The future of women’s football

As interest continues to rise in the wake of the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 glory, we catch up with the captains of Bristol City Women’s Club and Bristol Rovers Women’s Club and discuss their hopes for the future of the game…

Like many big cities around the country – Manchester, Liverpool, for example – Bristol is made up of two halves. One side is red, one is blue – and we’re not talking politics. Bristol City (red) and Bristol Rovers (blue) have been fierce rivals for what seems like millenia and die-hard fans will never miss a chance to engage in some pre-game fight talk.

With that said, however, when I spoke to the captains of Bristol Rovers Women’s Football Club and Bristol City Women’s Football Club this month, following an explosion of interest in the game thanks to the Lionesses’ recent win at the UEFA European Women’s Football Championship, one thing became abundantly clear: the two teams are nothing but united in their efforts to inspire the next generation.

Bristol Rovers Women’s Club – now affectionately known as The Gas Girls in recognition of the club’s unofficial nickname, The Gas – has an interesting history. After forming in 1998, the club hit financial difficulty in the mid-2000s, which led to the funding for the women’s team being cut and them being renamed Bristol Academy W.F.C. in 2005. Some 11 years later, to add insult to injury, the team was taken over by Bristol City.

A ray of light came in 2019 when Matthew Davies joined the Bristol Rovers Community Trust and worked tirelessly to correct the imbalance within the club. Together with Nathan Hallet-Young, they formed The Gas Girls as part of the Community Trust. At the first open trials that were held for the team, over 100 women and girls showed up, highlighting the desperate need for such a team in the local area. Although women’s teams existed within Bristol, there was a Gas Girls-shaped hole in the offerings – a gap between those who wanted to play professionally in the FA Women’s Championship with Bristol City and those that wanted to play for fun.

The team’s inaugural 2019/20 season – captained by Natalie Coles – saw The Gas Girls achieve a 100% record in the Gloucestershire County Women’s League, the seventh tier, before the season was declared null and void due to the pandemic. The team returned the next season after training hard at their home ground of Lockleaze Sports Centre to win the title and a promotion. The 2021/22 season in the South West Regional League brought another title. Their final game of the season earlier this year was under the lights at the Memorial Stadium. In front of a crowd of over 2,000 people, the team were crowned champions of the South West Regional League (Northern Division). This season, the team will start in the South West Regional Premier Division, the fifth tier, with their eyes firmly fixed on the top spot.

As for Bristol City Women’s Club – which were once Bristol Academy W.F.C. and now widely known as The Robins – the team have been competing in the top flight of women’s football in England for over a decade. In 2011, Bristol Academy W.F.C Limited won a licence to compete in the new FA Women’s Super League (WSL). This allowed the team to become semi-professional and an untested Mark Sampson became first team manager. Sampson remained in the post until he left to take up the prestigious England Women’s manager role in 2014. In that time Bristol Academy reached two FA Cup finals and competed in the Champions League. In 2015, shortly after Willie Kirk was appointed as manager, the FA WSL management committee approved the name change for Bristol Academy Women’s Football Club to change to Bristol City Women’s Football Club. Summer of 2018 saw Kirk depart and new manager Tanya Oxtoby take the helm.

Playing their home fixtures at the Robins High Performance Centre, City Women had a positive 2021/22 season, finishing third in the Championship. For the upcoming campaign, the Robins have brought in the very experienced Anita Asante along with seven new signings including the permanent signing of Fran Bentley from Manchester United.

The rising interest in women’s football shows no sign of slowing down. The women’s FA Cup drew an attendance of 49,094 in May and the Euros final between England and Germany saw a crowd of 87,192 at Wembley Stadium, beating the highest total recorded in either the men’s or women’s editions of the tournament. This month, we get to know the captains of Bristol’s two top teams. Without further ado, meet Bristol City captain and midfielder Aimee Palmer and Gas Girls captain Natalie Coles…

TBM: Tell us about your journey as a professional footballer and where your love for the sport first began…
Aimee Palmer:
My love for football first began at the age of five. My best friend played football at school so I decided that I should give it a go. I started playing for my local boys team and got scouted to play for Norwich City Centre of Excellence, where I then played from the age of six to 15. At this point, it was clear that if I wanted anything out of football I needed to move away from the east of England so I moved to Bristol at 16 to play football for the development squad, alongside taking my A levels. The assistant coach at the time, Willie Kirk, then moved to Manchester United and took me along with him. During my two-year spell at United, I went on loan to Sheffield United to get more game time. After the two years, I came back to Bristol and have been here ever since.

Bristol City Women’s Club Captain Aimee Palmer

What has the reaction been since the Lionesses’ victory in Wembley? Have you noticed an explosion of interest over the last couple of months?
I definitely felt like the whole country was behind the Lionesses throughout the competition. Whenever I was out and about watching the games, people would come up to me and ask me more about the women’s game as well as being impressed with the ‘state of the game’. I also took the opportunity to tweet about our matches being at high performance centre which got a lot of attention, so I hope that we see the funnel of interest into our game. I do believe that the interest in women’s game has increased year on year which makes the future very exciting.

