BY EDMUND BRACK
Crystal Palace midfielder Leigh Nicol says that joining the ‘Womxn Who Play’ campaign is right at the very top of the proudest achievements of her life.
The campaign, which has been formed by BOXPARK ahead of the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 tournament in England, aims to champion women in sport and inspire the next generation of female athletes and sports enthusiasts.
Alongside British Olympic swimmer Alice Dearing, English Rugby Sevens player Celia Quansah, Commonwealth boxing champion Stacey Copeland and many more women who have reached the pinnacle of their respective industries, Nicol will spend the next two months attacking the deeper issues faced by young ladies exploring a career in sport.
“I’m completely humbled and honoured,” Nicol told the South London Press about being a part of the campaign. “I’m surrounded by 11 other women that I don’t feel as though I deserve to be in the same room due to what they have done in their sports and what they continue to push for.
“I’m proud to be around these women and to all be pushing for the same change and to be inspiring the next generation, because it’s needed and not what we had growing up.
“It’s a really special moment for me and probably one of my proudest achievements yet.”
Nicol grew up in Bellshill, a town south-east of Glasgow. As a midfielder, she idolised the likes of Paul Scholes and David Beckham in her formative years.
“It’s the only thing I ever grew up dreaming of,” Nicol says of her passion for chasing a football career.
“I had one chance at life, and I believe this was it.”
While she would try and emulate the two England internationals, both recognised for their passing skillset, she also had a local inspiration figure to follow in the footsteps of.
“There was a girl called Emily Thompson, who was a couple of years older than me. Similar to me, she loved her football and was the best in her area, and everyone spoke about her.
“She started at Celtic and ended up going to Arsenal, which was the same path I followed. I wanted to be like Emily, and if it wasn’t for her making that dream a reality for herself, then she made it a reality for me too.
“She was the first to make those steps, and she was the only female I aspired to be like.”
The campaign seeks to bring awareness to a study conducted by Women In Sport, which reports that more than one million girls in the UK lose interest in sport as teenagers, and 68 per cent said that a fear of feeling judged prevented them from participating.
For Nicol, who captained Motherwell and Celtic at youth team level before packing her bags and heading down south to Arsenal, the feeling is all too familiar.
“When I was about 13, I was in a parents and players’ meeting with the Scottish FA, and they made us aware that there was a large dropout for 16 to 18-year-olds at the time.
“I remember thinking: ‘That would never be me – I’m obsessed.’ But, when I got to 16, I did feel like that. I felt that there were different pathways in life that were thrown on you and different obstacles.
“I started feeling things that you had never felt before as a youngster, from your friends going out, all of your friends going to school proms and all of your friends going on holidays, but you weren’t able to do that.
“At that time, it was quite difficult to process. I remember getting to that point and thinking: ‘Have I got a strong enough chance to make it in the game, or am I missing out on valuable time and memories?’
“You have then got hormones that come into that as well. You have got loads of spots, you’re very moody, and you don’t process things quite as easily at that age. I can see why teenagers do pack it in, and it’s really sad.”
The study also found that four in 10 of the women working in sport feel they are valued less than men in the workplace because of their gender.
“You see that those females working in the media tend to get a little more backlash than the men – it’s very evident,” said Nicol.
“I feel as though it’s getting better, better and better – that’s all we can ask for. When you look at the respect that women in sport now have compared to three years ago, it’s a dramatic change.
“Are we where we need to be? No. But are we moving in the right direction? Absolutely.”
Chelsea manager Emma Hayes was hailed for her commentary and analysis during Euro 2020, and Alex Scott and Karen Carney are regular pundits across various outlets.
“They have had to go through the online abuse and being brought down constantly for them to now get that respect that they deserve,” explains Nicol.
“I do believe that we’re coming out the other side of it. With the Women’s Euros ahead of us, if England and Northern Ireland can both do well, it’s only going to take us to the next step pretty quickly.”
Nicol made the decision towards the beginning of 2021 to admit that a phone hack nearly resulted in her taking her own life.
The leak resulted in private content from 2014, when Nicol was just 18 years old, appearing on adult websites.
Since revealing that the traumatic experience caused her life to change – suffering sickness, weight loss, depression and anxiety after the breach – she has become a role model for women who may have experienced similar situations in their own lives.
“It’s what gets me up in the morning,” said the 26-year-old.
“I now feel that I have a job and role that I need to play, which helps me heal. The more I talk about it, the more I accept it every day and every month. It’s a massive thing to me. And the fact that I’m helping other people is everything I could have ever wished for.
“The initial decision to speak out was probably the hardest decision that I have had to make in my life. But, looking back, it was the best decision I have made in my whole life – the change that I have been able to start to make, people relating with me, and people reaching out to me as someone who has been through it.
“People now no longer look at the story as: ‘That’s the girl with the sex tape out.’ It’s now: ‘That’s the girl who is doing loads of stuff in the media.’
“The conversations that I am having with people are completely different, and it gives me a lot of confidence in life.”
Nicol and her Crystal Palace side achieved a record-breaking campaign in the Championship last season.
The Eagles, who are not yet a full-time club with most of the players having to juggle work alongside their football careers, finished fourth in the table and recorded the most wins in the division.
“There is no limit on what can be achieved now at this football club,” said Nicol. “The foundations have now been put in place, and the club can now only go in one direction.
“We had to come through a difficult phase where the club perhaps didn’t have the best name in women’s football, but over the last two seasons, we have begun to turn heads and get people talking respectfully about the club.
“The club is just about to get going – it’s a club that everyone wants to be a part of.
“As long as we are better than the year before, we will move at a sustainable rate and slowly build on it every single year.
“I’m blown away that I walked in when the club didn’t have the best name for itself, and now seeing what it is, it’s a completely different club.”
PICTURES: JEANIQ AMIHYIA AND KEITH GILLARD
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