Seven years ago, I never thought I would be playing football again after giving up the game for a number of reasons but mainly because I had fallen out of love with the sport. But that’s where I found myself on Friday night as I was part of the Pride of Irons team that took on the Gay Gooners in a special match for West Ham’s Rainbow Laces campaign.
Having only become a member of Pride Of Irons earlier this year through being a season ticket holder for West Ham United Women, it was the sense of community I’d found in the group that helped sway my mind that it would be good fun to play again.
I arrived with a number of other members of Pride Of Irons to the community stadium next to the London Stadium, and we walked into the dressing room where full kits had been laid out for us.
Pulling on the kit was a wonderful feeling for me and I have no doubt it was the same for the rest of the team. During my time playing football for various teams, I’d managed to play all 11 positions on the field but on Friday, I dusted off my goalie gloves for the first time in six and a half years. It was always my favourite position to play and earlier in the week, I volunteered to play in goal when Jim asked if anyone had a burning desire to do so.
We headed out for a warm up and once that was finished, all sat down to for a team talk from West Ham United Women’s Julia Simic before the game started. It was a really lovely moment to have Julia there to show her support and to offer words of encouragement for the match.
Her comments on the game being a way of ‘West Ham giving something back’ really resonated with me. The club are extremely committed to supporting the Rainbow Laces campaign but also everything that Pride of Irons has done since it was founded, so hearing that showed how much they are behind the group.
The team walked out onto the pitch with our names announced over the tannoy at the community pitch and then posed for a team photo with Julia before kick-off. Within the first few minutes of the whistle signalling the start of the first half, we had taken the lead thanks to Liam’s long-range lob.
From then on it was an entertaining match with the Gay Gooners not daunted by going behind. We still carved out a few opportunities of our own while the crossbar saved us on one occasion, much to my relief. It wasn’t long before the Gay Gooners equalised to make it 1-1 but we didn’t let that bring our heads down as we regained the lead several minutes later. Just before half-time they made it all square and we went in at half-time level at 2-2.
We walked back into the dressing room and shuffled the pack, ensuring that all of the squad were getting minutes on the pitch. The advantage was that we could do as many roll on and off subs as we liked so we could bring fresh legs on and give people a rest when they needed it.
In the second half, the Gay Gooners tended to overload the final third with four or five attackers. That tactic proved to be the difference as their winger cut in from the left and found a gap at the near post to make it 3-2.
Did that stop us? No. Thanks to Steve, switching from centre-back in the first half to upfront in the second, and Richael leading our forward line, we began to raise the tempo and create opportunities for ourselves that saw us gain a deserved equaliser. Into the final stages of the match, the momentum was with us and another great goal from our forward line saw us regain the lead at 4-3.
The final three minutes of the game seemed to be some of the longest I have ever played and when the referee finally blew his whistle to signal our victory to the delight of the Pride Of Irons team.
I had never had so much fun playing football before – a huge smile was plastered across my face that I know didn’t leave for the rest of the evening. I’d had the chance to play in my favourite position as a goalkeeper and had managed to pull off some great saves throughout the match.
It meant so much to me to hear as I was getting hugs from the Pride of Irons team on how well I’d played but I honestly don’t think I would’ve done so if I wasn’t playing with that group. I felt so relaxed playing with them and having fun, which was the most important thing that I wanted to achieve for myself on Friday night.
It was a huge surprise to be then named player of the match. I honestly didn’t expect it at all and to me, every single one of us who contributed to the victory deserved to receive that accolade.
There was a huge buzz as we walked back into the changing room and celebrated our victory. This was the night that made me fall back in love in football and I made a point of saying this to the rest of the team as I’d had such a wonderful time playing with them.
It was a huge honour to represent Pride Of Irons and West Ham in this match. Huge thanks must go to West Ham for organising the game, providing us with kit and for all the work they do for their LGBT+ supporters as they have shown how committed they are to inclusion.
Friday’s victory over the Gay Gooners is a day I’ll treasure forever.