The Big Interview: Sophie Haywood
Ladies winger Sophie Haywood on the stigma of women's football, the chance to play at Villa Park and the perils of social media for a female footballer.
Sophie Haywood knows that the opportunity to play at Villa Park represents more than just 90 minutes.
On Sunday, the famous stadium opens its doors to Aston Villa Ladies for the first time since 2016 – with a 4-0 win against Watford marking the Ladies’ only match at Villa Park.
The chance to play in such a venue is rare in the women’s game, and Haywood believes the match will be significant for women’s football in the West Midlands and represents a huge step forward for the Ladies.
She said: “I’m so excited. It’s such a great stadium, one of the best in the country. To be able to play there and have the publicity that comes along with it is great for us as a team and for women’s football in general.
“When clubs open up their stadiums to the women’s teams, I don’t think people realise how much of an impact it can have.”
The 23-year-old is all too aware of how important days like Sunday are in growing the women’s game and creating opportunities for young girls at the grassroots level – opportunities that weren’t originally open to her.
Having quit dancing at the age of eight, Haywood convinced her dad Stan to let her join Pinefleet, a boys team at the time, in her home city of Hull.
Her dad soon set-up a girls section, setting her on a football journey that took her to Hull, Lincoln, Notts County, Alabama and Texas before she joined Villa in the summer.
“At first, he dragged his feet a little and I think that was because of the stigma around women’s football when I was young. There weren’t many girls teams around me,” she said.
“I would get bullied at times and boys wouldn’t let me play. I think he didn’t want me to have to face that. He always wanted a son but he says he doesn’t need one because he can pass football onto me.”
15 years on from her first footballing foray, there remains a stigma around women’s football and the quality of the players. However, these days it’s fuelled by social media, where a vocal minority are able to unleash abuse on players at the click of a button without any repercussions.
This side of social media reared its head as recently as last month when a clip of England international Lucy Bronze falling over while attempting to shoot in the Soccer AM car park went viral, with thousands of people taking aim at the women’s game as a result.
For Haywood, it’s an aspect of being a female footballer that you have to accept. But that doesn’t mean she will stop fighting for the day when sexist comments don’t appear in the notifications of footballers all over the world.
She said: “You’re always going to have those dark corners of the internet where people are trying to bring you down. It’s definitely got better as I’ve grown up with the amount of people who are supporting women’s football.
“Most of the people I come into contact with on social media are very supportive. I was able to get a card out to a young boy for his birthday and things like that. It’s nice to have people look up to you and to be a role model. Most of the support we get is positive.
“There are the odd few who try and bring you down, but for the most part I try and ignore it. I don’t agree with shying away from sticking up for yourself.
“We’re not where we are today, as women’s footballers, because people shied away from standing up for what they believe in. We are where we are because people before us faced those challenges before us and broke down barriers.”
Haywood and the rest of the Villa Ladies squad experienced the dark side of social media first hand when on the opening day of the FA Women’s Championship season in September, they lost 12-0 to Manchester United.
The result received national and international media coverage, with people from around the world taking to Twitter to take a shot at the team.
While many Villa fans responded in support of the Ladies, mitigating factors such as budget and Manchester United’s expensively assembled squad being the only full-time team in the league were not considered.
“For me, it was the biggest game in terms of how many people watched, how many eyes were on us. Even if they weren’t there, they were hearing about it, it was all over the news – it gave me a slight glimpse into the criticism that the male players get,” Haywood reflected.
“My phone was going off for the next few days and I just had to put my phone away for a week to get over the loss. I thought if I dwell on this too much, it could really affect the next few games. It was the perfect storm.
“We’ve come a long way from where we were then, and it made us stronger in the end. Whenever we talk about proving people wrong, we talk about that game how we had everyone judging us and thinking our season wouldn’t amount to anything. We used that feeling to drive us in the next game.”
Seven days later, the team kept a clean sheet in beating Sunday’s opponents Leicester City 1-0 in the League Cup. And ever since, Head Coach Gemma Davies and her team have used the United result as fuel to drive them as they fight to prove people wrong.
Villa are now eighth in the 11-team league, having lost just once in their last six league games – a run which included a 5-1 thrashing of Sheffield United. And supporters who turn up at Villa Park on Sunday will see a completely different side to the one that started the season.
Convincing people to give the women’s game a chance is a battle for clubs up and down the country, but Haywood believes once fans watch a game they’ll be able to appreciate the quality of football.
And with a bumper crowd expected on Sunday, it’s a great chance for both teams to reach a new audience and turn them into supporters.
Haywood said: “You never know who is going to become a fan of the women’s game. You reach out to fans and people from different walks of life and that’s how we grow the game.
“We’re trying to make this one club. If you’re a Villa fan, why not be a Villa Ladies fan? Once the fans are at the game, it’s about us performing and making those people want to come to another game.”
On a personal note, Haywood has found her feet in a Villa shirt, proving a menace to opposition defences with her skill and turn of pace since breaking into the starting XI after a slow start.
But the No17 believes there’s more to come from her, starting against Leicester City on Sunday.
She said: “I’m pleased with how I’ve progressed and where I am, but I know there’s more to come. I keep speaking to Gemma and at the start of the season I felt I was missing a couple of gears.
“I do think there’s more to come but if you think about it too much it might become an issue. I’m pleased with how I’ve played in the last four or five games and it’s just a case of being patient and working hard every week. Hopefully there’s more to come and I believe there is.”