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LAURA McALLISTER a footballer’s tale My name is Laura McAllister. I was born in Bridgend in 1964. I live between Liverpool and Cardiff at the moment, because I work as Professor of Governance at Liverpool University and Chair of Sport Wales. I only took over in February 2010. I was Vice Chair and a member of the Board prior to that, so I’m not new to the organisation. I’ve tried to be a strategic Chair, you know. I see my role really as offering and promoting a vision and leadership for sport in Wales, trying to push the boundaries of what we do, so that sport becomes really ingrained in the public’s mind and connected with other agendas, so we don’t have to fight our corner too hard in that the value of sport from a health perspective, a social cohesion perspective, an education and skills perspective is really embedded in people’s minds and particularly in the politicians’ minds, because they control the purse strings. It’s very important that they understand that the value of what we’re doing isn’t just for sport and physical activity; it’s for the health of the nation and the attainment and success and profile of the nation as well. No one is underestimating the challenges that we face in the next four to five years and maybe even longer. The kind of deficits we have are going to take quite some time to address, but I’ll be very surprised if the Welsh Assembly Government didn’t understand that you cut funding to sport at your peril, because you lose a generation of children to sport, you give them poor experience through physical education in schools, you make it more difficult for clubs to offer good coaching experiences, and you make it more difficult for communities to have good facilities. And what that means is higher costs to the NHS, poor skills levels and attainment levels, less social cohesion, more exclusion of kids from communities. For me, it’s a no brainer. It’s as important a part of our spending as any other single budget and I’ll be making our case very strongly to government. football Football was my first sport. I’d always been a sporty kid, loved sport from my first exposure to it. I can remember kicking a ball with my dad in the garden, and throwing and catching and playing cricket with my cousins, and just loving the buzz of physical activity. I definitely developed a very sporting competitive spirit at an early age. I think that comes from playing with boys and having that feeling that when you take part it is about winning as well. Of course, we accept that not everybody feels like that and it’s important that you also participate just for the fun of it, but for me, I was a very competitive kid and I loved all sports so I played everything. As soon as I went to school, I loved netball, rounders, hockey, athletics, and I was a decent runner which actually served me well in football. I was very quick, even in the context of international football. I was a middle distance runner, played, trained with Bridgend YMCA initially, and my best friend from school, Wayne Richards and I used to go and train down the sand dunes from the time we were about twelve, thirteen onwards, so I had a background in sport, was captain of the netball and hockey teams in Bryntirion Comp. I’ve always loved football. I’m a massive Cardiff City fan. My grandfather used to be involved with the Maesteg Supporters’ Club and he took me at a very early age and then, when he died when I was quite young, one of his friends from Bridgend, a guy called Bill Bowen who used to live just behind Coity Road, I think; he used to take me to all the games. My mum would just drop me off at Bridgend bus station on a Saturday morning and it would depend on where they were going to play as to what time we met, but I didn’t know where any of these places were. It could have been Hartlepool or Carlisle or Birmingham or anywhere, but for me it was just off to see the ‘The City’. So, I never had the perception that football was just for boys. I’d played in school and I’d played with my cousins and my friends, so I didn’t think that football was a boys’ sport. But obviously, there weren’t opportunities of the kind there are now for girls to play proper structured football, so I didn’t play properly until I went to university. When I went to London, I played for a while for Milwall Lionesses who were one of the big teams in those days. They were one of the most successful women’s teams. They had a good coach and a lot of the England players playing for them. When I came back to Wales to do my PhD, I joined Cardiff City Ladies who were the oldest team in Wales, still are the most successful team in Wales, and I played for them for most of my career – a great, great club, very developmental in their approach, but with also a very strong elite side. My first exposure to the international setup was going for a trial. I didn’t get selected, initially, but I was on standby for a squad and then I think there were a number of injuries and I got