A LOT has changed since Toni Upton was turning out for Delting Football Club in her primary school days, playing alongside the boys.
Whilst she never experienced any stigma being the only girl in the team, it is fair to say women’s football has grown exponentially since Toni wore the maroon strip back in the 1990s.
The start of secondary school was the cut-off point where she could no longer kick around with the boys in training or matches. But that didn’t put her off, excelling at hockey before returning to football in a Shetland women’s team.
But the 34-year-old is now captain of Darlington Football Club’s women’s football team, capping off a steady evolution from the Delting days.
The centre midfielder is enjoying her time in her team’s first season; at one point they rode through a 13-game unbeaten streak, and are chasing promotion.
Toni – who might be better known locally by her maiden name Sidgwick – was brought up in Ollaberry, and Brae-based Delting was a natural fit despite football historically being seen as more of a male pursuit.
“I’ve always been really interested in playing football,” she says. Before I played for a team and joined Delting I was always kicking a ball about in the garden or at school in the playground.”
Toni – who now lives in Ingleton in County Durham and works as a data analyst – said everyone was welcoming at Delting, despite her being the only girl in the youth teams.
“If you put the work in and tried hard and training then you got rewarded with being able to play in the squad.”
But the lack of proper football infrastructure for girls meant that once the Delting experience came to an end, she was left adrift with no team to play for.
There was more encouragement at Brae High School though for hockey, with teachers like Jill Hibbert fostering a love for the sport.
She rose through the ranks and ultimately played in goal for Shetland, and taking the captaincy.
“I didn’t play hockey until I went to secondary school,” Toni explains.
“With probably being the gap between having to stop playing with the boys team, and there was a girls team to join, I started playing hockey at school.
“From then on hockey was probably the biggest sport for me for a number of years, processing through the Shetland set-up. After moving [away from Shetland in the 2010s] I took a back step from hockey and got back into football in a bigger way.
“I’ve always loved both sports, but I think that influence and encouragement at school probably pushed me into hockey when unfortunately there maybe wasn’t as much of a set-up for women’s football at the time.”
But for the Tonis of today in Shetland, there appears to be new hope.
There is weekly football training for girls, from age seven and up, and more than 120 lasses are on the books.
An under-16 Shetland team recently played their first game on the mainland, with the players receiving high plaudits for their performance.
“It’s getting more and more popular all the time,” Shetland girls football secretary Adam Priest said.
Toni has been watching on from afar, and she is “really chuffed” to see how things are progressing.
Some opportunities did crop up as a teenager, though. There was a trip to a tournament in Wales with a female Shetland team, while she turned out for the blues on home soil in the 2005 Island Games in what was a tough series of matches against the likes of Bermuda.
For now, though, the focus is on Darlington. The women’s group is affiliated with the men’s team, and Toni said it has been “really professional from the start”.
As the women’s team is in its infancy the players have started out near the bottom of the ladder in a Durham regional league, but the hope is to progress upwards with promotions.
“I’ve been really fortunate – my experience in football has always been positive, although I’ve have to had some forced time off due to maybe the infrastructure not being there when I was growing up,” Toni reflects.
“I’m glad and excited to see the way the Shetland girls and women’s teams seem to be growing, and the infrastructure seems to be there now. Hopefully there will be lots of new young Shetlanders taking up the sport and going on further.”
So does Toni – who is also still playing hockey – have any advice for any young Shetland girls looking to get into football?
“I would say get stuck in – if you’re interested in getting involved in football, then ask around,” she says.
“There’s some really friendly people that are involved in the sport, and generally everybody wants everybody to be able to succeed and have a good experience. So get involved and try it.
“There’s a lot more exposure on the TV and stuff as well, which is excellent. If it’s something that you’re really passionate about – whether it’s just playing at a lower level or just for fun and the social experience, or there’s so much more you can build on to.
“There’s opportunities now to get involved. It’s a lovely friendly atmosphere. A football family is a great family to be part of.”
More information on the Shetland Girls Football group can be found here.
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