Skip to main content

The future of women’s football following the Lionesses’ success

25 August 2022

Earlier this summer, England’s Lionesses defied the odds and became European champions. What does this mean for the future of women’s football in the UK?

Will we see an increase in funding and coverage to support more women and girls to get into the sport? We caught up with Newcastle medical graduate and goalkeeper for Sunderland Athletic FC, Allison Cowling, to get her thoughts.  

Football has always been a part of my life. I was born and grew up in Houston, Texas, but both my parents are originally from Bridlington in Yorkshire so we were big Hull City fans at home!  

My Mom used to play football in the park as a kid and was the only girl with a bunch of boys, and she continues to play football (or soccer!) even now, competing in leagues for women in their 60s. I’ve grown up with strong role models and I was always encouraged to get involved. I remember first playing football at the age of 4 or 5, but it wasn’t until I was 10 and put in goal as a last-minute decision that I found the position I was born to play in.  

I was lucky to have such great role models to look up to in the States – Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, my Mom! – and young girls in the UK today are now growing up in an environment where they have that too.

In the USA, girls playing football is a given. When I came to Newcastle to study my medical degree, I was shocked to hear from my peers that football wasn’t an option for them in school PE lessons – it was just rounders or netball! 

I think the prominence of women’s football in the USA is probably down to the success the national team has enjoyed over the years. If you asked a random person on the street in America to name a footballer, I wouldn’t be surprised if they named a woman rather than a man! I guess with male sports over in America, there are so many other types of sports competing for the top male athletes – like baseball and basketball – so we almost have the complete opposite situation to the UK, where men’s football is huge and the women’s sport is only just getting the attention it deserves.

My hopes for the future of the game 

Watching the Lionesses compete this summer was amazing. I was lucky enough to be at their opening game at Old Trafford and seeing Wembley full for the final made me quite emotional if I’m honest. 

This is a huge opportunity to really change the future of women’s football in the UK, and I hope it happens on every level.  

At the minute, sport is segregated from such an early age and many girls – like my friends at University – just don’t have the opportunity to play football. Many of the Lionesses came from the same environment and had to push for opportunities at school, playing as the only girl on a team of boys. After this summer, it’s inexcusable for that to still be the case. 

I was lucky to have such great role models to look up to in the States – Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, my Mom! – and young girls in the UK today are now growing up in an environment where they have that too. For them, women playing sport isn’t abnormal, it’s celebrated.   

Little girls watching the Euros this summer will have seen Chloe Kelly score the winning goal and celebrate by taking her top off - I have similar memories of being a kid and watching Brandi Chastain. To me, women playing football was normal, and I’m really excited for this new generation of girls who will see it as the norm thanks to the Lionesses. 

I also really hope that the people who supported the Lionesses in the Euros will go out and start supporting their local women’s teams. I love seeing families at our Sunderland games, and it’s so important to encourage both young girls and young boys to support women’s football.  

What happened this summer is phenomenal, but it’s only as valuable as the change it inspires. I hope the Lionesses’ success is a springboard for more fans, more coverage and more funding to support the women’s game. We’re seeing the start of that already. The Lionesses have a friendly against the USA at Wembley in a couple of months and it’s already sold out. A friendly – sold out!  

I’ll obviously be supporting England, although I can’t get to the game myself as it’s in the middle of our season. I remember being about 8 or 9 and England were playing the USA in Birmingham, Alabama. My dad drove me for hours, across three States, to watch them and I was the only kid there in an England kit! When I think back to then – it must have been the early 2000s – to now, the change in women’s football is beyond belief. It’s a really exciting time to be joining women’s football and I just wish I was 10 years younger!  

What happened this summer is phenomenal, but it’s only as valuable as the change it inspires. I hope the Lionesses’ success is a springboard for more fans, more coverage and more funding to support the women’s game.

Making the move from Houston to Heaton 

I initially went to university in America, getting my undergraduate from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. Once you leave college at the age of 22, the opportunities available to play football kind of vanish unless you’re picked up by a professional team. I’m fortunate that I’ve got dual citizenship thanks to my parents, so I decided to move to the UK and continue playing football. 

I lived in London for a while, working part-time in support work while playing for a local club near Brighton called Lewes LFC – who are now in the same league as Sunderland! Supporting adults with learning disabilities and mental health struggles in my job got me thinking about studying medicine, and so I applied on a bit of a whim to a few universities - Newcastle being one of them.  

When I travelled up to Newcastle for my interviews, I fell in love with the city and knew this was where I wanted to be. My parents had lived in Northumberland for a while before moving to the States, so it felt like a full circle moment. I then had to figure out how I could continue playing football while studying! 

I joined Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC) when I moved up North and had a great couple of years with the club. Playing for NUFC and juggling clinical rotations as part of my degree didn’t leave much time for getting involved in the BUCS league at University too unfortunately, but I was friends with the goalkeeper from the Men’s University team and so I sometimes trained with them. Some of my teammates at NUFC also represented Northumbria University in BUCS – I don’t know how they did it! 

I made the move to Sunderland AFC in the final year of my degree and graduated as Dr Cowling in 2019! After two years of working in Gateshead hospitals, I’ve moved into a teaching fellow role which is better suited to my training schedule at Sunderland. I now work 9-5 which is a novelty for doctors, I know!  

Joining Sunderland (SAFC) 

When the opportunity arose to join Sunderland AFC, I knew I had to take it. They were in the next league above Newcastle, so it was a great opportunity for me to challenge myself and progress my performance. I love the team at Sunderland, the club has got such a family feel to it.  

I’ve played four seasons with SAFC so far, but two of those were disrupted because of the pandemic. We were promoted in 2021 so last season we were playing in the Women’s Championship. In the National League, we were just playing teams in the North of England, but now I get to travel all over the country to compete.  

It’s obviously a much bigger commitment and sometimes can be a bit tiring juggling our training schedule with a full-time job, but I’m really excited for the season ahead. Last season was our first in the Championship and so our goal was just to keep our place in tier two really, but this year we can push on from last season and build on that to do even better.  

As well as inspiring a new generation of players, I really hope that the Lionesses’ success will increase the audience for existing games. We’d love to see more people supporting SAFC at our upcoming games! 

The Barclays Women’s Championship starts on Saturday 20 August 2022. Find out more about upcoming SAFC fixtures and how you can support the club on their website.

Do you have news to share with our alumni community? 

Get in touch and share your latest news and achievements so we can let your fellow Newcastle alumni know!