Student Football Writers of the Year awards – Ella Graunia Cook and Jacob Tanswell win

Congratulations to the winners of our inaugural Student Football Writers of the Year awards. Ella Graunia Cook has won the Vikki Orvice award and Jacob Tanswell has won the Hugh McIlvanney award – both were considered worthy winners by our judging panel, who were deluged with 536 entries to these first awards of their kind.

Jim White, of the Telegraph and FWA National Committee, oversaw the judging process and said: “It’s been a joy to read through them all – there is clearly a lot of talent out there.”

Caroline North McIlvanney, who was married to Hugh, said: “Hugh would have been honoured and touched, as am I, that the FWA have chosen to name their Student Writer Award in his memory. And probably pretty astonished, too. It maintains a connection with another generation of fellow football writers that I know would have delighted him.”

As well as a trophy, there will be copies of the five shortlisted titles in the FWA Football Book of the Year Award, free membership of the FWA for a year, an opportunity for work experience, plus the chance to benefit from mentoring from a member of the judging panel. There will also be a £500 prize for both award winners.

Below are the winner, runner-up and third-placed pieces for each award:

FWA Vikki Orvice Award for Student Football Writer of the Year 2021

In first place is Ella Graunia Cook, a 24 year old creative writing undergraduate at the University of Roehampton.  

There’s More to Life than the Premier League…

I am a Manchester United fan. I share this title with 1.1 billion other supporters worldwide. However, I alone can claim to be Sunday League team Battersea Dogs FC’s most dedicated fan. Gary, their manager of almost twenty-five years, anointed me with the title last year. Although, as he pointed out, most weeks there wasn’t much competition. I really think there should be. Much as I adore the Premier League, there is something to be said for supporting local talent. Since COVID restrictions came in, players and fans have felt the loss of ‘non-elite’ matches alike. I still get to watch Bruno Fernandes take yet another penalty on TV but the community aspect is absent. As we draw towards the dawn of grassroots resuming, it’s time for more football-lovers to embrace ‘non-elite’ games.

My first experience of Sunday League was a nervous one. I turned up at Belair Park in Dulwich, in my enormous silver puffer jacket, suffering from a severe case of imposter syndrome. As a non-player I felt undeserving of a spot on the side-lines. Battersea Dogs’ dutiful substitute, Dudley Sawyers, helped shatter this illusion. Despite spending most of his time as the linesman, he was an indispensable source of encouragement. By showing your support, you become a participant.

During my debut as a fan, the team treated me to an absolute nail-biter. At half-time they were drawing two-all to fellow Southern Sunday team Cosmos FC and the tension throughout the team talk was tangible. I got to witness the sort of intimate tactical debate that Ole Gunnar Solskjær has yet to share with me.

The Dogs conceded at the start of the second half and I dug my toes into the mud, startled at how invested I felt in the match’s outcome. A stunning goal from a direct free-kick evened things up again and a last-minute winner secured them the match. I leapt up and down celebrating the unlikely victory. Having watched the players’ desperation evolve into elation, I shared their ecstasy at the end. After just ninety minutes of ‘non-elite’, I was hooked.

The Sunday games became a vital part of my weekend routine and I travelled to pitches across London, enjoying their varied atmospheres. Like most Southern Sunday teams, Battersea Dogs were utterly brilliant one week and would lose spectacularly the next. The unpredictability is part of the appeal. You’re never sure what you’ll turn up to.

After one season, I was already more connected to the Dogs’ team than my beloved United squad. Rory Brown was their golden boy and his attacking prowess had Battersea Dogs nicknaming themselves ‘Rory FC’. Christian Paul aka ‘Cri’ was a live wire in the midfield. He was virtually guaranteed a yellow card from the outset but no one could deny that he cared. Box-to-box midfielder Joseph Booker was arguably the MVP. He was everywhere at once, making crucial blocks and winning second balls tirelessly. Each player added their own flavour to the mix and I learned more about their presence on the pitch with every minute of play.

