Ben Gilby spoke to AFC Portchester Ladies manager Mark Dugan about how the club, presently in the Third Division of the Hampshire County Women’s Football League (tier nine) re-joined senior football in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic and have the organisation, desire and belief to move up the pyramid.
Mark opened our conversation by highlighting the journey that women’s football has been on in the village of Portchester, situated four miles from Portsmouth.
“Originally the team were known as Fleetlands Ladies back in 2011 through to 2015 before moving across to AFC Portchester and forming a girls/ladies section. The ladies competed in the Hampshire County Women’s League Division Three, won that and the second division before having our final year in league one when team unfortunately disbanded. That said, I stayed and took the then under 12 team through to under 16s and reformed the senior in the summer of 2020 to give our girls a pathway. We had planned with the club to reform next season but had plenty of interest to push a year earlier.”
Given everything that has been going on off the pitch over the past twelve months, 2020 was a really tough year to re-launch a senior women’s football club, as Mark recognises: “It’s been a real challenge for the club in fairness. Our club consists of thirty-seven teams including the youth set up and trying to keep spirits high with such activities as Zoom training going, quizzes to keep the players engaged has been a challenge. The club itself has tried to help the local community in this awful time and set up a food hub where donations were dropped off, sorted and delivered out to the many volunteers we had. Tough times but thankful for such dedicated people in and around the club.”
Other than coronavirus, the biggest challenge that AFC Portchester face is one familiar to every grassroots club: “The club is big, and relies on sponsors and partners for income along with youth contributions. Our sponsors and partners have stood fast and supported us, which really helped. The youth contributions were quite rightly frozen during the lockdowns which obviously affects revenue, but the main club loss was our annual youth tournament which brings in one of our biggest youth contributions. With regard senior side hospitality is everything and losing that has really hurt us! However, we’ve managed, albeit suspending plans to undertake summer repairs and uplifts around stadium.”
One positive for the club in this period has been the links with the men’s side of AFC Portchester, as Mark explains: “The club ethos around the ladies and girls has been fantastic and promote and support us fully. My role at the club as football development officer has really helped the link and something on my blueprint to oversee and ensure continued growth. I’m currently the men’s under 23s manager and youth link so we really have one club here.”
With the club competing in the Hampshire County Women’s Football League Division Three, I asked Mark to assess the division: “As a new team with both the newly introduced (but experienced) players signed supplemented by the under 17s stepping up into women’s football, we didn’t know what to expect. From the early signs we’ve played teams at different stages of their journeys, some have really young squads, others older and more organised, so each week presents challenges for us to overcome. The league itself though is bigger this year than it has been for a number of years so going in to Division Three of Four was a risk but one worth taking.”
Going into the Christmas period, AFC Portchester Ladies were top of the league and unbeaten: “Promotion is definitely something we want to achieve, equally though it’s a firm belief to ensure a player pathway at the same time,” Mark says.
“Longer term, the club’s aim is to climb the pyramid of course, but want to first establish the team and make our way through the Hampshire County Women’s League. In doing this we’ll always be open as a community club to bring any player wanting football but also utilising the younger players coming through our youth set up. Ultimately we want to achieve Southern Region status (tier six and above), but in doing so also continue to plan for the future thereafter.”
Despite the senior side only reforming in the summer, AFC Portchester have an excellent player pathway in place from girls to senior football: “The pathway is in place, we have club phase leads in place within the youth set up who look after both 6-12 years and 13-16 years who actively work with coach in both player and coach development. The club currently have teams from under 9 through to under 17s girls and look to create further teams annually.”
As with all other clubs, it is the tireless work of volunteers off of the pitch that keeps things in good stead on the pitch. Mark highlights the fact that: “There are so many great people within the club! There are too many to mention really. However, our Chairman Paul Kelly must be mentioned for 24 years of continual commitment and hours upon hours of work to make the club what it is today.”
We ended our chat by looking at where Mark would like the club to be in five years time: “I want to see the ladies thrive and enjoy their football. Long term and we believe achievable, is playing Southern Region football so tiers five and six for sure.”