called in and I kept my place, so I must have done something reasonably well. I retained my place and I played every game between 1993 and 1998. There’s nothing better than competing for Wales, nothing better for a massive football fan than to be able to wear the red shirt. And end up as the captain! Well, that’s the icing on the cake, obviously. I don’t kid myself, I wasn’t the best player in the team by any stretch of the imagination. I was good but I think my strengths were very much as a team player. I obviously had an ability but, you know, there were some very talented girls that I played with. I appreciated every single time I captained Wales and every single time I played. There were some players in the squads who were probably more gifted than I was but appreciated it less, and as a result, didn’t get the same opportunities, didn’t look after themselves as well, fitness and training-wise, didn’t contribute as much to the squads, and I think that’s typical of all sports teams, really. My greatest moments in football? Well, I think definitely for Cardiff when we were pushing for promotion to the Premier League and we did get promoted, a fantastic experience, to play the likes of Liverpool and Arsenal and Doncaster and Chelsea and the top teams. And, playing at the old Arms Park in the Welsh Cup. I think we played three or four times there, winning the Cup twice. We used to play before the men’s final, so often there’d be a good crowd in. I think when Cardiff City were in the final, by the time we finished our game there was a crowd of about 15-16,000 in the ground. And, touring with Cardiff, you know, great tours to some of our twin cities like Stuttgart and Nantes. I was club captain for pretty much seven, eight years. It was a big responsibility because we had a lot of youth teams and junior teams, so that was a great honour. In terms of Wales, every one of my twenty-four caps is special, obviously, because twenty-four caps in the women’s game is probably worth about seventy or eighty in the men’s, because we play so many fewer games. I had some wonderful experiences, playing in countries like Belarus and the Faroe Islands, places that you wouldn’t go to had you not have been with a major sports team. The games I remember the most are the ones that we won because we were often in very difficult groups like the men’s senior team, now. If you’re seeded outside the top seeds, it’s very, very difficult because you’re paired with the likes of Germany or Holland or France or Spain. I remember winning our first game against Scotland at Newtown 4-1, first game while I was playing I should say. First game I captained Wales was against the Faroe Islands at Bangor, a great, great experience. My last game as well was special, because I knew I was going to retire, and we played our last qualifier against Belarus at Haverfordwest. I hadn’t told people other than my very close colleagues in football that I was going. I knew that I couldn’t juggle a professional life with an elite sports career, and I had to make a decision. I was probably youngish to retire; I think I was only about thirty-two and in the women’s game, you know, that’s very young. I think I could have played another four years, really. But it was the right decision for a whole host of reasons but a very poignant moment because I think I could have got more caps and it seems a shame to turn down the opportunity to play, but sometimes in amateur sport, it’s about making a decision that’s right for the whole of your life rather than just for sport. I never really went into any game expecting to lose. I think it was a kind of winning mentality that I have to say was instilled in us. I never thought we would lose, even if we were playing Germany or one of the top teams. Regrettably, we never had an opportunity to play England; we weren’t drawn in the same group, and they weren’t interested in friendlies against us because we weren’t a big enough nation for them. But it would have been nice and we might have pinched a draw. There’s a proper development pyramid for girls now that operates through the Welsh Football Trust and through the FAW once they get to 17+. The most important thing is that there’s a good club structure in most parts of Wales. There is an opportunity for a girl to play competitively or for fun. They shouldn’t be squeezed out of the football pyramid. On the competition and elite side, we’ve got representatives under-14 and under-16 that are run through the Welsh Football Trust, then we have the under-19 and senior teams run through the Football Association of Wales and, in fairness to the FAW, they’ve stuck their neck out; they’ve supported that, they’ve developed good coaches through the women’s game. One of my ex-international colleagues, Kath Morgan from Merthyr is now an A-licensed coach (the only female one in Wales) and I think that’s a great achievement. I know how difficult it was for my generation and, let me say, a lot worse for the generation before me, but now every girl