Many in women’s football will recognise the routine of those at Crystal Palace, where a postwoman, a teacher and an interior designer shapeshift into footballers three times a week.
This is the reality for those in the Championship, the second tier of women’s football, and if anyone can empathise it is Palace’s next opponents in the Continental Cup on Sunday – Tottenham – and their joint-head coach, Karen Hills, who juggled the entirety of her playing career with life as a leisure centre swimming teacher.
“All ages: mums, toddlers, young kids, older children,” she recalls, “just being someone who can give some guidance to allow them to be a little bit better than what they are, on the pathway to being whatever they want to be.”
Three promotions in the last five years, following Hills’ arrival as Tottenham Women manager in 2007, have taken Spurs to the Women’s Super League, the only fully-professional women’s league in Europe, their own band of teachers, solicitors and office workers signing their first professional contracts on a day they likely thought would never come when they were, as Hills puts it, “going to work, university, college during the day and then training in the evening”.
Twice a week, they would train on a sand-based astroturf pitch at a local school, a changing room doubling as a makeshift physio room. Now, they are based at Spurs’ main training centre. They have gone from lacking a proper pitch to having two.
Hills – who previously juggled voluntarily managing the first team with a full-time job at Spurs’ Foundation – has relinquished her role as the club’s resident odd-jobs woman: “paying the ref money, doing team sheets, making sure the sandwiches were done, making sure the girls took their kit home to wash it themselves. I had to drive minibuses to away games, go on courses to get my minibus license. You organised the end-of-season presentations – I had to go and buy all the medals for 186 players.”
She has found something of a balance, now, five months into life as a full-time coach, and jokes that she even has some evenings free. “I think you’ve got to be quite strict with yourself, work smart. There’s so much more to be done to be in an elite environment. More planning, more scheduling. In the evenings, you’re out watching games. It’s a process where we haven’t been given everything in a short space of time.”
The result is that a quarter of the current Spurs squad are the players with whom they won promotion from the National League and half of them the Championship. Lucia Leon, who was unable to speak English when joining Spurs at 16, on Friday received a Spain Under-23s call-up and is still studying for a sports science degree at Middlesex University. Jenna Schillachi and Sophie Mcclean have retained their jobs.
They cannot, of course, take everyone with them. For Bianca Baptiste, Spurs’ promotion in the summer was the end of a 10-season relationship and the dashing, briefly, of a dream to turn professional. "It was back to square one, starting again,” she recalls.
She had played for Arsenal from the age of 12 but at 16 “realised women’s football is not that big. It was heartbreaking, especially when coming under names like Arsenal and Tottenham and not understanding why it wasn’t as big for women. From then, I wanted to try and make a difference, make it mean something. We were doing it more for the younger generation, not knowing that Tottenham would ever get there.”
A flurry of jobs followed: one at White Hart Lane, as a waitress serving the Spurs’ old guard in the Pat Jennings Lounge; then a bookies, then a bank, then as a personal trainer. Her release from Spurs “hit me hard, because I’ve never been through something like that. I’d had to work really hard for for 10 years. It was devastating. It was so close.”
Baptiste fell into depression and considered leaving football. “At the time, I didn’t want to leave my room. It was horrible. I didn’t know what to do. I literally felt like I wasn’t going to play again.”
Hills and her coaching staff organised trials with other clubs for their departing players. “I can’t fault them because Spurs were one of the reasons why I did keep going – they guided me with a few teams,” adds Baptiste, who ended up at Palace, and will face her old club on Sunday.
As she and her new team-mates chase full-time football, Spurs, whose promotion journey began as FA South-East Combination Champions in 2010, demonstrate that progressing up the ladder is possible even with money flooding elsewhere. “You’ve got to have a dream,” says Hills. “We always know there’s teams out there that are going to be in a better position than us, but we’re never satisfied with where we are.”