Sunday League isn’t without challenges. I suspect few Premier League sides have to deal with dog walkers chasing their charges madly around the pitch as they attempt to sabotage corner kicks. But the informal setup is an invitation to socialise as well. Scorching September sunshine made for a memorable match on Clapham Common. The weather spurred unprecedented numbers of friends and family members to cheer on the players and everyone joined in with the goal celebrations. It would be great to witness support like this every week.

‘Non-elite’ matches also nurture a surprisingly child-friendly environment. After a while, I brought my energetic three-year-old along. Like me, Isabel was shy at first but soon she was buzzing around the outside of the pitch shrieking. Sure, she cheered just as enthusiastically when the other team scored but the sentiment was appreciated. Everyone tolerated the practice cones transforming into abstract artwork with good grace.

A moment that truly set Sunday League apart from the professional leagues, occurred on a 3G pitch in Southfields. Ladzio FC ensured the match was tightly fought and the Dogs’ half-time team huddle was heated. Isabel crept towards the group, sensing the heartfelt urgency in the captain’s voice. She reached up to take a player’s hand and listened to the whole thing in silence. There is no better illustration of Sunday League’s community spirit, than a group of intensely focused footballers seamlessly accepting a three-year old into their ranks, without question.

In second place is Cerys Holliday, a 21 year old Sports Science student at the University of Birmingham, who, from September, will be undertaking an MA in Journalism at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. 

Giving Sexism The Boot: Why Being A Female Football Fan Is Far From Glamorous

Equality in football is on the rise, but why do I still feel unsafe at games?

Being a female football fan can be difficult. I enjoy the experience of watching live games, but a part of me feels exposed. I hate entering a stadium with a sense of unease as a stranger offers to buy me a drink, and I loathe when I can feel more than one set of eyes shadowing my every move when I merely walk past.

Whether men know it or not, us women can feel you staring at us, objectifying us. It’s uncomfortable. It’s patronising. And I’m tired of it.

Women wearing a football shirt is not a golden ticket to sexualisation – nor is their interest in the game in general. Just try typing ‘female football fan’ into Google Images and then ‘male football fan’. In one case, pictures show a variety of close-ups focusing on body image and low-cut tops, while the other showcases groups holding beers having a good time.

I’m sure not much thought goes into guessing which one is which.

To men, it’s just an innocent boob grab when we score a goal, a necessary hand landing on the curve of your waist while you wait to be served at the bar. To me, it’s demeaning, it’s degrading, and everything in between. I was 16 when I really noticed it – the fact that the men around me felt the need to do a double take whenever I walked past, and regardless of which part of my body they felt the need to look at, it made me uncomfortable. What 16 year old would feel comfortable being sexualised for enjoying sport?

I’ve supported my local football team for well over 15 years, attending home and away games whenever possible. While that alone is something I’m often asked about by men (because what woman cares that much about football?), I can tell that curiosity isn’t the main focus. I know that they’re trying to suss out what I do and don’t understand. Suss out what they can correct me on. The assumption that I lack knowledge due to what gender I identify with is embarrassing for those who try and catch me out. Yes, I do know the offside rule, and yes, I am a woman.

Even now – aged 21, the vulnerability doesn’t disappear. I’m a lot more comfortable as to who I am as an individual nowadays, but that doesn’t make me invincible. It doesn’t make any woman invincible – young or old. Regardless of why you’re at the game or who you’re with, there will always be one person more interested in you than the game they’ve paid money to watch. It’s the sad reality female football fans face – a sad reality that needs to change.

Of course, there’s a strive for equality on the pitch, but talk about women in the footballing world outside of the pitch is ignored. The media tells us all about how the numbers of women in football are on the rise, but less is known about the treatment of these women. The 2019 Women’s World Cup had over a record billion viewers, yet social media was filled with misogynistic comments, and even cases where images of women were ranked to see who the ‘hottest fans’ were.

