Football Rebooted - Melanie Benson
What has your football journey been like up until now?
My name is Melanie Benson, I am 49 and live in Devon. I currently manage, coach, and play at Braunton FC. I am involved with the junior and senior ability teams, the women’s team, and the women’s walking football team. I volunteer with these groups, which number around 60 people per week.
Being a girl in the 70s and 80s there was not much opportunity to play football. I remember being the new kid at school and the boys not letting me play until I could score a penalty past the best goalkeeper. Thankfully I scored and played from day one - much to the goalkeeper’s surprise!
However back then at around the age of 10, girls and boys were no longer able to play sport together and so I was diverted away from football and into netball, a “girls sport”.
In 1986, I spent a period of time in care at a large children’s home in Hampshire. We had a mini football pitch in the grounds where both boys and girls spent hours together after every meal playing 5 a side until we could not run anymore. I absolutely loved it, and this is one of my best childhood footballing memories.
I didn’t play again until 1997. I was a young officer with Hampshire Police and was invited to start training with a local women’s team. Unfortunately, I ruptured my cruciate ligament in our first match which I thought at the time had ended my football career forever.
In 1999 I met my wife. Our first date was at The Dell for Southampton v Liverpool in The League Cup. We went on to both become Southampton season ticket holders. We have seen the team be relegated, promoted, we have travelled the country from The Riverside at Middlesbrough (that was an early morning start) to Cup Finals at The Millennium and Wembley Stadiums, and odd midweek venues such as Peterborough United! When the new stadium was built, we bought one of the personalised bricks which is located at The Chapel End, so we are definitely part of the club forever.
In 2015 I saw an advert for volunteer Ability Football Coaches. I went to a session with a local club and absolutely loved it. I could not believe the fun and enjoyment both the players and I got from the sessions.
I took my coaching badge and over the next few years helped to increase participation from a squad of 20 and two coaches to a club of 40 and eight coaches. In 2018 I was awarded BBC South West Unsung sporting hero award for my work in disability football.
Later in 2018 a fellow coach asked if I would like to start playing for a new women’s team at Braunton FC. They needed players and would take anyone, so at the ripe old age of 45 I took to the field as a centre back. It felt like a kid again, except I was a lot slower and had a few more aches and pains the next day!
I was then asked to set up a new ability team at Braunton FC, which is an opportunity I jumped at. We now provide free football to around 40 junior and senior disabled players each week.
What did you try to capture with your photos? Was there a wider meaning with the photos?
The Braunton FC ability team are featured in the photos and as you can see they just love their football. It is an amazing team to be a part of and it is really like a massive family.
In 2021 through Utilita and Grassroots Football we were gifted a session on the pitch at St Mary’s for our ability players. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for our players. It was even more special because of my links with Southampton FC. I will be forever grateful to everyone who made the day possible.
This season I have been managing and coaching Braunton Women’s team. They are a great bunch of women and are all involved with helping our ability team which is fantastic. The women are a mix of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities but the one thing we all have in common is a love of football and a desire to share that feeling with other people.
Recently I have become increasingly involved with women’s walking football. Some of the photos show teams from across Devon participating in the first Devon tournament which Braunton Women won.
What are the opportunities for women and girls to play football in your community?
Thankfully when I think about football, I am so glad that it has been a part of my life. There are opportunities for girls and women in our community to play football which for someone of my age is lovely to see. It was not something I was able to be a part of when I was younger, but I am making sure I get the most out of it now.
What impact has Football Rebooted had on you and your community?
The scheme is a great way of supporting and encouraging people to play regardless of age or personal circumstances. Some of the boots we have received and have been donated have been of superb quality with loads of life left in them. It is a great scheme to be a part of. There is a photo of Linda who, along with players from the walking football and ability teams, has benefited from the Football Rebooted scheme.
Is there anything you think football players can do to be more environmentally sustainable?
We regularly involve our teams in beach cleans and litter picking locally. Being near the coast we are aware of the impact of plastic pollution and damage to our coastlines. We think every grassroots club should be encouraged to be part of the Rebooted scheme.
Do you think Football Rebooted could help get more girls playing football if free boots are easily available?
I believe more girls would be interested in playing football if boots were more freely available. Through Football Rebooted we have certainly been able to get women playing more quickly by being able to provide them with a free pair of boots.
This was especially the case when our Astro surface was replaced forcing all players to buy a particular pair of moulded boots. The scheme provided us with a number of free pairs, meaning everyone could continue to play regardless of their financial situation. This was really important to us as everything we do we do for free.
What does football mean to you? What ambitions do you have for the future?
Football for me is about inclusion. It is about letting everyone play and about everyone having fun, be that recreationally, competitively, for fitness, for health, for companionship, or to just let people be a part of something. There is football for everyone. We just have to keep working hard to get the word out there and to support people to take up the beautiful game.
My aspirations for the future are to one day pop on an England shirt for the England Women’s walking football team. Never let that dream die.