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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 September 2007, 12:30 GMT 13:30 UK
Women's game struggles to recruit
By Alistair Magowan

England and Arsenal striker Kelly Smith
Kelly Smith is key to promoting the game, according to leading figures
England's biggest club, Arsenal Ladies, say they are struggling to recruit young players despite figures showing a surge in the game at grass-roots level.

Over 147,000 players competed in affiliated league and cup competitions last season, up from 11,000 in 1993.

Despite that, Arsenal development manager Clare Wheatley said, "The numbers are not there in their droves.

"But I'd like to think England making it to the quarter-finals would have a real positive influence on girls."

Wheatley believes the European Championships, held in England two years ago, generated huge interest.

Parents, however, are uncertain of where to take girls to get them started in the game.

"I think it's a lack of knowledge at the moment. That's what we're fighting against," she said.

Alistair M - BBC Sport

"We are relying on luck and word of mouth because there isn't that depth in the girls' game."

As England prepare for Saturday's Women's World Cup quarter-final against the USA, there are now 8,500 registered womens and girls teams in England, compared to just 80 in 1993.

And according to the Active People survey, commissioned by Sport England in 2006, 250,000 women and 1.1m girls play some form of football in England.

But Wheatley thinks the figures are misleading as one girl might be counted four or five times according to the number of sides they play for.

"A girl could represent a centre of excellence, her county, her team on a Sunday and her school, so yes those statistics could be misleading," she said.

"But the [overall] numbers have certainly improved in the last eight years. Schools are now developing girls sides and we help put on festivals to help develop the game."

A Football Association spokesman denied any inflation in figures, saying: "We monitor the figures more than ever."

Arsenal Ladies
If we're struggling to get players with the level of success that we've had... then I dread to think how smaller clubs operate

Arsenal Ladies development manager Clare Wheatley

But the FA is fully aware of the battle it faces to keep women's football in the spotlight and have used the England team's World Cup appearance to launch a campaign to recruit more girls and women.

The campaign, called Girls United, comes at a time when there are concerns about the domestic game after Charlton Ladies folded last season.

Although sponsorship is in place to ensure the womens' set-up continues, Wheatley says Charlton's troubles offered an important lesson for other clubs.

"It's a learning process for us all really, for us not to presume anything," she said.

"That's why we always try to build on such strong foundations so we have a programme which can bring young players through."

The system has already borne fruit with several players breaking into the Arsenal Ladies first team but Wheatley is concerned that the club is still having problems attracting players in the first place.

"We had about five players on the list for the under-10s trials, so we had to be proactive and write to local schools and clubs.

"But I think at the moment the hierarchy in the women's game is such that the parents probably aren't aware of where to send their girls of a certain standard.

"If we're struggling to get players with the level of success that we've had ...then I dread to think how smaller clubs operate."

Girls and women interested in playing football can log onto the Girls United website to find their local football club.



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