So, is it surprising that I feel the need to question every time a man looks at me when I enter a stadium? Is it entertaining that I don’t enjoy being touched by a stranger? Is it worrying that the thought of reporting such a thing hasn’t crossed my mind because who would believe a woman about abuse, whether sexual, physical, or verbal, at a football game?

Maybe I should rephrase when I said that being a female football fan can be difficult. Because being a female football fan can be terrifying. As much as I love football and will continue to be a fan, accomplishing gender equality is still a task for the future. How distant into it, I can’t say, but what I do know is that a lot more needs to be done to achieve it.

Who knows? One day, women might feel a complete sense of comfort at games, where status as a fan isn’t determined by your gender. But for now, female football fans like myself have to continue fighting the battle against sexism a match at a time.

And in third place is Elana Shapiro, 20, who is reading Linguistics, German and Philosophy at the University of Newcastle. 

What I learnt about University social sports by losing 26-0

Just a couple of weeks before Newcastle and the rest of the country was locked down, I enjoyed something which would soon become prohibited. A game of football.  On a piercingly cold Sunday morning, I endured the conditions typical of the North-East, wrapped up in several layers and travelled to Wallsend to play their women’s team.

I was making my debut for Newcastle University Women’s Social Football Team.

As I arrived – around 30 minutes late due to travel delays (and definitely not an unplanned lie-in), I could just about spot the Newcastle substitutes, through the squalling rain, huddled together in our dugout and buried under a mountain of coats, jumpers, and waterproofs. Their clothing, like mine, was more appropriate for an Arctic expedition than a Sunday league football game.  I walked past the Wallsend substitutes kitted out in matching tracksuits and going through some warm-up consisting of stretches that looked far too professional and it began to dawn on me that this may not be the couple of hours of fun that I had envisaged when I responded to a Facebook post seeking players.

I quickly introduce myself to the bench, before asking the score. They laugh hysterically for a short while as I wait.

Cheers erupt from the Wallsend bench as we watch their striker dribble around one…two…three players before launching a rocket into the top corner. She doesn’t bother to celebrate but retrieves the ball from the goal with an air of smugness and ruthlessly threatens her teammates should they relent.

“Well it’s one more now anyways”, the friend replies, before standing up and shouting for somebody to swap with her.

At least 5 girls hobble over – this is the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. They are gasping for breath and desperate for a reprieve. The dugout looks so warm and inviting from the mud-bath of a pitch.

The next 10 minutes see another few goals, I couldn’t tell you how many for certain, but I’m enjoying speaking to the girls on the bench. I contribute to the cheers any time we make a challenge, or our keeper pulls off a save, or we manage a rare touch of the ball.

By half time the score seems irrelevant. I’m thoroughly enjoying speaking to my new teammates, I’m leading the chorus in shouting at the referee and I have to admit I’m quite entertained by just how good Wallsend are in comparison. With every flick and pass they become more like the Barcelona of old, whilst we can only stand and watch in awe. They play with an air of arrogance that can only come with the knowledge of your own prowess and a 10 goal lead.

As all the girls shuffle in and gather round, the captain and more experienced players begin to speak. There is no manager or coach. Cans of Monster are pulled out as one player promises that she is so hungover she will be sick if she has to carry on.

I’m told that I’m coming on and I begin to feel some apprehension as I glance over at the opposing team. Their coach is doing something with a tactics board that I can’t make out. I’m sure that even if I could I wouldn’t understand it anyway. I notice just how tall they all seem and wonder whether that is a prerequisite to joining their squad. With significant hesitance and reluctance, I shed my oversized puffer coat and hat and gloves and scarf and three tracksuit tops.

There is no talk of forfeiting the fixture but instead an air of acceptance and flippancy has descended. Some people bother asking their positions, most don’t. It seems we play 10 at the back and the tactics are simple – defend deep.

After twenty minutes of chasing shadows, my lack of fitness shows itself. I am wheezing desperately and have to crawl off of the pitch. There is talk of getting the first-aider, but no one is sure who it is. I decline the offer of an ice pack by a well-meaning but airheaded teammate. By the time the final whistle is blown, I have somehow managed to recover without the aid of CPR.

