Ladies get their mini-kicks

Just met by friend and neighbour Claudia at the shops and she seemed ever so excited. Had her husband, a barrister, been made a QC? Had they just had a really excellent Easter in Greece? Her first novel was about to be published?

I was trying to think what would stir the heart, bring pride in the voice to most well-brought-up, middle-class young mums of my acquaintance.
And didn't get anywhere near it.

The explanation was that someone from Arsenal had just rung to say that their daughter Bells, aged eight, would next week be training with the Under Nines. The phone call had come on a Sunday - not a training day. A real phone call. Not a duplicated note.

Wow, I said, that is brilliant. Which it is. I know how excited Mr and Mrs Rooney were when young Wayne, aged nine, was told that he had been accepted by Everton's School of Excellence. But I hadn't realised just how organised women's football has become. Well, it has at Arsenal.
Bells is a member of what Arsenal calls their Mini-Kickers for girls aged 5-8. On their website, it states that girls will be taught "ball manipulation, balance, agility and co-ordination in a fun, relaxed environment". They give a phone number, lots of details, anyone can apply, and it's all free. With the equivalent boys' versions, Prem clubs are far less open. They don't want to be inundated - or their young stars pinched by rivals.

The atmosphere in girls' football is more relaxed - the chance of them becoming millionaires is zilch - but nonetheless it is professional. They train hard and don't get many perks - though Bells has had a free Arsenal training top, a signed photo of Theo Walcott and met Faye White, one of Arsenal's and England's stars.

She goes training twice a week after school which involves her mum in a 45-minute drive each way, as it's in Hertfordshire. Most of the other mums in our area thinks she is mad, trailing all that way.

The next stage up from Mini-Kickers is the Centre of Excellence for girls aged 9-16. I rang the Arsenal press office to get details and they were forthcoming, but stressed that Mini-Kickers is basically for fun - the Centre of Excellence is for real. Three of their current players were recently picked for England Ladies to play against Holland Ladies.

Bells hopes she will graduate to the Centre of Excellence - and will become a professional. That's her ambition in life. Her mum, very sensibly, has not rubbished this, while pointing out the chances are slim.

When boys of this age join a famous club, at however humble a stage, they get carried away and their school work suffers. Claudia says that so far it has been a good thing - and Bells's self-esteem has been helped.

“I've told her we'll support her football career, as long as she doesn't get a tattoo and if, eventually, she has to go out with a footballer, to make
sure he's Spanish or Italian, not English."