Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves: Scott MacCallum caught up with three of the women who made history when they became the first all-women team to prepare a pitch for a professional football match in the UK.

Sunday, March 3, was a momentous day. For a start, basketball superstar LeBron James became the first player in NBA history to score 40,000 points but, on this side of the pond, a crowd of over 60,000 filled the Emirates Stadium for a Women’s Super League match – a record for a women’s domestic match in the UK – with the home team, Arsenal, facing their bitter rivals Tottenham.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

A tense encounter saw England striker Alessia Russo, score the only goal of the game from close range in the 49th minute, to send the home fans away happy and leave the Spurs fans wondering of what might have been.

That, however, is not the reason that the occasion was up there with LeBron’s achievement because, for the first time ever, the pitch was prepared by an all-female grounds team of 13 specially selected women, from sporting venues all over the country.

It goes without saying that the match went without a hitch.

It is a shocking statistic that women – aged 21 not 18 mind you – were given the vote in 1928, yet in 2024 only 2% of those working in the grounds maintenance industry, a job eminently suitable to both sexes, are female.

So the opportunity to showcase the skills of the Emirates 13 was seen as a wonderful chance to display that the industry is very much a place for women and that it is a career option from which many more would take great pleasure.

Turf Matters spoke with three of the women involved, Beth Gibbs, before the big match, and Liddy Ford and Meg Lay afterwards.

“I got the invitation to join the team in the middle of January and it didn’t take me too long to accept,” recalled Beth, who is a Groundsperson at Wellington College, in Somerset, and one of the recently appointed GMA NextGen Board Members.

Beth was so keen to be one of the ground-breaking team because of the message it sent out to other young women considering their futures.

“I think it’s definitely a massive milestone because at the moment there are only 2% of women in the industry and with us getting together it shows what we can do and that we are no different to the men. It shows that this is a job for younger women, that they can definitely do it and that it is a good career for them.”

On that appalling 2% participation rate Beth has thoughts on why the number is so low.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

“Some people believe that they can’t do it from a strength perspective – that they are not going to be strong enough to push a mower. It is a physical job, but there are a many young women who would be more than capable.

The more we talk about it the more women will appreciate that they are able to do the job,” said Beth, who showed her own credentials by becoming the GMA Young Groundsperson of the Year in 2023.

The fact that the industry is so male dominated at the moment also doesn’t help the cause.

“Because it is so male dominated many women don’t see it a job for them, so they don’t push themselves to have a go at it. Also the industry as a whole isn’t promoted in schools so not a lot of people know about it.

“My friends don’t really understand what I do. They think I just cut grass, but I was talking to them about being on the team at the Emirates and they were very jealous,” revealed Beth.

Liddy, who is on the grounds team at St George’s Park, and Meg, who has recently joined the grounds team at Lords, are both also on the GMA’s NextGen Board and, speaking after the match, were both still buzzing from the experience.

“The cool thing for me was being with a group of women for a change. That was something I really appreciated. I really enjoyed getting to meet some really lovely people and it was great to be a part of it.

I just felt really lucky,” said Liddy. For New Zealander, Meg, being so close to the action was the real buzz.

“I was sitting right beside the pitch and I remember looking over to my left and the England Captain, Leah Williamson, was about five metres away and thinking how have we got here. That was a cool moment,” said Meg.

“It showed just how close we were to the action and how key a part we play in it. Every game of professional sport which is played on grass has happened because of ground staff. It’s a billion dollar industry and wouldn’t exist without us.”

The 13 who were led by Tara Sandford, a well-respected member of the groundstaff at the Emirates, had met up the day before and had a run through at the Emirates.

“We went through everything we needed to know including practising with the portable goals and cutting the pitch, before we went back to the hotel for a meal together before the big day,” said Liddy, who knew her fellow NextGen Board members and a few of the other team members who had visited St George’s Park for a day.

That practice really paid off as, under pressure to turn the pitch around for play after the warm-up in 15 minutes, the team completed the task in just six.

“We were a well-oiled machine,” laughed Meg. What is common to Beth, Liddy and Meg is that none of them had planned on a career in grounds care, they just fell into it, based on a love of the outdoors, sport and a desire not to be stuck in an office behind a desk.

In fact Liddy has just been joined by another young woman at St George’s Park while since joining Lords earlier this year Meg has now has another woman to keep her company.

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

Sisters are doin’ it for themselves

“Lords has gone from zero for 220 years to two in the space of a couple of months,” said Meg.

All three, as NextGen Board members, are keen to work towards making the career better known about and better appreciated both for young women and young men.

“The NextGen stuff is really exciting at the moment. We’ve got a whole new bunch of fresh faces and we are really excited about what the group can achieve
going forward,” said Meg.

The success of the Emirates’ team was lauded by the GMA, the hosts of the match, Arsenal and the Barclay’s Women’s Super League.

“To see a team of 13 experienced and talented women prepare the iconic Emirates Stadium pitch in front of hundreds of thousands of spectators and viewers across the UK, was a highly significant moment in the GMA and the grounds management industry’s history,” said Jennifer Carter, the GMA’s Director of Communications.

“The lack of visibility of women in this field remains a significant barrier, but we are confident that moments like these, and more in the future, will be pivotal in convincing more young people especially females, to explore this promising career path,” added Jennifer.

The work of the team was also praised by Vinai Venkatesham, Arsenal’s CEO.

“This is a celebration of what’s been achieved by women in sport, but also serves as a reminder of the work we need to do together to ensure more young girls are encouraged to break into the game.

“It’s important we continue to build on these moments to inspire the next generation and accelerate the sustainable growth of the game,” said Vinai.

“There are so many incredible women working not only throughout football, but across many other industries too, and it is amazing that we have been able to bring 13 of the country’s most highly-rated female ground staff together to play such a crucial role for this tentpole fixture in our calendar,” said Nikki Doucet, CEO of the Barclay’s Women’s Super League.

The whole event can be signed off as a total success and should act as a wonderful advert for the industry. It will certainly be interesting to know how big an improvement on that 2% women participation there is when LeBron James scores his 50,000th NBA point!