As the girls walk over, I hear someone ask the score and someone else guess 26-0. Whilst the other team begins their post-match analysis, we discuss which pub we should head to.

It’s at the pub that I fully understand the sentiment behind university social sports – the social is the far more important part.

FWA Hugh McIlvanney Award for Student Football Writer of the Year 2021

With special mention to our youngest entries, Michael Collins and Jiteesh Vinu both aged just 12 years old, here is the top three:

In first place is Jacob Tanswell, a 20 year old Southampton fan who is studying Sports Journalism at Southampton Solent University

Eight years of sacrifice lost in one night. The aftershock of leaving life in an academy

5.12.2016 – There I was, donned in full Bournemouth tracksuit, sat across the table from four coaches. But that boisterously cold Monday evening turned out to be different. More acute with fret and emotional turbulence. While I traipsed in expecting a sharp cross-examination of recent failings – things had been getting worse for some time by then – I didn’t expect what they were about to say. Just yet anyway.

In a matter of sentences, I was no longer needed. As they divulged into various ‘exit strategies’ and ticking the boxes of protocol, an unabating numbness took over.

Nothing could prepare me for the hurried nature of it. After all, they were telling me with my teammates, my best friends, only a few yards away. They were waiting outside of the room that only seemed to be caving in by the second.

Life in an Academy: A disclaimer

Before we enter the crux of this piece please do not misconstrue it to be an overzealous case of sour grapes. Academy football is cutthroat, and only the true elite even make a professional appearance.

In fact, the statistics say that of the 1.5 million boys who play youth football in England, only 0.01 per cent will make a single appearance in the Premier League. Among those who enter an academy structure at the age of nine (the age I was), it’s less than one per cent.

It is a convoluted, heavily assessed process that is required to harden you for professional football. I wasn’t good enough. I did not have the technical or psychological propensity to reach the summit. I do not blame the club for releasing me when they did.

It’s the how part that still rankles.

Life in an Academy: One year later

December 5th, 2017. The shock refused to dissipate. Indeed, it was only just dawning on me how much of a failure I was. I had let my parents down, the people who took me 45 minutes down the road five times a week. Though I had been there for the longest time and held my own against Europe’s top academies and in playing Japan, some countries, I felt like a fraud. That I fluked my way here; that I was now being exposed.

I had withstood the incremental challenges now being in a Premier League academy had brought and yet I only really felt good enough to play for my school team.

October 2015. I woke up at 6am for a 9.30am meet to play Bristol Rovers. I hated away games. My legs were sapped of energy and by the time of arrival, I had unyieldingly played the game through my mind so much, I was already shattered.

Our coach spoke after our 4-0 hammering. “Fuck me lads, that was shit. You all need to realise we are not here to have fun and mess around. You’re getting to the age now where you won’t enjoy football, it’s a job.”

I could not believe it. I was 14 at the time. What is the point of playing if you cannot enjoy it?

Life in an Academy: Jeremy Wisten

Jeremy Wisten is two age groups below me. His dreaded moment came in late 2018, shortly after turning 16. It was at a near-on identical point of his life as it was mine.

We both attended what, in somewhat unsugarcoated terms, a training day labelled an ‘exit trial’. While Wisten was struggling with a knee injury and felt unable to do himself justice, I grappled with a warped combination of paranoia and anxiety.

Both I and Wisten’s summers came and went without getting signed up.

Life in an Academy: Today

I am one of the lucky ones. I channelled my passion into journalism. Others, like Wisten, aren’t always given something to fuel their intense, profound love for the game.

While the 18-year-old was trending on Twitter in the days following his suicide, he soon became just another statistic. We all say at the time, change has to happen, but who has the unrelenting willingness to ensure it does, long after a traumatic event takes place?

 Life in an Academy: Tomorrow

Like earthquakes, the aftershock is often more volatile than the initial tremor. Take Josh Lyons, who spiralled into depression after being released by Tottenham as a 16-year-old. He took his life 10 years later.