who’s got ability and every girl who just enjoys football has got an opportunity to play and that’s as it should be. a confident nation I definitely consider myself to be Welsh. I think the historic value of our past as a nation is important but it’s much more about where we’re going next, really. I like a lot of things about the new Wales that make me reassured that we are confident as a nation. I think devolution has helped enormously in that respect. We’re a very creative nation. Things like the arts and music and theatre are very important to us, writing and literature as well, but also a sense of the different landscapes of Wales and the different communities. When you drive on the A470, from north to south or south to north, you realise just how diverse a nation we are, in terms of demographics and industry and landscape. I do think there’s this kind of bond between Welsh people; we’re a very open nation, we’re a very direct nation. I always smile when I’m working and living in England because the English are more reserved (unless you’re in a place like Liverpool; that’s very different from London). As a nation, we’re a very interesting group of people, we’re a very diverse group of people, but I also think we’re very welcoming; so if you live in or around a city like Cardiff and you look at third and fourth generation Somalis, for example, Pakistani, Bangladeshi people, people who have been in Cardiff a long long time and feel themselves to be Pakistani Welsh or Welsh Somali or whatever, I think that’s a real positive. It adds more excitement and spark to our identity. If you look at some of our best sporting stars, they reflect the mix of people that we have in Wales. Ryan Giggs has got African roots, Colin Jackson, obviously, Colin Charvis. And it’s not just about black and white. To me, it’s about the kind of experiences people had. If you saw the Howard Winstone film, Risen, you get a sense of how his industrial background, coming from a place like Merthyr, shaped the boxer Johnny Owen; Colin Jones from Swansea who was a fantastic guy, coaching our Commonwealth Games Wales squad, now. In Welsh sports, I think where they come from as athletes has helped shape them as competitors. Look at Nicole Cooke and where she trained across the Glamorganshire coastline and she’ll tell you that the hills and the peaks and the cliffs helped her become the athlete she is. Everybody is shaped by their home nation. We won a quarter of all Team GB’s golds in the Paralympics in Beijing. I mean that’s phenomenal, quarter for a nation that’s 5% of the population, under three million people. Why? Well, you’d expect me to say structures in the first place, especially with Paralympian sport. We take disability sport very seriously in Wales. We are an exemplar for international Paralympic sport. Those Paralympians didn’t happen by accident, you know, they didn’t just emerge. They came through our development structures in Disability Sport Wales. The governing body has done a fantastic job merging the community side, so that kids who have a disability get as close to the same sporting experience as kids who are not disabled. That’s really important, because I think it’s a big challenge to get parents to feel that their children can do the same things as a child who’s not disabled. It’s a hard job because society doesn’t think of it in quite that way yet. Not all of them will go on to win medals – that’s the same in non-disabled sport – but some of them will and our job is to make sure that the development structure is right so that those kids with talent do become athletes who compete at a high level and then move on to either Commonwealth Games or Olympic success. So, you’d expect me to say structure and I would say that. We’ve invested a lot of time, money, attention and resources to getting that structure right. But, if you look at sport across the board, I would say there’s a couple of other reasons why we punch above our weight. We care about it probably more than a lot of countries do because it reflects and champions our identity. All small countries are passionate about sport because it allows us to compete on the international stage, as a nation. It allows people to say, “Oh God, aren’t Wales good at rugby”, “Isn’t Craig Bellamy a fantastic footballer and he’s Welsh, you know”. All of these things actually give us another dimension to our identity. I think Welsh people are probably a bit more passionate than virtually anywhere else about sport. They like seeing success. We’ll see this with the Commonwealth Games. If we win a medal in shooting or in bowls or in any of those sports, people will feel just as passionate and delighted by it as they will if we win a medal on the athletics’ track. Evidence that success impacts upon the nation is very hard to find. It’s the debate now around the Olympics in 2012 and legacy: to what extent will we be able to show that the enthusiasm of children seeing top athletes on their doorstep – and it is their doorstep, even in Wales – will