Hackney Lionesses FC made their Twitter debut on April 23, announcing themselves as a brand new women’s football team with ‘ambitions to compete with the best’.
Almost five weeks later, they’ve got over 400 followers, hired a manager, had numerous players express interest, set up several friendlies, had their kits designed by MisKits – a football team wear brand with styles and sizes for female players – and are close to securing a sponsor to purchase these kits.
It’s a positive tale for women’s football when many clubs and teams are feeling the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The man behind it all is Jamie Gardner who, having worked in the male game for 15 years, was inspired by his two young daughters to start a women’s team.
Hackney Lionesses owner and chairman Jamie Gardner celebrates a winning goal being scored by former team Docklands Albion FC
He said: ‘During this lockdown I’ve spent a lot of time in the garden with my eldest daughter, who’s seven, and she’s starting to pick football up. I’ll put on a little session for her, like dribbling, and the following day she’ll set up her own obstacle course and do her own stuff.
‘I never thought she’d even pick up a football because she’s always telling me she doesn’t like it, but I’ve seen a little change in her.
‘I thought there’d be nothing better than to create my own women’s side that I can eventually expand into a club with youth teams and hopefully even a college academy for 16-18 year olds one day. Then my eldest, and maybe even my youngest who turns 2 in August can play for them one day.
‘My daughters see me do a lot of work in the male game and I think they probably thought there wasn’t much for women or girls. I’d like to get them involved, even by having them as mascots for the first Hackney Lionesses game, just to show them that there are opportunities for females to play.’
My daughters see me do a lot of work in the male game and I think they probably thought there wasn’t much for women or girls. I’d like to get them involved. Jamie Gardner
Gardner has loved football for as long as he can remember, playing from nursery age all the way through his school years. He managed his first team at the age of 18, setting up a younger youth section at a youth team he used to play for to give his brother and his friends somewhere to go at a time when gang crime was becoming prevalent in Hackney.
He said: 'I wanted to take them away from that life if you like.'
Gardner went on to take the team into a senior league when they were 16 and from there moved on to various managerial positions, most recently with sides Docklands Albion in the Essex Alliance Football League, North East Lions in the Hackney and Leyton Sunday Football League, and the Hackney Wick Youth Academy under 15s team.
Gardner speaks about his coaching experiences and lists all the honours he’s won like it all happened yesterday. He’ll be taking his ambitious nature into his new venture with the Lionesses. He said: ‘I hate losing, like winning. I think that’s just my competitive streak. For me the icing on the cake of being involved in football is winning trophies.’
If that's the icing on the cake, then what's the cake itself? For Gardner, it’s the journey. He says: ‘The hashtag is #jointhejourney because it is a journey. It’s one you’re either going to get involved in or you’re going to sit back and watch it in amazement wishing you were part of it.
‘Obviously the first year is about being sustainable – in any business or any football set up the first year’s always the most difficult.
‘In the longer term it’s about expanding. I’ve had interest from players and sponsors, the Twitter following is growing, a couple of youth set ups have got in touch who want to create a link so their players have a pathway. ‘So there’s a lot of interest and I’ve got big plans for going far and expanding and even using YouTube. I’m an ambitious person. But it’s one step at a time and the first thing is making sure we can sustain it.’
MisKits have designed both the home and away kits and the training kit for the Hackney Lionesses
Though there’s been interest from players, Gardner is waiting until training can get underway before officially signing anyone.
He said: ‘It’s open to all abilities. Obviously with the players that are interested, you just get to know a bit of background about them like previous experience and preferred positions. But in terms of signing them on the dotted line as such we can’t really sign anyone until we’ve seen them play.
‘I don’t want to sign someone without them having done a training sessions and seeing the manager do his job, learning about what kind of manager he is and the sort of environment he creates.
‘We could sign players now but then the manager may put on his first session and the player doesn’t enjoy it. For me it’s about creating an environment that they want to be a part of. You want to go to an environment that’s enjoyable.
For me it's about creating an environment that players want to be a part of. You want to go to an environment that's enjoyable. Jamie Gardner
‘So if you’ve said to me ‘your set up looks good, can I sign?’ you can sign once we see if you like what the manager’s produced.’
The manager is Daniel Merrix, who both played and managed in Wales, and who Gardner says he ‘just clicked with’.
‘We had a good hour and a half conversation about his background and my ambitions for the club, and we found we’re just sort of on the same sort of wave and we want the same things. He wants to be part of the project. It made sense for me to appoint him as the manager.
‘I spoke to a few others about the job and some people are just in the women’s game for a stepping stone. They’ll manage the side, they may be successful, then if the opportunity comes to go elsewhere they’ll be off.
‘For me it shouldn’t be like that, the women’s game isn’t a stepping stone into something higher in the male pyramid. You’re in the female pyramid, and it’s your way to your clubs like West Ham, Tottenham, wherever it is within the women’s game.’
An new challenge in the women's game
Though Gardner won’t be coaching the Lionesses this year – Merrix was hired as Gardner has a Sunday commitment with Hackney Wick for the coming season – he’s looking forward to doing so in the future.
‘Coaching females compared to males will bring its own challenges, but for me football is football. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, the aim is the same.
‘Since I left school I’ve coached males. Sometimes it’s made me grey, trying to get a load of males with a lot of testosterone and that alpha male pride behind them to listen to me.
'I want to experience the challenge of coaching women and that’s another reason behind this team, so I can eventually coach them.’
Gardner has big ambitions for the team and is keen to get others on board with the journey
It’s also important to Gardner to have gender balance in the backroom: ‘We’re trying to expand the game off the pitch as well, so I’m looking to get a female assistant manager on board or a female coach because I want the perfect balance. I want a male voice and a female voice.
‘If we grow it off the pitch as well then players then can see that we’re a club that offers that sort of option and once we do expand to youth teams you can get involved in that set up.’
I’m looking to get a female assistant manager on board or a female coach because I want the perfect balance. I want a male voice and a female voice. Jamie Gardner
That set up is what Gardner hopes will also attract sponsors to the club: ‘It’s important to have a business model, so the plan of the club is in place to try and draw in the sponsors.
‘Sponsors want to know that their money is going to go into something. Everybody wants sponsors, but if you’re a sponsor you don’t just want to give your money to anyone, you want to have a good reason to sponsor somebody or sponsor a club.
‘With us it’s not just going to be one team. If you’re a sponsor and you’re locally based you know that we could potentially be your granddaughter’s club within the next year or two.’
As a whole, the process of setting up the Lionesses has been refreshing for Gardner: ‘I feel there’s a lot of help from people involved with women’s football compared to if you’re involved in the male game.
‘Having been in the male game, it’s almost like a dog eat dog and everyone’s got their own egos. Within the women’s set up it seems like people are willing to help you and point you in the right direction, so it’s good so far, it’s all been positive.’
And Gardner feels positivity is what we need right now: ‘In this climate you’re going to have teams that unfortunately fold. But if you’re like me and you love football you need something to get involved with and something to look forward to.
‘There has to be a positive at the end of all this, and that’s one of the main reasons behind this team.’
Hackney Lionesses FC will compete in the Greater London Women’s Football League. Follow their journey on Twitter @LionessesHac.