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Arsenal’s elite girls thrive after being put on an equal footing with the boys

As fog blankets the pitch on a Monday evening training session a group of Under-12 academy footballers strive to generate sharp passes, quick feet, clever movement. Everybody looks the part. This particular everybody, though, is not your standard issue elite group because in among the boys are Maddy and Laila, the two exceptional prospects from the Arsenal girls’ team who have been parachuted in to join a weekly session with the club’s boys.

Marcel Lucassen stands by the side of the pitch and watches. The Dutchman carries himself with the air of a man who can gladly talk in microscopic detail about football for 24 hours a day. He has been brought into the academy as the head of coach and player development, to oversee the culture of coaching from the five-year-olds all the way to Under-23s, bringing a bigger-picture vision to it all as he did for the German football federation for several years.

What does he think about this concept of inviting the best girls to train alongside the best boys? Lucassen is almost more interested in the notion of why that is a question rather than the question itself. Back in the south of Holland, his own son grew up playing for RKSV Wittenhorst alongside Dominique Bloodworth, who happens to play for Arsenal Women. No big deal. “They are looking at each other for five minutes and then it is normal. What is very good to see is for them it is no difference. It is more a difference for some grown-ups,” he says pointedly.

England is catching on. The mission to raise the standards for girls’ football has led to a series of changes actively encouraged by the Football Association. Because the pool of players and the number of grassroots teams and leagues remains considerably smaller than it is for boys, standards tend to be more variable. So the difference between the most talented and least advanced player in a group of girls is usually broader.

Attempts to progress the best players initially led to elite girls’ teams joining local boys’ leagues. Those who needed stretching beyond that level now play in the Junior Premier League. Even that is not enough of a challenge for the very best, which is how Maddy and Laila find themselves at Arsenal’s newly revamped academy at Hale End, which is like a mini version of the first-team facility at London Colney, rather than the more modest sports complex in Hatfield the Arsenal girls use as their base.

Maddy (left) and Laila (centre) during a training session of Arsenal’s Under-12 academy footballers

Maddy (left) and Laila (centre) during a training session of Arsenal’s Under-12 academy footballers at Hale End. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Maddy and Laila train toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder and eye to eye with the boys. “It’s a great experience to be around the boys and see their game intelligence is much sharper and decisions much quicker,” Maddy enthuses. “The boys push us as well as we push them – physically, mentally, decision-making, everything.”

During the strength and conditioning work, Maddy does not just keep up with the shuttle runs, she wins them. Laila claps hands with one of the boys in between a series of press-ups. Later, they play an 11-a-side game and Maddy’s father looks proud as punch when his daughter bursts forward and plays a pinpoint pass which is neatly finished off by Will for her third assist of the match.

Mum Leighann has noticed a big spike in her development since she has had access to this level of training. “She is absolutely thriving. She just wants to train here more. She is one of the trailblazers and all credit to all of those boys for accepting her for her football. Maddy has always played with and against boys so she doesn’t view it any other way. For some of the boys who have never played with or against a girl it’s a different experience for them and they have been really embracing.”

It roots back to Lucassen’s opinion that good football is good football from the kids’ perspective nowadays. Only the adults see differences. Laila is so grateful for this new opportunity to push on. “I think I have developed massively since coming to the boys,” she says.

Girls and boys train at the Arsenal academy

The girls who train with boys at the Arsenal academy say ‘the boys push us as we push them – physically, mentally, decision-making, everything’. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

This initiative is based on the simple principle of putting young prospects in the best environment for them to flourish. Per Mertesacker, head of Arsenal’s academy, is keen to point out it is not a token gesture. He feels there are benefits in both directions. It is not just the girls who are being challenged. “It started off by thinking of our club and what we stand for,” he explains. “How can we integrate everyone a bit better? We love the variety and we love the different challenges that you sometimes face – that a girl can take you on and sometimes win a duel against you. All these things struck me. It is lovely to see this thriving environment.

“I remember back in my days it was normal to play with girls in opposition teams. I got on with it and it helped me to understand from the very beginning how important it is to be first of all capable but also to be humble and respectful and disciplined. That’s what we are trying to achieve with these youngsters, to prepare them not only for a football career but also for reality. Women and men are both highly capable.

“I want it to be a win-win situation. I want to make our facilities open and accessible for all. The girls’ and women’s side don’t always get those opportunities so they respect it and embrace it and are sometimes more humble. When you have someone coming from the outside it sometimes helps you to understand how privileged you are.”

Adam Birchall is in charge of the Under-9 to Under-12 groups and he has been very encouraged by the progress being made since Maddy and Laila arrived. “When they first came we put them in with the Under-11s but fairly quickly it was obvious they were both very good players and we pushed them up into the Under-12s groups. I think it’s fantastic.”

Onwards and upwards. All they care about, all they assess, is the quality of the footballer they are trying to develop.

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