Relegated in May and close to disappearing altogether, Nottingham Forest Ladies’ profile is now very much on the up and they remain an integral part of the club. Neil Heath reports on Nottingham Forest’s ‘other half’…

©BBC/Neil Heath
©BBC/Neil Heath

My first Nottingham Forest match this season came on a wet, blustery, day at non-league Carlton Town’s stadium, stuck between the Stoke Bardolph sewage treatment works and the Colwick Loop Road.

Nottingham Forest Ladies.

Remember them? So often forgotten by Reds’ supporters, and I’m as guilty as anyone. The amount of times I’ve said ‘I must go and watch them’ but never did.

I went along in November to write a piece for BBC News Online about the realities of women’s football and I felt Forest have had their challenges more than most over the years.

Sadly, they were relegated from the Women’s Premier League National Division in May, and now play in the North Division with, among others, Derby, Leicester and Sheffield.

Vice-chairman Fay Glover helped me set up interviews with director of football Lisa Dawkins, and captain Jemma Connor-Iommi, and arranged for Carlton to open the ground early for me. All the girls arrived early, too. I felt embarrassed by their generosity.

I interviewed Jemma first. A Republic of Ireland international, born in Sutton Coldfield, she’s been with Forest for three years. The 27-year-old was nervous at first, and asked if we could talk away from the others. We did the interview and then I realised I had not turned on the recorder. It made her laugh and she relaxed for take two.

The central midfielder works in a school as a manager and got hooked into football through her father. She has played for Doncaster Rovers Belles, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion Ladies. She also went to the US on a scholarship as an 18-year-old.

“I fell in love with the club,” said the midfielder, when she arrived at Forest in 2009.

Jemma admits to feeling frustrated at the gap between the women’s and men’s game but is hopeful things are going to change.

“The Olympics had a massive impact and the crowds for the women’s football were amazing,” she said.

“It helped us because it opened people’s eyes to how much women’s football has come along. We’re having more people down to our games to see what standard we are and people are going away impressed.”

Anyone with old fashioned views about the women’s game would have had them challenged even before kick-off. The girls are put through their paces as thoroughly as the men. A one touch exercise was set-up in a confined space which gives you a clue to the kind of game they play.

The way it should be played, according to Lisa Dawkins.

Lisa has been involved with Forest Ladies since 1990. She is still as passionate as she was when she responded to an advert in the Forest v Everton programme 22 years ago.

The club were trying to capitalise on a growing number of girls and young women who wanted to play football. After a year, they were largely left on their own. But from 2003 onwards the club had been very helpful, partly funding the team, said Lisa.

However, as Team GB beat Brazil at Wembley, in-front of 70,000 people, she tweeted that the club would cease to exist unless they found £10,000 to plug a shortfall in finances.

After exchanges with Fawaz Al Hasawi, the money was found and one of the family’s businesses became the shirt sponsor. The Al Hasawis said they are committed to the on-going funding of the club.

“I’ve always thought that our football should be after the men’s game on a Saturday,” said Lisa.

“There’d be a crowd already in the ground with the added bonus of another football match. People would see it and would be surprised by the standard and commitment of unpaid players.”

Whether or not this could ever happen remains to be seen, but my afternoon meeting and watching the team left me with a smile on my face. I enjoyed a football match without feeling bitter. I saw how much it meant when they played in the garibaldi, and how much they loved football and the club. I concluded that they are very much part of Nottingham Forest and they deserve our support.

Here’s an idea. They play Derby County Ladies on Sunday 17th March at Carlton Town. Who’s up for it?

You can follow Neil on Twitter: @Heathy278

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