‘Good Game’ is a new content series in partnership with size? and PUMA, giving a platform to some of the most important and influential grassroots collectives in London’s football communities. We’re here to showcase some of the beautiful game’s most dedicated ballers and local heroes, platforming the impact these incredible organisations are having on their boroughs – on and off the pitch. Next up, Nancy Baker tells us how her community football programme Outside The Box is helping a diverse group of girls feel safe, happy and free while kicking ball in West London.
When it comes to the women’s football scene, Nancy Baker is a much-loved game changer. There isn’t a player, manager or team in the women’s game she doesn’t know about. You want to know what Alex Greenwood’s stats were last season? Nancy knows. What does Leah Williamson have for breakfast on match days, you ask? Nancy can probably even tell you what brand of bread Leah uses. Her knowledge at all levels of the game is truly encyclopaedic.
With Outside The Box (OTB), a community led footballing programme designed specifically for girls aged 13-16 in West London, Nancy is bringing the game back to where it began for the majority of top players in the game today: the streets. We sat down with Nancy in her home borough of Kensington & Chelsea to talk through why she started Outside The Box, inspiring the next generation and how important it is to make young people feel valued while they grow up playing the game.
VERSUS: Player, coach, presenter, social media influencer… and now founder of Outside The Box. Is there anything Nancy Baker can’t do?
Nancy Baker: I put my hand to anything and everything! I love to learn, and I take an interest in learning. It helps that I’m also surrounded by incredible people who always seem to want to help me. That, combined with a desire to learn means there isn’t anything I can’t do if I put my mind to it.
I’m good at what I do because I care. I put 110% effort into everything, otherwise it’s not worth me doing it. I try to pass that onto other people – I believe if you enjoy something, and if you genuinely love it, things will work out.
For a long time, women’s football hasn’t been made to feel part of the beautiful game. Why do you think representation matters in football?
I think that representation matters full stop. At Outside The Box, there’s myself as a white female coach, and another coach from our partner organisation – The Dalgarno Trust, where we are also based – who is Moroccan and a practising Muslim. It’s important that she’s part of the team because of the girls we work with.
I think it’s really important for young girls to feel connected to the coaches they work with. Although they might relate to me on a footballing level, they might not relate to me on a personal level because of ethnicity, for example. I think if you can see it, you can be it. OTB works in such a diverse community, it’s important that we reflect that on and off the pitch.
I work in the area I grew up in, the Trust that I’m partnered with is my old youth club. The environment we’ve created for the girls makes them feel safe, they’ve got their own space; all of our staff are females which is really important for making sure they feel comfortable. Some of our girls come from cultural backgrounds where it isn’t always seen as ‘okay’ to play football, especially playing with boys, but playing with girls in an all-female environment is more accepting.
A lot of our young women wear head scarfs when they play, and sometimes they might need to adjust their scarf, or fix their hair and they feel safe doing that because of the team around them. I want to create a space where young girls can come and express themselves. I want them to feel safe, happy and free.
Why did you feel the need to create Outside The Box – was it always an ambition of yours?
It wasn’t always an ambition to be honest. Growing up, I was really lucky with the opportunities that were presented to me in football.
Our local pitches were right near Grenfell. Where the school is now is roughly where we used to play football on Green Pitch. We used to have about 30 girls come down and play through Chelsea Kicks In The Community. We used to have the best time playing in tournaments representing Chelsea, going on tours, doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. I remember those things so clearly, they’re happy memories. I remember how safe and happy I felt, and I’ve always known I wanted to provide females with a space to play football similar to what I had.
The idea for me to provide sessions, free sessions if possible, was always there. One day in lockdown last June, I was sitting in my room and I had this idea for so long, I said to myself: “I’m going to do it, I’m going to register my own Community Interest Company, and call it Outside The Box.”
It’s called Outside The Box because it’s about so much more than what happens on the pitch. If you don’t want to be a footballer, what else might you like to do in football? Do you want to be a journalist, broadcaster, presenter, photographer, coach or an official? You can be a fan if that’s all you want to be! And to start it in my local community, where there aren’t many opportunities for young women, using my skills, contacts and passion is special for me. I just thought, “who better to do it than me?”
You’ve been a part of the women’s football scene for a number of years now. Do you think there has been a shift in attitude towards the women’s game?
I’ve had nothing but support from everyone. Even growing up as a player, boys would ask me to be on their teams. At one point they tried to get me on the Secondary School team.
Sometimes with girls who play football, it is often the case that you have to be just as good or not better than your male peers….
I agree, there was definitely an element of that and having to prove yourself. When you go online you still see so many negative comments about female players and women’s football in general, from people who claim they don’t care but make it their priority to let the world know they don’t care.