Bristol City does a lot to promote, engage and inspire girls to kick start their career in the sports industry – why is this work so important to you and the team?
I think it’s super important to inspire the next generation and show any youngster that it’s possible. I know that as a kid if women’s football was more visible – and there were more role models – many more people would be where I am now. I also think it’s important for us to show them that we are just normal people. When we engage with them, I think it allows them to really believe in the journey, especially here at Bristol – the pathway is very successful.

What are your hopes for Bristol City’s next season?
My hopes for the season are for us to get promoted, I think Bristol City as a club should be in the Women’s Super League (WSL) and I genuinely believe that this season is our season. We have a very good squad on the pitch and off the pitch, which is something that I believe separates us from the rest of the league.

What are your hopes for the future of women’s football as the recent victory has changed the sport forever?
I hope that women’s football continues to grow, and that the increase in visibility has made many more people aware of just how good the women’s game is. Although it will never be like the men’s, it should be just as loved and available for everyone from all backgrounds to watch it. I hope it has inspired both young boys and girls to be involved in the sport and even businesses to invest and help grow the game.

What would you say to young girls in Bristol looking up to you – what advice would you like to pass down?
My advice to any young person would be to enjoy the game, football is all about enjoyment – even in an elite environment you play your best when you’re enjoying it. I would also say that they should expect there to be bumps in the journey – no journey is ever plain and simple, and if you want to get to the highest level, be fine with things not always going right. My final piece of advice would be to always work hard, in anything that you do, training or games because then you will have no regrets.

The Gas Girls

The Gas Girls
A shining example of hard work, The Gas Girls have proven that they are a force to be reckoned with. Storming through the leagues season after season, they are both celebrated on the pitch and cherished off of it. The Bristol Rovers Community Trust’s tagline is ‘community, education, participation and performance’ and with local people at the heart of everything they do, the team have made national headlines for fighting discrimination within the sport. In 2021, The Gas Girls’ special edition away shirt, which celebrated the amazing work that Bristol Pride do for the LGBTQ+ community in the city, was inducted into the National Football Museum.

Just months later, The Gas Girls became the first club to donate the front of their away shirt to Her Game Too, an organisation which aims to foster an ethos in football in which women are welcomed and respected equally. Chairman Adam Tutton and club secretary Matthew Davies were honoured as the first recipients of the Her Game Too Hero Award for their contribution to the anti-sexism campaign. All profits from the shirt sales go towards fund free football sessions for young girls in Bristol, which are organised by the Community Trust.

Although currently on maternity leave, Natalie has led The Gas Girls to victory for the last two seasons. We sit down with the defender to find out more…

TBM: Tell us about your journey as a footballer, the clubs you’ve played for and where your love for the sport first began…
Natalie Coles:
Some would say I was late to the sport, but when I was growing up, women’s football wasn’t as big in the 90s/early 2000s as it is today. I started when I was in Year 7 at school because my friend’s dad ran the team and I was quite sporty – it just went from there. I first started playing for South Bristol Wanderers, which then became Clevedon Town Ladies. Unfortunately, the club folded so I then went onto play for St Nicholas Football Club Ladies, followed by Brislington Ladies Football Club before joining Bristol Rovers. I’m currently on maternity leave and so have handed the reins over to our vice captain Libby Bell for the next season.

Gas Girls Captain Natalie Coles

What has the reaction been since the Lionesses’ victory in Wembley? Have you noticed an explosion of interest over the last couple of months and what has that been like?
It’s been great to see how much interest there is in the sport now. I think the women’s victory at Wembley is going to do masses for women and girls in football. The interest in our team has already been huge – our inbox has been crazy since they won the Euros!

Gas Girls’ tagline is ‘community, education, participation & performance’ – why it is so important to you and the team to work closely with girls and women in the community?
One of the reasons why people love the club so much is not just because of what we do on the pitch but it’s the stuff that we do off the pitch as well. We go into schools and run free sessions at Lockleaze and try and get as many girls into football as we can. It’s been getting more and more popular over the years but there’s definitely been an explosion of interest this summer. For me, I always loved football but I never had a team to play with in their local area – I think a lot of girls and women struggle with this. Hopefully now that it’s picking up a lot, people’s potential will be spotted earlier.

The Gas Girls became the first club to donate the front of their away shirt to Her Game Too, an organisation which aims to foster an ethos in football in which women are welcomed and respected equally

What are the hopes for Gas Girls’ next season?
Libby was vice captain for the last two seasons and, from what I hear, is already doing a great job as captain. I’m definitely missing it a lot, I’m missing the girls – I try and stay as involved as I possibly can. There are definitely high hopes for this season. We’ve signed lots of new younger players and they’ve added some depth to the team for sure. What’s good about signing the younger players is that there is potential to be able to develop that player and, in turn, improve the standards of the whole team.

What are your hopes for the future of women’s football?
My hope is that women’s football becomes more and more accessible for anyone of any ability to enjoy the game. I hope, with the next generation, we can eradicate the negative stereotypes that impede the potential of so many women and girls and we see positive growth within the sport.

What would you say to young girls in Bristol looking up to you – what advice would you like to pass down?
I would say just don’t listen to people who tell you you shouldn’t be playing – go out there and enjoy it. Keep pushing forward. Train hard. Live those dreams that you’ve got.

Stay up to date with Bristol City and The Gas Girls via their websites and social media channels:;

All images courtesy of Bristol City and Bristol Rovers Community Trust