Today, McDonalds has announced its continued long-term commitment to improving the standard of grassroots football in the UK with the renewal of its partnership with the four home nations Football Associations for a further four years.
Having worked closely with all four UK FAs over the past 16 years, McDonald’s is the longest-standing supporter of grassroots football in the UK. Building on the huge growth of grassroots football over the past decade and a half, the next four years will see the introduction of a new, participation-based programme aiming to provide five million hours of fun football for children across the UK by 2022.
We caught up with FAWSL stars, Natasha Harding and Nikita Parris, to talk about their involvement with McDonalds and the season ahead.
GOTB: McDonalds have had a long-standing partnership with the FA. What do you think has been the biggest effect of the work they do?
NP: I think for grassroots football, it’s seeing the development that’s transpiring now that young English teams are doing so well. As you know the U19s/20s are World Cup winners and the U19s are silver medallists. It’s great; it’s where you start isn’t it? Grassroots football. Now that they’ve renewed the four-year partnership with the FA, which will provide 500,000 children with the chance to play football, what more can you ask for?
NH: The biggest thing I’ve taken away is that it’s about fun. I think we’re too quick to pressurise young kids into having to be successful, having to win and having to be the best. I think it’s gone back to the basic stuff like, go and enjoy football. I think that’s a really good approach to get kids involved. Then maybe they will want to be serious but first and foremost, they should have fun.
GOTB: Is that what attracted you to be involved Tash? The fun side?
NH: Definitely. The first thing they said about coaching is, it’s quite relaxed. We want kids to turn up and play. It’s going back to things like “King of the Ring” or “Rush the Keeps”; it brings in that fun element rather than trying to force it. I think that will attract more kids to come, make friends and enjoy football. To fall in love with it.
GOTB: How important is it for you to be involved in initiatives like this one?
NP: It’s massive. I feel like all footballers should have an obligation to inspire the next generation. As you probably know, I’ve just set up my own academy. So for me, it’s really important to have more girls in football and children in general. To keep them active, to keep them socially clued on and interacting with other kids; it’s fantastic.
GOTB: How did you get into football?
NP: I started at a young age for Kingsley United. My next-door neighbour was my first manager, I was only seven and he had an under 9/10s team. He took me along and I played with the boys and then I played for my first girls’ team at U10s. I moved to Everton at U12s, so that was my pathway and I feel like, playing for my grassroots team in my local community gave me that opportunity to go on to the elite level. I would say it’s definitely because of them that I am where I am today.
NH: I was really active as a kid and have lots of older cousins who are boys that I played with. They were always running around kicking things and instead of me kicking over ornaments my mom said, go along with your cousins and play football. I was on the little village boys’ team until I was about twelve and now look at me.
GOTB: You’re just back from pre-season abroad. Are you looking forward to the new season?
NP: That [trip to America] made me raring to go; it was fantastic. We played PSG and Lyon which was a great learning experience. I think for the new girls coming into the squad, playing against Lyon so early on in the season will bode well for when we’re playing Champion’s League.
NH: It was good. Very hot! We’ve had a thing called shock week where we played three games in eight days. Pre-season is about working a lot harder than you’re probably used to and with the weather as well, it was difficult. But that’s what they wanted, us to be playing games fatigued and we got a lot out of it. We played Ajax who are very good and it felt more realistic to the teams we might face in the WSL. I really enjoyed it but didn’t like the heat! It was also really good to get away with the team, especially the new signings.
GOTB: And Nikita, how have the new signings been settling in at Manchester City?
NP: Really well. They’ve gelled with the team and they are ready to play and get into the shirt. I think that first game against Birmingham in the Continental Cup will be a great spectacle for them to play in.
GOTB: There are a lot of games this season with domestic and Champions League matches. Are there any fixtures that you are really looking forward to?
NP: I think you’ve got to take it game by game. We can’t get too ahead of ourselves. We got to the semi-finals of the Champions League last year and we want to go that one step further but we’ve got to take each game as it comes. We still want all three domestic trophies back!
