize money was equal. For me it’s just simple, it’s a simple trick which has been missed."

After the recent World Cup she believes people who sneered at women’s football don’t have a leg to stand on anymore.

“I get frustrated because I don’t think the women's side of football has changed fast enough. People talk about women’s football as if it’s new and has only been around a couple of years. It’s the visibility which has changed now rather than the fact that the women’s football has just popped up.

“It was crucial for the World Cup to be streamed on free-to-air television, it allowed people to accidentally stumble across the material and allowed them to become fans.

“The leagues are now stuffed with international players, the amount of content surrounding the leagues is excellent.”

Following the opening weekend of the WSL, Murphy wants the game to continue to grow and become faster. She hopes that the big clubs which have the investors will continue to showcase their women over the big stadiums instead of it being a one off.

“Hopefully we see a mini-revolution over the next year or so.”

And with Murphy's record for revolutions so far, you wouldn't bet against it.

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