Growing up with two older brothers meant that I spent most of my childhood stuck in goal, with only a pair of my Dad’s old gardening gloves for protection.
“Can’t I have a go?” I would plead, in between footballs being incessantly fired within millimeters of my prepubescent head.
“Nah, girls don’t shoot, Mill…”
Maybe they didn’t then, but they certainly do now, as England’s Lionesses showed on Sunday, beating Scotland 2-1 in their first group match of the Women’s World Cup, which has just kicked off in France.
As have I. For, last Wednesday night, I played in my first ever competitive football match for the UK Women’s Parliamentary Football Club (UKWPFC), alongside MPs including former sports minister Tracey Crouch, Labour MPs Alison McGovern, Anna Turley and Rosena Allin-Khan and the SNP MP Hannah Bardell.
And although we lost 3-2 to the Crawley Old Girls (COGS), I had a couple of shots on goal and can safely say it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. I’m proud to quote the tongue-in-cheek match report, which read: “The Daily Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey fired narrowly wide after an attacking move that wouldn’t have looked out of place at the Women’s World Cup.” I think that might be overstating it a bit, but what I can tell you is that discovering football at the age of 40 has been nothing short of revelatory.
I was always very sporty growing up, but was never offered the opportunity to play our national game at my all-girls’ private school, where lacrosse and netball were the only team sports on the curriculum. And although I continued playing lacrosse at university, I didn’t up-a-stick once I started work at a local newspaper in the early Noughties. These days, I run, cycle and go to the gym - but it’s a rather lonely business.
Having married the former captain of his school football team (and now coach of our son’s football team), I used to look on with envy as my husband would join his friends for impromptu “jumpers for goalposts” games at the weekend and weekly five-a-side matches. I really missed the camaraderie of playing in a team, but having given birth to three children in the last decade I couldn’t seem to find the time to join a club. I mean, where would I even start?
Netball might have seen a huge resurgence among adult women in recent years, but with players two decades younger than me, it’s intimidating - and I wasn’t a bad Wing Attack in my day.
Having been brought up in a Spurs supporting family, I now live near Watford and support the Hornets - but I have always enjoyed following football and longed to play it for years. How I would have loved to have been able to slide-tackled my brothers and perform keepy-uppies in front of my friends.
The trouble is, like riding a bike or learning to swim, if you don’t learn as a child, the opportunity often passes you by. This is one of the major problems of being a child of the 1970s - too few of us girls were offered the chance to play football at school, which undoubtedly explains why the women’s game has really only come into its own in the 21st century.
As one of my new teammates commented, posting a picture of herself playing as a four-year-old on our lively “footie” WhatsApp group: “When I turned 5 and started school I was told I couldn’t play anymore - only the boys could. Apart from a few kickabouts at uni and a couple of goes at five-a-side, I’ve waited 35 years to join a team and wear a kit.”
Tracey Crouch didn’t play her first competitive match until she was a student at the University of Hull. Similarly our star striker Hannah Bardell only started playing the game properly in adulthood for the University of Stirling’s women’s team, where she rubbed shoulders with goalkeeper Gemma Fay, whose 200 caps for Scotland make her the most-capped player – male or female – of the national side.
The snappily named UKWPFC - or green goddesses, as we jokingly refer to ourselves in our Hulk-hued House of Commons kit - was set up by political PR supremo Jo Tanner of InHouse Communications in March last year. Tracey and other women in Westminster had played for the long-established men’s parliamentary team, but when the FA took over the running of the 11-aside squad, they were barred.
Ironically, Jo then enlisted the help of the FA to bring the Women’s FA Cup trophy into Parliament as part of a recruitment drive for a new all-female squad: I was one of around 20 MPs, journalists and researchers to sign up.
Five of my MP teammates made headlines last year when, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women being allowed to stand as MPs, they sneaked into the chamber to be photographed in their kits. The Speaker showed them the yellow card when Bardell was filmed performing keepy-uppies in the iconic setting - but after apology letters were written, all was forgiven (if not forgotten).
Every Tuesday at 8am we are put through our paces at an outdoor community 3G pitch in Waterloo by our dedicated coaches Josh and Chloe from the Chelsea Foundation, a charitable arm of the Premier League football club. I call it “the only workout in London where you never check your watch” because it’s such good fun.
As some of us had never even dribbled a ball before, we were treated like a team of Under 6s, just starting out in the sport. Over the past year we have overcome crises of confidence, fitness issues and frankly the sheer embarrassment of wearing shorts and knee high socks in public to perform Cruyff Turns, headers, one-twos, and all manner of other silky skills on the pitch. (A note on football kits - they are probably the most unflattering thing a woman can wear, but there is still something magical about donning a shirt with Tominey in capital letters on the back. Thankfully women’s football boots are now available - when I played lacrosse I had to rely on my brothers’ ill-fitting hand-me-downs).
For me, the ‘beautiful game’ has not only enriched my soul and improved my physical health but brought me closer to my football-mad son Harry, who is 8 and plays for a soccer academy, as well our village club.
He used to just ask his dad to come outside and kick a ball around with him - but now he asks me, too. And although he outpaces, outclasses and often ‘nutmegs’ me at every turn (that’s when you kick the ball through your opponents legs, for the unitiated) we have such a laugh together.
Since I started playing, I have encouraged my daughters Annabel, 10, and Lara, five, to join the village club and like me, they are loving it. Playing football has become one of the ties that binds our whole family.
It has also brought together the football playing women of Parliament. It might be one of the most politically divisive times in modern history, but left or right, Brexit or remain - we are as one on the pitch.
Have you taken up a sport in later life? Why did you do so and what were the benefits and challenges you faced? Tell us in the comments section below.