So, there are still negative attitudes towards the women’s game, but I think with how the national team in particular has performed in recent years – at both World Cups for example – it helps to eradicate the idea that women can’t play football to a high standard. I think the talent we have coming to England to play in the Women’s Super League also helps people to realise how competitive women’s football is.
What changes do you think need to be made so that women – and the young girls you support through OTB – feel included, and valued in football?
I think it’s done really well in the USA with the NWSL, where they really encourage players to be totally themselves. Whether that’s through their style, or who they are as a person, even supporting them when they share their opinions on really important matters, the culture is different there. I think being less judgemental when it comes to women’s football is important too. Don’t be so quick to judge the game as a whole because of one performance! Providing more opportunities, especially to young people is also something we need to see more of.
What do you think the benefits of gaming are, especially for young people?
Learning. Even for me, I am not the biggest men’s football fan, I prefer watching women’s football. My knowledge of the men’s game isn’t great for that reason, but by playing FIFA I learn so much about players and teams. It’s the same for the girls.
I brought a PlayStation to one of our sessions to encourage the girls to learn about the women’s game. They were allowed to play as many games as they liked, the only rule was that they had to play as a women’s team. There’s also the fact that they have to communicate and work as a team in order to win, all things needed to play football in real life.
Who’s in your Lionesses’ 5-A-Side team?
I’m going defensive…but with no goalie. So rush goalie all the way. Alex Greenwood, Lucy Bronze, Fran Kirby – obviously – Nikita Parris, baller! And my last player is Chloe Kelly because she’s a West London girl and a very, very good player. No-one is beating that team!
If you could invite any baller down to OTB, who would it be?
You have to go for Rachel Yankey. It’s Yanks, she’s a legend. She’s the reason why I play football. You know when people say don’t meet your heroes? Wasn’t the case when I met Yanks, she is 10/10!
Complete these sentences: ‘Next year OTB will be…’ and ‘In the next five years OTB will be…’
Next year OTB will expand, and be reaching out to more young female players, providing them with more opportunities.
In the next five years OTB will be operating outside of London.
It’s always about providing more opportunities to young women in football. I could only have one girl turn up to OTB and I’d be there every week because you just don’t know how much of an impact you’re having. That one opportunity you’ve managed to find for that one girl could change their life forever.
This year marked the fourth anniversary of Grenfell. The country has seen first-hand the powerful impact Grenfell Athletic FC has had on the North Kensington area. How important is grassroots football to West London communities?
What they do is incredible, it’s so much more than football. They use football as a tool to bring the community together, and that’s what we do at OTB.
We’ve spoken previously about working together, as they’ve only got a men’s team running at the moment. OTB sessions are open to all young women, no matter if you like football or not. If you’ve never kicked a ball before, that’s fine. It’s a safe space for them to come to and express themselves, and that’s what Grenfell Athletic do too.
They’re amazing guys, I’ve known them my whole life and they have such a desire to get ‘bigger’. Not as a football team, but as a community. It’s not just helping 11 players on the pitch, it’s helping the people that live in Latimer and Ladbroke Grove, the families that have lost loved ones too.
What do you hope for the future of women’s football?
I want to be able to name a player and people know who you’re talking about, not just a select few players. But I also want women’s football to remain intimate. I love that fans, and little girls in particular, can talk to their idols and take pictures with them after the match. I want it to grow and be respected… give it a chance if anything else.
If you could give your players one piece of advice, what would it be?
Be yourself! And don’t be afraid to do something that makes you happy, and while doing that, make sure you know your worth.
Of the three community-led teams we’ve featured, you’re representing the girls. What do you think your chances are of coming away victorious in the Pro Clubs tournament?
Low. Not because I’m really bad at FIFA! I just get severe ‘head loss’ when I’m playing. If I’m losing, or something annoys me I’ll just give up. I’ll be there to have a laugh, so if I lose it doesn’t matter. I’m better in real life anyway, that’s where it counts!
If there is one thing Nancy Baker loves more than football it’s fashion. We’ve seen your trainer game, it’s strong. What are you wearing to look the part on game-day? Most importantly, what are you wearing on your feet?
I absolutely love PUMA RS-0s. They are so comfortable! They look good too, I always get compliments about them. I wear them to coaching sometimes, and people are always looking at my feet when I do. And I’m wearing a tracksuit obviously. Everyday tracksuit. Sometimes I might wear a little accessory or two, but I always carry a smile to complete the outfit.
Nancy Baker and Outside The Box are taking part in the first size? x PUMA Pro Clubs cup on June 30. To reserve your team’s spot and compete against some of the biggest names in football and eSports culture, click here.