Leeds Ladies Chairman Gary Cooper exclusively reveals to We All Love Leeds his thoughts on his first 12 months at the club, their amazing achievements and his hopes for the future...
If you had asked me twelve months ago what I thought the next year held in store for what was Leeds United Ladies before they were so cruelly cast aside by LUFC and disbanded by the LUFC Foundation my answer would have been “God only knows” such was the disbelief in the ambitions of the clubs parent body. Despite the rumours and the uncertainty even if the club had carried on as ‘United’ in name behind the scenes united was the last word that could be used to describe the scenario and so perhaps the best thing that could have happened did happen – during the first week of July 2014 the Foundation announced it was to disband the Ladies team. Step forward the people without whom a football club of any size or stature can neither exist nor thrive, its supporters and most fundamental stake holder, the people who love it.
Having mobilised and constituted as a supporters club two months earlier the players, parents, sponsors and fans had already met and discussed how they could help the club progress and move forward from the relegation they had suffered but the events of July and the disbandment meant actions had to happen and had to happen fast. It was my privilege on 14th July 2014 to be nominated and elected to the position of club chairman as the newly formed and constituted Leeds Ladies FC was born thanks to the amazing work of the newly elected committee, Jim and Nicola Bright, the supporters club and the sponsors who all rallied to make it happen. With the support of the West Riding County FA and the leagues regulatory body the FAWPL the club was allowed to continue the historic affiliation and pick up from where the disbanded Leeds United Ladies had left off, in WPL Northern Division 1.
With only three weeks to put together a team the players responded in similar committed fashion coming together at rushed meetings and training sessions at Leeds Sports Centre and forming first team and development team squads short on numbers but full of passion, pride and dedication with the desire to play in the traditional white yellow and blue colours of their home cities club. As chairman I set only two challenges to the players and manager, the son I never had Jak Oldroyd who committed his time and his heart from second one, finish second bottom and enjoy your football again with smiles on your faces. My challenges fell someway short of what we actually achieved I am very pleased to say.
Our first game came and falling two nil down at home to Stockport was not what we had all hoped for especially as only twelve minutes of the first half had past. We needed inspiration and that came in the form of Sophie Varley who dashed onto a long speculative ball from midfield taking two touches before a precise right footed shot lofted above the diving keeper and found the back of the net for the clubs first competitive goal, 1-2 and the Phoenix began to unfurl her wings as the burning fires of desire rose around the ashes of the disbanded club. A new belief was born, a new desire, a new attitude and the summers fight back behind the scenes began to replicate itself on the pitch and on the terraces as the Phoenix faithful sang the praises of their players. Less than five minutes later Varley again broke past her marker and into the box to be hacked down by a now panicking Stockport defence – PENALTY! In truth there was ever only one player that was going to step forward and take it and only ever one outcome. That player was club captain Emma Bentley, the first player to commit her future to the club, the first player to score a goal in pre-season and the first player to strike an un-save able shot from the spot into the back of the net, peel away to the crowd and give the Leeds salute to the fans, 2-2.
In truth the final score line, 4-2 Leeds after two further goals in the second half told only a small part of the story but it set the tone for the entire season, WHITEWINNERS, YELLOWINNERS home and away the girls from the first team and development teams fought bravely for every win, every goal, in every defeat and for each other game after game after game. Finishing the season third and fourth (on goal difference for the development team) respectively both teams secured convincing wins against the eventual league winners and set the standards that saw the women’s football world take notice. Leeds once more had a club that could not only compete but proved it could challenge when others had left it to fail.
Off the pitch in December 2014 the committee was joined by Mike Farnan in a consultancy role who quickly secured a three year deal with Macron as technical sponsors and reunited with his former gaffer at Leeds United Ladies reserves Gaz Lee returned to the dugout as first team manager to complete my #DreamTeam management pairing with Jak who had rightfully earned the nickname ‘The Special One’ by the fans.
County Cup glory saw the club reach the semi-final without conceding a single goal until losing to Bradford a whole division above us. Club records were set as first Shelbey Morris and then Bianca Ross scored four goals in a game, the club secured the first of two seven game winning streaks and reflected back on an amazing season at its awards night in May celebrating unbelievable achievements with the many fans, parents sponsors and LUFC fans who recognised the pride and passion the girls had returned to a proud footballing city.
In truth this was nothing short of a miracle, a miracle we managed to put a club together at all in the time given, a miracle that we managed so much more than a second bottom finish, a miracle that the wider Leeds family had rallied so quickly and so passionately to help us with the finances needed during August and September and a miracle that so many people could share a dream and watch it unfold before them truly marching on together. A truly amazing story, but that’s only the beginning ……..
Season two: As chairman my expectations and my ambitions have risen, as a club we showed we have nothing to fear and are capable of beating the best, the challenge now is to finish our second season as champions and to win promotion back to the WPL proper. We set ourselves an ambitious 3 to 5 year plan, in year 2 we are targeting moving our ambitions on a full year ahead of schedule. Are we stretching our ambitions too far? No I don’t think so, we have the players, the coaches, the management, the committee and the fans to make it happen. Player sponsors came forward in numbers in season 1 and I hope they will again in season 2 but now we need more, more on the pitch, more off it and to put together a successful challenge for the summit of women’s football, the WSL, we need the support of the Leeds Business Community. We need your help to put a financial structure in place that demonstrates this city has ambition, this city deserves its place at the top of the sporting ladder, this city truly could challenge to be European City of Culture in 2023 but it needs the rich and wealthy of the city to work with the volunteers, be part of that ambition, prove this city has what it takes, join us as the Phoenixrises once more. If your business wants to be part of a winning team email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and associate yourselves with the WHITEWINNERS of Leeds.
We move back to Leeds next season too although our development team will play at Knaresborough. Garforth AFC is to be our home for at least three seasons, under 16s can come and support us free of charge whilst adults pay only £3 which represents superb value. Please come along to games if you can, a full fixture list will be available on our website from the middle of June www.leedsladiesfc.co.uk and if you can’t come to games tune into to PhoenixrisesFM our Ustream channel featuring supporters club, fanzine and social media legends Badger & Breno. Check out our match highlights and interviews plus all the latest news on our YouTube channel ‘Leeds Ladies FC’ or find us on Facebook and Twitter. #PHOENIXRISES #MOT