DJ Monki and Sports Direct are working together to make sure that football is a place of equal access and opportunities for female players. As someone who originally quit the game as a teenager because the pathways to be a pro and take their game to the next level weren't firmly established, Monki's story as a young girl playing football will resonate for many female ballers who didn't feel they had enough support in their development.
Having rekindled her love of the game recently – where she now plays for Dulwich Hamlet at semi-pro level – Monki is determined that no other girls live with the same regrets she does at giving up their dream too soon. Equal Play is a new initiative from Sports Direct that forms a long-term commitment for driving equality in sport, which will see all women's sport, including football, platformed in their stores on the same pedestal as the men's game. After finding 40% of young people feel society perceives female sport as less important, Monki and Sports Direct want the next generation of players to see it, believe it, achieve it.
Now an international DJ who lights up dancefloors and festivals, Monki sat down with VERSUS to talk about her own journey as a woman in football and what changes we need to make to ensure a brighter future for the new wave of talent.
VERSUS: Growing up, football was clearly your first love! What made you put the beautiful game to one side to pursue a career in music?
DJ Monki: I guess I was at that age when you start to see a lot of young girls drop out of sport – around 13-14 – and for me, the reason I stopped playing was because I realised I couldn’t do it professionally. There wasn’t a route for me at the time to make it in the professional game, so I sort of fell out of love with it a little bit because there wasn’t an avenue for me to play for the big clubs or on the big stages. And I wanted to do that! I thought to myself, what’s the point if I can’t have those opportunities?
I also didn’t really have much support around me when it came to football. I didn’t have a mentor or a coach, so there wasn’t really anyone egging me on to pursue something that I really loved just for the sake of loving it. So, I stopped playing and ended up picking up music via radio. When I really think about it properly, it was a combination of things that made me stop playing football. A lack of visibility and accessibility mainly. Plus, I think I sadly lost a bit of pride when it came to playing too.
According to Sports Direct’s findings, 47% of girls it spoke with said: ‘seeing a wider diversity of female athletes as role models would encourage them to do more sport’. How is Equal Play helping to achieve that?
It’s an amazing initiative, and visibility is obviously something that the campaign is focusing on as a result of statistics or findings like the one you’ve just mentioned. Equal Play is trying to counteract the idea that football is just for ‘blokes’. Their campaigns are on an equal footing, so when you go to the flagship store on Oxford Street for instance, you’re always going to see that message of equality. It makes an instant impact. When you walk into that store in particular, you’re going to see the likes of Jordan Nobbs and not just Lionel Messi. I think that’s sick! Imagine seeing that type of representation when you’re 12? It’s a complete game changer in my mind.
We spoke to you a couple of years ago for our ‘Fire In The Boots’ series, and you talked about playing football with boys, and having to join boys’ teams growing up. You also mentioned you didn’t have access to female changing rooms. How important do you think it is to remove barriers associated with facilities to get girls and young women accessing football?
It’s massive! I was actually asked a question similar to this recently: what do you think are the three biggest barriers for young women accessing sport? Access to facilities is definitely one of them. But not only that, making sure those facilities are places where girls and young women can actually feel safe.
It’s easy to say: ‘here you go! Here’s somewhere for you to change before a game!’ but if you’ve got 20 naked men running around, you’re not going to feel particularly safe or at ease. When you’re not offering facilities or spaces tailored to the needs of women, it can feel like an afterthought. The report that Sports Direct and Women in Sport commissioned for Equal Play found that nearly half (44%) of girls thought that having better facilities would encourage them to get more involved in sports, so it’s definitely something that needs more attention.
Something that’s also spoken about in sport, football in particular, is the number of women in decision-making positions. And in this instance, a woman is more likely to make a considered decision when it comes to changing rooms than a man. So, with more women working in football like yourself – and initiatives like Equal Play – what do you think can be done to make those changes happen?
We definitely need more women in positions of power when it comes to football. When I hear companies say: ‘oh, we’re diverse!’ And you take a look at their pyramid of employees, or their organisational structure, nearly always you see men at the top. You might get the occasional woman in a position of authority slightly ‘lower down’, but it isn’t until you’re at the bottom or the base of that pyramid that you see their ‘diverse’ members of staff.
We need people from all walks of life at the very top! Not just one type of person. People who are going to make decisions that can affect the game at all levels. People who are going to think about specific groups, like women. It links back again to the idea of visibility. When young girls are growing up they can look at these organisations and the women that work for them and know that they can also be that person one day. They can make decisions that can change and shape the game they love. The same goes for music. I didn’t think I could be a radio host until I saw a woman or heard a woman on Radio One. It literally took ‘that’ for me to realise I could do it too!
The more women we have in game changing positions, the better it’ll be for future generations.
What do you want to see more of in football, on and off the pitch?
Something I was speaking with a friend about recently was challenging preconceptions that society has when it comes to what women ‘should’ be doing. I think that really needs to change. And it starts with conversations like this one.
Conversations where people feel comfortable about asking difficult questions, and talking really honestly with one another. Girls and women have been somewhat ‘socially conditioned’. We’re taught to think a certain way – including myself – I’ve had to catch myself at times because I may have thought or said something that could be deemed as sexist. When that’s happened I’m like: ‘where has that come from!’ A lot of that type of thinking has become the social norm. It needs to change.
You’ve obviously got a lot of passion for the game! When did you decide to pick your boots up again?
