Mainland magic for Island duo

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AS the women’s game continues to grow at an exponential rate in England and the rest of the world, it may appear that Jersey is playing a game of catch-up.

Having only four teams playing in the Jersey Women’s League – with one of them struggling to fulfil their fixtures – is not the strongest of foundations, but delve a little deeper and the future is bright.

Jersey Wanderers and Rozel Rovers have a number of junior teams coming through the age groups and St Lawrence have also started a girls’ academy.

Meanwhile, the Jersey FA have their all-girl Wildcats programme for five- to 12-year-olds and are regularly organising inter-schools competitions, hoping to unearth their own Maya Le Tissier – the Guernsey girl who, at 20 years old, won her first England cap against Norway on Tuesday.

But Le Tissier, who signed for Manchester United earlier this year, is not the only Channel Islander trying make her way in the English leagues.

Two former Jersey team-mates, Megan Wood and Sara Luce, by the fate of the draw, were up against each other on Sunday in the first round of the 2022/23 Women’s FA Cup.

Wood, having left the Island for Yeovil over four years ago, lined up for fifth-tier Ebbsfleet Town, of the London South East Regional League, while goalkeeper Luce was on the bench for Southampton Women’s FC, who play a rung higher, in the FA Women’s National League Division One South West.

Bragging rights went to Luce, whose team won 2-1 in extra time and progressed to the second round.

This is Wood’s fourth club since she moved to England, while Luce’s move to Southampton Women’s in the summer followed four years at, somewhat confusingly, Southampton FC Women – the Championship outfit associated with the men’s Premier League side.

Her present club was founded in 1970 and dominated the women’s game in their first decade of existence, winning eight FA Cups and finishing as runners-up in the other two years. However, in the last few years, many of the men’s Premier League clubs have formed women’s teams and in 2017 Southampton did the same, starting with an under-21 side.

At the time, Luce had begun studying at university in the city and signed for the new team. With support and investment and the use of their elite Staplewood campus, the Saints’ women’s team quickly grew and climbed the ladder in the English leagues. Five years on from their beginnings in the Hampshire Women’s League, they now play in the second highest division in the English women’s game.

Luce had been there every step of the way but, no longer the first-choice goalkeeper, she sought regular game time and swapped St Mary’s for Silverlake Stadium in Eastleigh, where the original Southampton women’s team play their home games.

‘I knew a few the girls here and started working with one of them as well and they said “why don’t you try and come along and see if you enjoy it?”,’ Luce explained. They have been really welcoming. We’ve had quite a few other new players as well, so I’ve not been the only one.

Wood’s move to Ebbsfleet, who only formed their women’s team in the summer, was also a result of personal connections. An old friend of hers, who she played with at Yeovil Town, knew the manager, Sam MacNeil, and he approached the 22-year-old to take a look.

‘We’ve got good backing from the men’s side, who are smashing their league [National League South] at the moment,’ said Wood.

‘After having a meeting at the stadium and hearing the ambitions and everything the club wanted to do, it was a no brainer. I think that’s rare in the women’s game, how the club supports us and we have the same as the men: same kit, same stadium, season tickets for the women sold by the club. It was something I hadn’t experienced, so I found that really exciting.

‘From the first session I’ve loved my time at ‘fleet. I’m playing some of my best football. The girls, the set up, everything … it creates a good environment to become a better player. It’s the team I’ve enjoyed my football the most so far during my time in England, since moving away at 17. The fans are second to none and come week in, week out, home and away, to support us. It creates the best atmosphere for us to play.’

Both Luce and Wood both combine their football with full-time jobs teaching PE in schools. Luce is also involved in coaching; something she has been doing for a couple of years, at her club and after school.

‘I find it is important for me, not just to be a role model on the pitch but also an inspiration that the girls can connect to, who they can talk to and see how I am as a person,’ said Luce.

Meanwhile, her immediate short-term goal is to increase her game time – something which she is enjoying again – and help drive the club’s ambitions, which is what Wood can also relate to.

‘I’m playing week in, week out for ‘fleet and that’s what I want,’ added Wood.

‘I just want to enjoy my football show what I can do and what I’m about as a player.

‘I’d like to get promoted with ‘fleet and go as far as we can in the cup competitions we’re in.’

Not many women from Jersey have been fortunate or courageous enough to pursue a career in football in England, even if, like Luce and Wood, it is only part-time.

However, the Island certainly has the potential to produce more just like them, with a talented generation of young stars that have come through in recent years, such as Roisin Flynn, Macey Wyse, Danny Da Silva and Hannah Lynam, and more girls being specifically developed from a young age.

‘Uni was a good introduction to it for me and helped with the transition of moving here,’ Luce advised. ‘The standard over here is so good but don’t be afraid of the challenge.

‘Chase your dream and don’t let anyone tell you “you can’t”. If you want it, you’ve got to fight for it. You never know where you may go.’

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