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Lewes FC: the football club who are making equality pay

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Two years ago Lewes FC became the first football club in the world to pay their women’s team the same wages as their men’s team. The club’s chairman, Stuart Fuller, is still waiting for other clubs will follow their lead. “We are pushing the message that this is possible and spreading this to other clubs and other sports,” says Fuller. “The question should be why not, rather than why. Last season our top earner at the club was a women’s player.”

Most of the players at the club – both male and female – earn between £100 and £250 per week, but equality is about more than pay for Lewes. It is also about participation and resources. The club want their grassroots outreach in the local community to reach as many girls as boys and they are offering both of their senior squads the same level of coaching. As the manager of their men’s team, Darren Freeman, put it: “We use the same pitch, the same facilities, the same ball. As football fans we all want our team to win regardless of gender. Parity means giving everyone the same opportunity and getting the same rewards.”

With Fran Alonso in charge of the women’s team, their coaching infrastructure is now on a par with the men’s team. Alonso has a wealth of experience, having spent 17 years as a coach and manager in both the Premier League and the women’s game. Appointed last December, the 42-year-old Spaniard was previously Mauricio Pochettino’s assistant (and unofficial translator) at Southampton. After Pochettino left for Tottenham, Alonso served as Ronald Koeman’s assistant before following him to Everton. He gained experience in coaching women’s football at both clubs.

Alonso has been back in Spain over the summer and has been impressed at the enthusiasm in the country for women’s football. Earlier this year a crowd of 60,739 people watched Atlético Madrid play Barcelona at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium, setting a new world record for a women’s football match. That interest only grew during the Women’s World Cup. “It’s crazy,” Alonso says. “There was a record television audience for the last-16 match against USA. That game got higher ratings than the Under-21 European Championship final, when Spain beat Germany.”

Alonso has been enjoying impressive attendances back in Sussex. Last season his team attracted an average crowd of just under 600 (compared to 620 for the men’s team), which is three times higher than their gates the previous season and more than a fivefold increase on the season before they introduced equal pay.

The Earthquake Drummers welcome Lewes Women on to the pitch before their game against Tottenham Hotspur.

The Earthquake Drummers welcome Lewes Women on to the pitch before their game against Tottenham Hotspur. Photograph: Robin Parker for The FA/REX/Shutterstock

This is all a far cry from Alonso’s childhood in Madrid, where he grew up with a sister who played futsal to a backdrop of derogatory remarks and general disdain. Taking on the manager’s job at Lewes has given him the chance to right those wrongs of his boyhood experience. “I always fight for equality,” says Alonso.

He is doubly determined to see the women’s game go from strength to strength and he hopes to raise the standard of the Lewes team, who finished ninth in the Championship last season. “The potential is there,” Alonso says. “Lewes had the second highest attendances in the division last season behind the powerhouse that is Manchester United.”

“Our playing style is based on high intensity,” Alonso says. “We hold four training sessions a week, which is probably the highest of any club in the Women’s Championship. We want to play beautiful football that excites people.” Alonso and his coaches are instilling a high level of professionalism. The players’ fitness is now tracked with GPS vests and their sleep patterns and mood levels are all monitored. As a result, Lewes have an impressive injury record.

“We have an exciting year ahead,” Alonso says. “We have brought in a couple of top players over the summer, including a Chilean, the captain of Cypriot national team and two Welsh internationals in Emma Jones and Emily Jones.” The permanent signing of New Zealand forward Katie Rood, the club’s leading goalscorer after Alonso took over, following her successful loan period has bolstered the squad.

Lewes and Manchester United players walk on to the pitch at The Dripping Pan Stadium.

Lewes and Manchester United players walk on to the pitch at The Dripping Pan Stadium. Photograph: Paul Gregory for The FA/REX/Shutterstock

Off the field, the recent appointment of two directors is a further signal of intent. Scientist Michelle Bowie Krige joined the board in May, having been one of the club’s 1,400 owners since 2017. She is focusing on various equality initiatives as well as ways of developing the business.

Her appointment was swiftly followed by the arrival of Karen Dobres, who has been particularly active in talking about the club to women’s groups, locally and nationally, including a presentation she gave to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Discrimination in Sport. “Lewes uses football as an engine for social change,” Dobres says. “We are 100% community owned, which is one of the quirky things about us, so that means we are looking to create value for our community rather than making a profit. We have this different vision, different motivation hence we introduced Equality FC.”

This week the club appointed Maggie Murphy to the newly created role of general manager for the women’s side. Murphy, who scored a hat-trick at the Dripping Pan while playing for Shanklin Ladies aged just 13, has big plans for her new job: “I’m incredibly impressed with how the club leads through action, not words and it is an honour to be joining the team. My ambition is clear – for Lewes FC to be the best club in the world, for everybody to know about it, and for others to learn from the example we are setting.”

After two years of equal pay at Lewes, no other club has taken on their example. This is a frustration for Fuller, but he remains undeterred. “This is more about a principle, a value than just a football club. We know there is a gap but that gap isn’t unbridgeable. The only adverse reaction has been from the authorities and other sporting clubs ignoring the inequality that still remains and doing nothing about it.” The Rooks are aiming high and will certainly not die wondering.

Richard Foster’s book From An Acute Angle is out now and you can follow him on Twitter

Content provided by The Guardian. Original piece can be found here https://www.theguardian.com/football/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy/2019/jul/16/lewes-fc-equal-pay-club-best-paid-player-woman

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