Uniting The Community & Enabling Change: Hackney Laces

Photography: Jade Danielle Smith / Interview & Words: Tom Everest
4th July 2019

As part of Nike’s campaign to launch the new Premier League Merlin ball, we collaborated with five teams who represent the different pillars of London’s grassroots football culture. To embody the spirit that The Ball Means More, we explored the real power of women’s football across the city via the incredible initiatives that will inspire the next generation of ballers. With a commitment to transforming lives, the ones changing the game might just be the ones who change the world.

 

The tagline of ‘we’re the female football community,’ is enough of an indicator as to what the overriding ethos of Hackney Laces is – the community-focussed football club founded by Katee Hui in 2011. But it doesn’t tell the entire story. “I was walking home from playing football in Islington when a group of girls who lived on my street asked me if I knew of anywhere for them to play,” explains Katee. “They were 13 years old – too young to join the women’s team I was playing for. I was a qualified FA Coach so I told them I’d train them in the park near my house every Thursday. Over the following weeks, 3 girls turned into 6 and then it escalated to 25. By then I realised that there was the demand and I needed to set up a club for them,” she added.

 

From humble beginnings, Hackney Laces has grown into one of London’s most influential and all-encompassing open-plan football clubs. An inviting and evolving initiative that gives girls – of all ages and abilities – a place to feel welcome and a place to grow in tandem with the game on and off the pitch. By continuing to challenge the gender stereotypes in the sport, Hackney Laces’ mission statement of ‘inspiring more girls to sign up to a team and have the opportunity to play football,’ has given rise to one of the capital’s most heart-warming success stories. A sign of its strength is that Hackney Laces now has over 300 players across three different teams.

 

What’s more, the community-supported football club extends the skills that girls learn on the pitch – namely confidence, teamwork and enthusiasm – to run ‘off the pitch’ programmes, designed to support the girls beyond football. Hackney Laces’ tireless work serves to prove that the women’s football scene in the capital is so much more than sport.

 
 

How would you describe the grass roots football scene across London?

 

It’s buzzing! Over the last 5 years there’s been so many teams popping up. Each unique in their own way, catering to the love of the game and the members that want to take part. In a huge metropolitan area like London, it’s a great foundation for teams to thrive. People find their tribes and can forge friendships and a collective team identity together.

 

How important is it to keep football in the community?

 

Football is the lifeline of a lot of communities. It’s a place where anyone can come and enjoy the game be it watching, playing, coaching, volunteering. It connects people. At a time where loneliness affects 9 million people across the UK, and services to young people keep getting cut, having an activity that brings people together, laughing, running around and forming relationships is so important.

 

Cages and small-side pitches harbour so many dreams; just how pivotal is having pitches and initiatives like Hackney Laces to kids growing up in London?

 

They are essential! The beauty of football is it can be played across so many formats in so many settings. From 1v1 ‘panna’ knockout to futsal and 5-aside; cages, goals painted on walls, the whole urban football environment enables play. And it’s scoring those impossible goals in that cage, or nutmegging a player on the concrete that keeps the dream alive – and keeps everyone laughing hysterically.

How much has Hackney Laces changed the community in the last 8 years?

 

I think it’s a reciprocal relationship. Laces has changed the community and the community has changed us. We don’t just play football we get to know what’s happening around Hackney and ways we can take part. Years ago we helped build the shop at Hackney City Farm; recently we’ve been working in partnership with London Football Journeys where the Hackney Laces girls make a film about their local area and share it with young female footballers in other boroughs to increase youth cohesion and encourage more acceptance of other areas.

 

The community has changed us. Over the last few years we’ve seen a different mix of people joining us at Laces. From setting the record for our youngest player – when we took on a 7 year old – to lots of working professional women with no football experience wanting to learn how to play. This is what we love, a community of people with a shared love of the game.

 

Why do you believe football is such a powerful force?

 

Football is a leveller. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, where you grew up, your body shape; on the pitch everyone is welcome and everyone brings their own game. Football’s popularity in London and globally means it can be a force for good as well. Look at initiatives like Football Beyond Borders and their education work, or that Brazilian team Recife FC that got all of their fans to donate their organs when they die. That’s the power of football.

You say that you don’t have to be good at football – just a little enthusiasm is what you’re after. Is eliminating the stereotypes associated with the sport the biggest way to change the game? 

 

In the female game we need to bring as many people in as possible. By catering to an audience that are new to the sport or want to take part but are worried they won’t be good at first, we’re trying to build the pipeline so eventually, some of our players go on and represent their countries and everyone else, even the weekend warriors who play purely for fun, continue to play. We think that this is changing the game on the grassroots level. There’s so much on an elite and development level but to get players there you need a solid foundation at recreational level. We all wear t-shirts that say, ‘this is what a footballer looks like,’ as a statement of inclusivity and to smash the stereotypes that exist.

 

Without football, how different would you and the entire team’s lives actually be?

 

Mine would be very different -Laces is my family. I think if you ask any of our players they’d say something similar. We share heartbreaks and successes; we are there together during moments of transition and uncertainty. We win together and lose together and go again.

Do you think there are any barriers that by working as a team and using the power of football that Hackney Laces can’t break?

 

No. We’re quite proud of many of the ones we’ve smashed so far. For example, last year our sister club South London Laces was among 7 female teams that wasn’t allowed to play on Clapham Common because there were no female changing rooms – there were male ones though – so the league said they had to find a new home pitch. Instead of walking away from it, the club campaigned to anyone that would listen about the gender injustice and added expense of moving elsewhere and eventually FIFA stepped in, funding the build for 1 female changing rooms, which allowed all the teams to return. Hackney Laces isn’t alone in barrier breaking, we’re part of a collective of Laces clubs that work together using our voices and ambition to change the world together.

 

Hackney Laces gives girls courage and gives them a pathway to where they want to go in the future. Is confidence and conviction the most important things that grow from being a member of the team?

 

Definitely confidence. We want to raise aspirations and encourage our players to try and fail and develop not only as players but as people. Confidence is a huge part of this and when you’re playing a sport its one of the best ways to see confidence improve as people try new things and are faced with new situations.

 

When you look at the new ball, what does the football represent or signify to you?

 

The start of the season. It gets me excited because it’s like a new year. New ball, new season, new challenges ahead. Let’s get it started.

 

Pick up the Nike 2019/20 Premier League Merlin ball at Nike.com

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Issue 02: Heart & Soul
Ada Hegerberg, Andre Gray, Maya Jama, Andreas Perreira, Christian Pulisic
GAFFER Issue 02: ‘Heart & Soul.’ Honouring the way football cultivates community spirit, empowers the next generation and gives fans, teams and players something bigger and more beautiful to believe in. Be prepared to meet the people who are driving the culture to new heights and those who are set to change the face of the game forever.
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