I was about 23 or 24. At that point, I think I’d stopped playing football for about eight years. Quite a long period of time! It’s also quite a key period in time when it comes to your development as a player. Back then, I was touring a lot and doing a lot of radio and just felt like something was missing in my life. I couldn’t really put my finger on it.
Growing up, sport was ‘my thing’. Everyone thought I’d end up either playing or working in football. When I sat down and really thought about what was missing, it was so obvious it was football. So, I went back to it and started by playing five-a-side for a little bit. I had a trial at London Bees as well. But when I went for that trial, I looked at the girls around me and realised they were quite clearly looking for a potential career as a footballer. I thought, I’m in my mid-20s and I’ve already got a career in music, I don’t think I can commit to this as much as I’d love to. I ended up going down the tiers a little bit and joined a team, where we eventually got promoted before I joined the committee. We merged with Dulwich Hamlet and we’re now in our third season!
You’re a massive advocate for grassroots football. Why do you think it’s so important especially for the development of young people?
Without grassroots football, there is no football. When you look at grassroots in girls’ and boys’ football, the gap is so large. Sometimes I might go online and see someone talking about how the women’s game isn’t as good or technical as the men’s and I think…well, their support hasn’t been as extensive! If you look at the support boys and men have had over the last 100 years in comparison to girls and women, you can’t be surprised by the gap. In terms of grassroots, that is why it’s so important. To try and reduce that gap from getting any bigger. You can see how much grassroots football has developed in the last 5-10 years too. And that is now completely obvious when you watch the women’s game, and the standard it’s currently at.
You’re right! Women’s football was banned by the FA for 50 years. Of course women are going to be at a disadvantage, and the game has suffered as a result of that. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Never stop playing. I wish I hadn’t. I know I’ve got a good career out of it, but I wish I never hung my boots up so early.
Do you think that advice applies massively to girls today as well? Because there are so many avenues available in football for women now…
Yeah, definitely! My little cousin is at that age now, she’s just turned 13. And she’s now telling me things like, ‘I don’t want to play anymore because my friends don’t play’. She feels as if she’s missing out socially. She’s an amazing athlete. An incredible gymnast. I am begging her not to stop! I tell her, take it from your older cousin, you won’t regret it. And if your mates aren’t willing to be there for you just because you’re at practice – and that’s something that you love! – are they really worth having around? I talk to my younger siblings and cousins in particular about not giving up sport. It’s important for me to talk to them about that in the hope they don’t do what I did.
You’ve done a fair amount of work with Football Beyond Borders over the years. Why is it so important for you to support organisations like FBB?
I think it is because I came from a similar background to a lot of these kids, so in that sense, I can see what might happen. Girls United is another organisation I support. Seeing the kids enjoy themselves is one of the most fulfilling things I get to do every month. And to hear them talk about WSL players as well is just so sick! I didn’t have anything like that growing up! I was talking about Henry and Vieira, who are equally as cool but it would have been cooler to talk about someone who looked like me. So, it’s important to me to support grassroots organisations because it’s quite personal to my own story and I want to see young girls enjoy sport.
Everyone knows you’re a massive Gunner. I mean, you’ve got a pet rabbit called Thierry! Other than Titi, who is your favorite Arsenal player of all time?
Bergkamp or Wrighty. He was a legend. I’ve got to meet him a couple of times too, and he is everything you want him to be. He is the loveliest guy.
He is a massive advocate of the women’s game too. How can more people become advocates for women’s football?
It is important to have people like Wrighty onside and we need more people to just give the game their time. Come and watch the games, get to know the players. People can use their platforms like Wrighty to showcase certain fixtures, or share their insight. But time is possibly the most important asset you can give. By giving your time to the game, you’re showing your respect for it too.
Also, when people might question the game in front of you, ask them why they think that way about it. Have a conversation with them about the game and get them to potentially challenge what society has told them about women playing sport.
What is DJ Monki’s match day ritual?
Depending on if I’ve got a gig the night before, I might get eight hours sleep. Great if I do! I’ll wake up, have a cold shower then meditate. Put the coffee on, have that with my partner. She’ll probably go upstairs and do some yoga to get ready for the match too. I’ll start our breakfast and sort breakfast for Thierry while I’m at it (he’ll have some kale). When we arrive at the ground I am always in the physio room on a match day. Get both of my ankles taped up! Before the game we’ll listen to some music, which is essentially a Spotify playlist we’ve all added to. It’s an odd selection of music if I’m being honest. Sometimes you might walk past a dressing room before a game and expect to hear music that’s proper thumping! Maybe even a little aggressive! There is absolutely none of that in our dressing room. It’s more like wedding music. We’ll have a stretch, see our strength and conditioning coach and play some football! Afterwards, I’m first to jump straight in the ice bath.
Would you have thought when you were younger that you would have had all of those things in place to play football?
No, definitely not. Especially when I quit. We’re lucky with the facilities we’ve got at Dulwich Hamlet, it’s a lovely setup and the people are so nice and fully invested in the women’s team. You’ll have to get down there for a game one day. Women’s football at its finest.
DJ Monki is working with Sports Direct as part of the brand’s Equal Play campaign, a long-term commitment to driving equality in sport. As Sports Direct’s leading football pundit, Monki’s role is to encourage more female voices in the industry as the experts, not just players. Equal Play aims to inspire more women and girls to take up sport.