GOTB: Tash, Reading had a really impressive season last year. What do you think has been the key to the clubs’ success?
NH: I think it’s down to a really good work ethic and they’re realistic with targets. We’re not going to say we’re going to win the league and the FA Cup; we’re being realistic and taking each game as it comes. We haven’t looked ahead at other games and potential results. We also have a mix of very talented football players and hopefully we’ve added to that now. This year, we’ll hopefully build a bigger, competitive squad that will allow us to rest players and rotate, so we can hit the ground running.
GOTB: England have now played every team at least once in the group. Do you think that has helped to prepare you for the final two, vital games?
NP: I feel like the next one is the most vital against Wales. Playing them in Southampton was a frustrating night but they did what they came to do and frustrate us and got the draw. Going forward into the Wales game away we will definitely be looking at that as something we don’t want to do, get frustrated. We need to carry on the winning mentality and break down teams like that because as we progress and get better, more teams will want to do that against us. You’ve got to ensure that you can break them down and score goals and that’s what we’ll be looking at working on in the lead up to the game.
GOTB: Tash, how excited are you for your upcoming World Cup Qualifier against England?
NH: It’s great. The buzz around it is fantastic. For us though we haven’t really thought about it, which sounds strange. Our success so far in this campaign has come down to us taking it one game at a time and not being too distracted by things outside of it that we can’t control. All the pressure is on England; they’re seen as outright qualifiers. No one expected us to get this far and I think that’s down to our players and staff. But it’s really exciting and we’re looking forward to it. It will be a tough game and I’m not going to sit here and say we’ll qualify but our target was to get play-offs and we’ve done well so far to keep on track for that. The game will be all things you can imagine with an England-Wales game and I think it’s great we’ve sold-out an almost 8,000 stadium. I know England have previously experienced selling out bigger grounds but for us, it’s massive. We’ve never had that many people before. So it might look minute to people on the outside but for us, it’s massive.
GOTB: Nikita, what has progression been like under Phil Neville?
NP: We met him first in La Manga and then he took us to SheBelieves. To finish second with only a couple of months of him being in charge showed what he wants from this team. It’s that winning mentality. As the games go on, you’ll see us doing more of our best to win. That’s definitely what he’s brought with his past and his medal collection is crazy; that’s what you want at the end of your career as a footballer.
GOTB: Tash, what would you say has been the most important factor to Wales’ success, especially in the last 12 months?
NH: Some of us have known each other since we were 11/12 and we’ve progressed through the ranks and come through the bad times, and through some good times. This campaign, we haven’t had any pressures externally and we’ve gone about our business quite quietly. We don’t expect a tap on the back when we do really well and I think that’s down to Jayne keeping our feet on the ground because we haven’t done anything yet. There’s people in Wales talking about the World Cup but we haven’t qualified yet. So for us it has always been one game at a time and our team spirit has been fantastic. And I think it’s pretty obvious that we will do anything for each other when it’s 90 minutes on the football pitch.
GOTB: The game has changed a lot in the last few years, both on and off the pitch. What for you are the biggest highlights and what to you think needs more work?
NH: I think the shift in terms of how we play football has changed. The likes of Man City have changed the way we look at the games with patterns and the set up they have, everyone is trying to emulate that in their own way. They’ve gone more professional. Chelsea for instance have their own facility at the men’s training ground and are seen as equals rather than women in a men’s area. In terms of more equal opportunities off the pitch, I think it’s done really well and exceeded people’s expectations.
There’s still a long way to go in term of attracting fans, sponsors and TV to buy into our game. I do think there’s a bit more to be done in terms of promoting it at a realistic level. They seem to buy into it in other countries but for some reason we don’t seem to here. If we can have more men’s teams on board willing to push it forward and put the women on the forefront or at least equal to the men, we’ll only see benefits.
Nikita Parris and Natasha Harding were speaking at the launch of McDonald’s UK’s new football sponsorship programme which will provide over five million hours of fun football for children across the UK by 2022. For further information visit www.mcdonalds.co.uk/football