Prior to starting her studies at Liverpool John Moores University, Jess North’s dream of playing football for her beloved Manchester City was well on track.
As a youngster, she was forced to move clubs on a number of occasions due to a lack of women’s players, but eventually settled into the youth system at Stockport County.
After impressing for the U18’s, Jess, now 22, was promoted to the first team after a successful trial. She enjoyed a year playing in the North West Women’s Regional Football League Premier Division.
The league is the fifth tier on the women’s footballing pyramid, and is an equivalent level to the National League in the men’s game.
But the key difference in the National League is that players are paid – either on a professional or semi-professional basis.
For Jess, there was no chance of this happening at Stockport – there simply wasn’t the money or infrastructure at that level in the women’s game – and there still isn’t.
After making the move to Liverpool, Jess left Stockport and her dreams of a career in the game behind – although she did continue football socially, captaining the John Moores women’s second team.
“It was a mixture of reasons,” Jess revealed, when asked about her decision to leave Stockport.
“One reason was that I had applied for universities that were outside of Manchester.”
“To stay in the first team I would’ve had to come back every Wednesday and weekend and that would’ve been hard [without being paid].”
Jess believes that if she were playing at the same level in the men’s game her career would not have been ended so prematurely.
“I’d have been getting paid [at the same level] in the men’s game so that would’ve been another incentive to actually stay there, and the money would’ve helped me commute from
Liverpool back to Manchester to go to training,” she said.
“It was hard to stay motivated when I was really just doing it for fun.”
Jess also cited the coaching at Stockport as one of the factors in her decision – she believes that coaches should adapt their techniques for the women’s game – something that one coach failed to do.
“Another reason was that I didn’t like one of the coaches because he was too aggressive,” she explained. “He used to shout at me a lot and it made me lose my confidence so I didn’t really like playing there, I didn’t enjoy it.”
Despite his qualifications, Jess was adamant that his style of coaching wasn’t suited to women’s football, with her performances on the pitch suffering as a result.
“He was a UEFA A licence coach so I think he was used to coaching in the men’s game, so they probably respond a lot better to shouting,” she suggested. “In female football we don’t really like them shouting at us when there’s not a reason for it.”
“If you want a response from a female you have to be nicer and bit more friendly to them.”
Although women’s football has seen vast improvements over recent years, Jess’ experiences as a youngster highlighted the lack of investment in comparison to the men’s game.
“For one there would’ve been a lot more options when I was younger,” she said. “There’s a lot more scouts looking out for little kids playing whereas in female football there’s not really that.”
Jess’ ability was noticed on a few occasions, but ultimately went to waste due to the limited interest in the women’s game.
“You might have a coach come into your school every now and then, saying ‘you should be playing for Man City’ or something like that – that happened to me a few times,” she revealed.
“But they never really follow it up or give you help finding teams like in men’s football.”
When compared to the treatment of young men looking to find a career in the game, Jess believes that young women were overlooked too often.
“When I was in high school, the boys’ PE teachers helped them a lot, getting them trials and getting people watching their games, so they had loads of options,” she said.
Jess found the decision to quit Stockport remarkably easy – at the time there was slim chances of gaining a full-time career in women’s football, and she felt it would be foolish to turn down a university place to chase that dream.
“Especially when I was young there wasn’t a lot of money in female football, so there was no professionals – you couldn’t see any actual career out of it,” she said.
Although Jess still plays regularly for John Moores, she admitted that she is far more interested in the men’s game – and rarely watches the women’s variation of the sport.
“It’s faster, it’s a lot more tactical,” she admitted. “It’s more skilful – the high end players in men’s football are better than the high end women’s footballers.”
Despite her belief that the men’s game is superior, she conceded that women are not provided with the same chances as their male counterparts.
“The top female footballers are probably on par with some of the average Premier League players, but it’s hard to recreate the same skill level when they’ve not had the similar training,” she pointed out.
“They’ve not had the amount of training men have had either.”
“The coaches in female football are not going to be as good as men’s football – they obviously attract the better coaches because they’ve got all the money.”
“They’re not getting the best coaching or the amount of coaching from an early age which the men have had.”
To spotlight the lack of professionalism in the women’s game when she was growing up, Jess recalled a trip to watch a top division game at Everton.
“When I was 12 my mum drove me and my friend to watch Arsenal against Everton, and there was about 12 people watching – it was when female football really wasn’t that popular,” she said.
“We waited in the car park for some of the Arsenal players and when we got Alex Scott’s autograph she was holding some chips and curry sauce!”
“That’s how unprofessional it was.”
Some women’s players have rebuffed claims in the past that the game could be bettered through changes to the size of the pitch and goals, but Jess is an advocate for those alterations.
She believes the quality of the women’s game could be significantly improved, if changes to the playing field are embraced.
“I’d make the pitch a bit smaller, less wide, and bring it in a bit because it’s too big,” she stated.
“We’re playing on the exact same size pitch as male athletes do when they’re a lot taller than us, stronger and more powerful – they’ll be fitter because their lung capacity is going to be bigger.”
“I’d make the goals smaller as well because the average height of a male goalkeeper is like six foot four or something whereas females are like five foot eight.”
“Why would we play in the same size nets when we can barely reach the crossbar?”
“That’s why female ‘keepers aren’t as good as male ‘keepers, it’s not fair.”
Despite her criticism of the women’s game, Jess maintains that the women’s game is improving and that it is in a much better place than when she was playing in Manchester,
“It’s got so much better from when I was younger,” she said. “There’s more professionalism, there’s more people going to watch it.”
“It is better to watch now than it used to be…I don’t really know why I used to watch it!”
“When you’re younger there’s more options, more teams and more girls playing so less drop out.”
Even though the teams in the league Jess played in for Stockport still don’t offer any form of payment to their players, it is a possibility that doesn’t seem too far off.
In the future, women’s players will not be forced to make the decision Jess made, and talented young players like her will no longer go to waste.