A survey by the PFA revealed under 68 per cent of players released by professional clubs said they required support around education, general health and career guidance.

55 per cent have experienced clinical levels of psychological distress. The most significant conclusion was that symptoms of distress often increased in the weeks and months after release.

More has to be done.

In second place is Brendan Pitcher, 22, who is studying Sports Journalism at the University of East London

Dejected but determined, Ross Embleton heads into the bowels of Brisbane Road looking for answers.

Win, lose, or draw, an assortment of the Leyton Orient hierarchy can be found outside of the dressing room to offer post-match congratulations or commiserations. This afternoon however, they are nowhere to be seen.

Embleton fears the worst. He eventually finds the club’s Director of Football Martin Ling in the boardroom, and simply asks, “is that it for me?” to which Ling meekly replies, “yes that’s it.” They then both head back down into the dressing room to break the news to the players.

As one of the last left in the ground, after an evening of farewell drinks with his staff and squad, the now former O’s Head Coach finds himself collecting the empty bottles and pizza boxes and putting them out into the recycling bin.

An act symbolic of the relationship the 39-year-old endures with his boyhood club.

Embleton’s appointment as Head Coach of the club where he was once a mascot should have been the apex of a nomadic 20-year coaching career. It was indeed a proud moment for the East London native, but it was one marred by tragedy following the death of Justin Edinburgh.

Having worked successfully as an assistant under Edinburgh, Embleton admits that he “never would have perceived himself as a Head Coach before May 2019.”

But after the former Spurs defender passed away less than a month after delivering the club their first league title in almost half a century, he felt a duty to step up and lead The O’s into their first campaign back in the EFL.

Things got off to a fairy-tale start. A late winner from Edinburgh’s last signing Josh Wright secured victory against Cheltenham Town on an emotional opening day at Brisbane Road.

Results soon turned though, which led to Embleton stepping aside and handing over the reins to former Plymouth Head Coach, Carl Fletcher.

28 days and an FA Cup defeat to eighth tier Maldon & Tiptree later, Embleton found himself back in charge. This time on a permanent basis.

Considering their turbulent summer, Orient sat in a respectable 17th place when the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to proceedings last March.

After a whirlwind year, the extended break gave Embleton the chance to reflect and put a plan in place for the upcoming season.

With four wins and a draw from their first five fixtures, it looked like the blueprint devised by Orient’s Head Coach was about to pay dividends. That was until the East London club became the first in England to be struck by a widespread outbreak of COVID-19.

The majority of The O’s playing staff received a positive test just days before they were due to square off against Jose Mourinho’s Spurs in the Carabao Cup.

Having what promised to be a memorable occasion taken away from them, alongside the repercussions of being one of the first teams to be hit by a mass outbreak was significant, as Embleton explains.

“What happened was the restrictions were placed on us so much earlier. We played Wimbledon in the trophy in October, and they were still just being a normal football club, whereas we were working under all sorts of restrictions.

“That coupled with the blow of missing the Spurs game was massive for us.”

A brief dip in form followed, but Orient got back on track and picked up resounding victories against both Bolton and Harrogate, leaving them in playoff contention come the turn of the year.

The O’s were unable to build on that run however, and the free-scoring side from earlier in the season soon seemed a distant memory, something that Embleton puts down to a change in emphasis from the opposition.

“Everyone dropped off and accepted that, actually, we were probably the best football team in the league.

“Some people will sniff at that and laugh, but for me, we were the best in possession. We became the more dominant team and teams were scared of how much of the ball we were having.”

Orient averaged over 62% of the possession in Embleton’s last four home games in charge. But, despite dominating the ball, they managed just two goals in those four matches – a barren run that ultimately cost Embleton his job.

He now feels rejuvenated though, admitting that he’s taking better care of himself and “not drinking a bottle of wine to fall asleep anymore.”

He also harbours no regrets about his time in charge at the football club so dear to his heart.