make them want to go out and play tennis or run round a track or take up sailing or canoeing or any sport? It’s very hard to prove but I think that all of the evidence points in that direction. a real joiner Children need role models, there’s no doubt about that. Top athletes succeeding is a great, great role model. For me, the legacy side is about capturing them in the structures for sport that we have. It’s not about doing new things. It’s about doing what we do better. So, for example, if a child sees Jazz Carlin in the pool, Rhys Williams or Dai Greene on the track in Delhi and then in London 2012, he or she should know that there is an athletic club in their community with good coaches, with good structures and good competition opportunities that they can embrace. Equally, if a very small child gets excited by hockey, for example, in the Olympics, when he or she goes to school our Dragon Sport programme and our 5x60 programme in secondary schools will allow them an opportunity to take part in that sport to see if they are any good. It doesn’t matter how good they are, if they enjoy the sport they should have an opportunity to play. I’m hoping the legacy side will work in that way. It will add capacity to our programmes, it will show that the investment we are spending on driving sport is bringing dividends. I’m not in the business of saying it should be sport and nothing else. I mean, I did other things as a child, you know, music and art. However, I would say that sport does offer a range of benefits to children that other activities can’t and that’s why it should be right at the heart of what children do. We know that there is a high rate of child obesity in a country like Wales; we know that in terms of child poverty we rate very badly in all comparators. Sport can be a great integrating force: you could be a fantastic footballer while having no education and being from a very poor background. It’s a real joiner, it’s something that connects people. It also actually brings skills to people. We’ve got so much evidence from our 5x60 programme where kids, particularly in the valleys, or in Holyhead or Pembroke Dock - poorer parts of Wales - have learnt new skills through sports. They’ve done a Football Leaders’ award, or they’ve trained to be an urban dance teacher or basketball coach and, you know, sometimes that’s a way of getting kids back into the system. They might not go along and do something if it was based on their school curriculum, but if it’s something that captures their imagination then it’s a way of hooking them back in. Sport can do a lot of things that no other activity can, and that’s why it should feature at the very heart of what children do. the only woman there We still work in a world that is almost completely dominated by men, particularly in professional sport. If you were looking across the governing bodies in Wales, we only have one female Chief Executive Officer (in hockey) at the moment. A lot of the other governing bodies have very few women on their Boards, so managing and running sport is still a very male affair. I’m fortunate I’ve been appointed Chair of this organisation, Sport Wales, and I’m very proud of having that role but, you know, I can go to five dinners a month and at four of them, I’ll pretty much be the only woman there, and that’s wrong, because sport has to be for everybody. We’ve talked about disability sport and we’ve talked about sport for people from different ethnic backgrounds. Sport has to be for both the sexes as well, every sport. We can’t have situations where women’s sport is ignored. Sport is not run by women and I think that’s got to change. london 2012 I sit on the board of UK Sport and we spend a lot of time considering the degree to which sports are on target to increase the number of medals; but, let’s be honest, Beijing was a fantastic success for British Olympic and Paralympic sport, so it’s going to be hard to progress further. But I think it’s possible. We had a number of fourth places which could create medals at 2012. And we can’t underestimate the benefit of a home Games. It allows us to actually develop some young athletes faster and with the benefit of competing on home territory. So, who knows what some of those can achieve? I’m optimistic; I’m not underestimating the challenge because success does bring its own difficulties, but I think some of the athletes we’ve got in Wales who are at the right stage of their career will give something special to Team GB in 2012. The systems for producing an elite Olympic athlete are fantastic. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to invest very heavily in the last Olympic cycle, so let’s hope that all of those athletes who medalled in Beijing will also be able to stand on the podium, one step higher in some cases, in 2012. Three words to describe myself? Determined. Passionate. Stubborn, maybe. They’re probably not a good combination, but they haven’t served me too badly!

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