It’s been a milestone season at West Ham United. Not, of course, for the men’s team – who’ve struggled with the age-old maddening problem of inconsistency once again this season – but for the women’s team.
They’re going from strength to strength, leaping two divisions and competing in the first ever fully professional season in the women’s game, taking their place in the FA Women’s Super League. Perhaps some readers might not know this, but West Ham United’s women’s team was actually formed before the all-new, glittering era of the men’s Premier League, 28 years ago – but up until very recently, had very little attention.
That, though, is changing. Head to Rush Green Stadium, and you’ll get the chance to see some of the cream of the women’s game play. The first player to sign professional terms was attacking winger Rosie Kmita. At 24 years old, she was one of only two existing players to be retained and offered a professional contract, when West Ham were awarded a place at the women’s top table in summer 2018.
You might think that signing pro for West Ham would be a simple one – but in Rosie’s case, there was a complication. She, alongside her twin sister Mollie, had spent virtually their whole career playing for the same teams, initially with Tottenham Hotspur, then moving to a number of other clubs, before joining West Ham in October 2017. Parting ways did not come easy.
However, when the opportunity to turn professional presented itself, Rosie found herself moving in a different direction to her sister, separated for the first time. Mollie now spends time managing her own nationwide coaching academy, whilst Rosie remains on the football field. So, in one way or another, it’s been quite a few months for Rosie, and she is quite open about the potential difficulty of the transition.
“You go from part time, when you’re only training twice a week in the evenings, straight into being a full time professional footballer – every day, training for five hours if it’s a double session!,” Rosie said. “It’s a big jump, but I think I’ve adjusted now, and it’s been really fun learning, and being in and around the environment.”
Life hasn’t always been fun for the Kmita sisters. When Rosie and Mollie were just 18 years old, the twins lost their father, suddenly, to pneumonia. He was a massive influence in their career, and both Rosie and her sister say that he is the reason why they started to play, and why they continue to be involved in the game of football. Indeed, the twins have always been into their sport, growing up in a neighbourhood where, primarily, the boys would play football, and the girls, well, wouldn’t.
When they started to join the boys in their football matches, they made a discovery. Rosie continued: “For us it was about breaking that mould and realising that once you did, you were respected.”
Respect is certainly what West Ham United’s women’s team are earning. The side are managed by Matt Beard – a former Women’s Super League winner – and have a number of experienced players in the squad. They are a decent and professional outfit, playing in the top tier of English women’s football, on the crest of a wave of interest with an exponential increase in the profile of women’s football generally.
This season, they’ve beaten Huddersfield Town 8-1 in the Women’s FA Cup, and Yeovil Town 5-0 away in the league, and after 13 matches sat seventh in the table. And yet, when you watch highlights of the women’s team on the West Ham website, you are left wondering why more people aren’t there to watch in person, particularly at the home matches.
With so much attention on the men’s team, Rosie has her thoughts on how the public might be tempted to come and watch the women’s team in greater numbers, and applauds one initiative for increasing the crowd size.
“Bigger crowds could be attracted by giving women’s football coverage when the men normally play. And they’ve started doing it actually – they’ve moved the last women’s game of the season to a Saturday [May 11], and that’s never happened before. I’m hoping that’s the start of something brand new for the women’s game. I really think it could help.”
Rosie added: “If someone wants to watch a men’s game on a Saturday at 3pm but instead there’s a women’s game on, I don’t think there’s anything stopping them from watching it. I think the accessibility’s there now and I hope that changes the stigma a little bit.”
It’s refreshing to hear considered analysis from someone who is not only passionate about football, but passionate about the success of her particular side of the sport. She is clearly keen for more measures to be used that could be taken to move things further forward, although the women’s game is already unrecognisable from what it was even a few years ago.
“It’s Super League 1, and every player is full time pro. The types of player produced has really increased over the past few years – if you come to the games, you’ll have a really good competitive game to watch. I think it’s just about changing the mentality a little bit, and opening people’s eyes.”
You could associate that last sentence with some of the darker side of the game that has come to light over recent weeks. The back pages were full of comment condemning Montenegro’s fans in England’s recent Euro 2020 qualification victory, after chants of racist abuse were heard – but it’s happening in this country too with well documented instances, and Rosie’s keen for the authorities to stamp on it, even though she says that she’s never come across it herself in her career.
“More action needs to be taken from people higher up. I think that the players are doing a great job to create awareness of the problem.
“As a player, it must be so daunting and overwhelming to play in that environment, to play the game and do something that you love, and you shouldn’t have to be handling situations like that.”
It’s been quite a season for both West Ham and for Rosie, not least in the change in her game following the team’s change to professional status. Has that change affected her game at all, and made her a better player?
“It’s just my understanding of the game. I’m in every day now, and I’m learning.
“I’m able to be around girls who’ve done this for 10 years or more, so I’m learning so much being in and around the environment.” And Rosie’s passion shines through, wanting to learn at every opportunity. “Even at lunch I’m in and around the conversation – we talk football all day every day, having conversations with the coaches!”
And Rosie’s able to pinpoint an area of her game where one of the biggest changes has happened since going professional. “The biggest improvement since I became pro is tactically understanding what I’ve got to do at the right time.”
This is helped by a professional approach ahead of each match, with the team tactically varying their strategy according to the opponent. Videos are watched, conversations are had, the opposition is studied – and if any player is unsure, questions are asked and answered.
The meticulous preparation undertaken by the women’s team has lead to a solid first season in the Women’s Super League with some notable results – including a recent 1-1 draw against Chelsea, and running Arsenal close earlier this season in a 4-3 thriller. However, it’s pretty clear that the team is currently behind the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal, and it will take some catching them.
One look at the table shows that there is clearly two halves, with West Ham looking to finish ‘best of the rest’ – outside the top four. And what of Rosie’s relationship with twin sister Mollie?
Even though their careers have now taken them to different places, the two remain very close, as you might expect for twins born one minute apart. And for Rosie, this season has been a memorable one. She’s appeared seven times for the side, scoring her first Women’s Super League goal.
And the good news for Hammers fans is that she clearly has no regrets in signing professional for West Ham United. “It was an amazing feeling, it was like all the hard work that I’d put in was finally paying off. It’s a huge milestone for me in terms of my football career.
Let’s hope that for Rosie and for the women’s team as a whole, the milestones continue.
- Rosie Kmita was talking to Phil Williams for Team Talk on BBC Radio 5 Live.