“No one can take being the Head Coach of my football club away from me.”

“And I will always refer to it as my football club. Upset as I am at the way things are at the moment, once the dust settles, it’ll always continue to be my football club.”

And in third place is Adam Barker, a 19 year old undergraduate studying Football Journalism at the University of Derby

Huddersfield Town’s Romoney Crichlow: ‘Football was the only thing that helped me escape grief following my mother’s death’ 

Romoney Crichlow enters the press conference room at Huddersfield Town’s newly renovated Canalside training ground and takes his seat. The rise of the 21-year-old defender since joining the club in 2017 has been remarkable considering he only started playing the sport when he was 14.

“I was a bookworm,” he says, through a smile. “It wasn’t until year nine when I found an interest in football and it’s been everything since.”

Crichlow exudes confidence. He is a positive, relentlessly ambitious character. It is what you would expect from a young footballer making strides in the professional game.

He made his first senior start for Huddersfield earlier this season in the Terriers’ first round Carabao Cup exit against Rochdale in September.

Later that month, he got his first taste of Championship football when he came off the bench at Brentford, before being awarded Sky Bet Man of the Match on his first league start for the club in a 1-0 win over Nottingham Forest the following week.

On that premise alone, it would be easy to assume that Crichlow’s rise from the academy to the first team has been a seamless transition. But life doesn’t discriminate, and Crichlow’s journey to where he is today has been heavily influenced by tragedy.

In July 2019, while on loan at Hartlepool United, his mother Natalie Crichlow, 44, of Colindale, London, had travelled to Barbados to care for her disabled brother.

On the afternoon of July 28, an unknown intruder broke into the bedroom where she was staying in Christchurch. She was attacked, strangled, and doused in a flammable liquid before being set alight by the assailant.

Eventually managing to escape the burning structure and reaching the safety of her backyard, she was rescued by a group of men nearby and transported to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on the Caribbean island.

A mother of three, she had survived cancer twice and had two strokes in the last decade, but after suffering 75% burns to her body she died in hospital just ten days later.

“Everything shut down – everything,” Crichlow recalls, after a brief pause for reflection. “It took me a while to come to terms with the process of grieving and processing it all, but it was a tough couple of months.

“The one thing I always did, though, was insist that I wanted to play and train because if I stopped playing football I’d have time to think, so the football was my way out. I never tried to stop playing because that was the only thing that was helping in terms of me escaping the grief and things I didn’t want to deal with at the time.”

Crichlow and his family managed to crowdfund the £8,000 needed to repatriate his mother’s body to the UK. He was overwhelmed by the immense support he received during what was the most difficult chapter in his life to date.

“It was crazy,” he says. “I dealt with it and improved in my own way, but there was a constant reassurance of support; whether it was from Hartlepool, Huddersfield, family or friends. And once all of the fans had found out what had happened there was a constant flow of messages reassuring me that there was always support there.”

Crichlow made four appearances for Hartlepool in the early stages of the 2019/20 season before being officially recalled by the West Yorkshire club in January. 11 days later, he signed for Welling United on loan, where he featured for the National League South side in the sixth tier of English football before the season was curtailed because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It coincided with a massive upturn in his performances,” Emyr Humphreys, Huddersfield Town’s academy manager, said when reflecting on Crichlow’s response on the pitch following the passing of his mother.

“Normally when that sort of thing happens to people you think about them just surviving, but with Roms it coincided with his best couple of months at the club. It’s definitely given him a new perspective on football and what it is.”

Crichlow’s new sense of perspective has brought him more in touch with what is important to him in life. He is no longer striving to reach the top purely for himself, but for his mum as well – the person who first introduced him to the beautiful game when he was 14.

“I started playing football because my mum introduced me to it, so I need to do this not just for me but to make my mum proud,” Crichlow says.

“When I made my debut in the Carabao Cup game against Rochdale I sat down the night before the game and said to myself: ‘Okay, you’re here now, this is what you’ve been working for, so do yourself proud and do mum proud.’”

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