Christmas is always a time for reflection and for Exeter City Women a chance to contemplate just how staggering 2021 has been.
It’s been a record smashing year on and off the pitch for Abbie Britton and Aaron Wakely’s Grecians. Attendances have been extraordinary, there have been cup runs aplenty and even a glorious piece of silverware- claimed against our oldest adversaries. So, in the first part of our full club 2021 review, we spoke to Women's Captain Manfy Sharpe to detail the incredible rise of the team this year.
Manfy, before we get into the details, what have been your overall thoughts over the last year for the Women’s team?
It’s been pretty stop-start for us. We had our season curtailed in March, but we kept ourselves fit and we had some friendlies before the County Cup games, including the brilliant Final in May. From July onwards it’s been pretty good, yeah!
As a squad what were the reactions like to the 20/21 season stopping in March?
We were doing pretty well in the league. It was a shame to see another season go to waste as such. It had to happen, it’s the way of the world right now but it was a shame. We just wanted to play football. Football’s not our jobs its purely our passions and that to be taken away was pretty rubbish.
Did the girls have a plan to keep fit over the spring until football did return?
Yeah, so we started a Strava running leaderboard and had set competitions on there. So every week we’d come up with different ways to do 15km, whether that be running, sprints, cycling. We kept it competitive, so we were still chatting, Zoom call fitness sessions (though I think my neighbours didn’t like me as I’m on the top floor of my flat).
Its been a year of change for the City Women. Clive Watts had to step back with his knee surgery and that’s brought Abbie and Aaron as first team managers. Did they change much when they came in?
Clive was an old school manager, and Abbie and Aaron were always involved before. Though it didn’t shake the team up, it refreshed the side, without disrespect to Clive. We’ve adapted really, really well to the new style of management.
We built up to the County Cup games with friendlies and, of course beat Feniton and Marine Academy in the Cup. Before the final, were the seeds of something special already being sewn?
Yeah, so we signed Jaydee Seaman and Mollie Taylor from Plymouth and they brought in a completely new dimension to our game! They offer so much and are unbelievable players. When we won the quarter finals and the semis we really gelled as a team and it set us up for the Final.
And of course, after so long without playing competitive football, how much of a relief was it to win the County Cup in the manner we did?
It was certainly something to show, regardless of what had happened that year we can comfortably say “Devon is Ours!” We all achieved our own personal goals over the off-season but to win something as a team it gave us the confidence to go into this season and now, we’re flying!
Esme Kilburn-Thompson stole the show that day with two goals in an unbelievable individual performance, but you could see that it was an even better team performance as well!
Yeah definitely. I think Esme is such a young player and is always learning so much. To score two goals is amazing, against Plymouth even better, in a cup final. Wow. Such a great achievement for her. To do it for the team and win us the game brilliant! Good Girl! There’s such a bright future with this squad. A great mixture of youth and experience. Look at Connie Pengelly. Not even 18 yet and is making some of the defenders in this league look silly. Jess Sandland stepping into defence too like there’s not a problem. We’ve got such a bright squad wish I could name all of them and every single one of them are doing so, so well!
If we can step back from football just a second. In 2021 the club and the community trust were saddened to hear the passing of two influential members of the Women’s set-up over the years. Super Kevin Hack and John Lee. What were your fondest memories of them over your years at City?
Super Kev was there even when I first joined the Girls Development Centre when I was around 10. So, he was the first face I saw almost fifteen years ago. He was so welcoming and kind and always encouraged me to be the best player I could be. I grew up with him, driving us about, we all took the mickey out of him, and he used to love it! It was always special with Kev around! With John personally I didn’t meet him, but you could feel his warm support around. His support to the club was immense, to the Women’s team especially and we’ll always be grateful to him. His wife Di still comes to our games, and we love seeing her face in the crowd! It’s these people behind the scenes we want to make proud whenever we play.
One of those people behind the scenes is Dave Gribble with his tireless work. It’s amazing how a one-man band has connected the club with the fans in such a way as he has, including working with the club with the #HerGameToo campaign!
He’s been an absolute legend and we wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for him. He’s single-handedly broken that wall and his work is unbelievable. With football being a male dominated sport, it’s been hard for us to take hold of it and make it our own. With the initiatives take as a whole club it’s helped us grow as a team. We’re now getting opportunities we’ve never had before, and now it really feels like one whole club!
Brilliant. And of course, one of those opportunities was these seasons match against Argyle at SJP. Is that a real career highlight for you?
What an unbelievable day that was! Looking back at it, how we prepared, the crowd who came. I really still haven’t stopped thinking about it. Especially that absolute sitter I put over the bar!! But we won the game and that’s all anyone could ask. Was certainly one of the best days of this year. We’re obviously used to and grateful for Cullompton Rangers’ hospitality, but nothing compares to the St James Park pitch and 1380 fans in attendance! It was nothing we’ve ever had as a team, or even individuals, so we’re so grateful.
And the attendance was just ANOTHER in a long line of incredible records the Women’s team have achieved this season. Another, progressing into the fourth round of the FA Cup for the first time in twenty years. Is the sky the limit for this team?
Without sounding cocky, we feel we can beat absolutely anyone at the moment and there isn’t a challenge we can’t overcome. We feel pretty unstoppable, but I’ve got every faith in this team and we’ve all got faith in each other. We’ve had some far away days this season and its nice to do as a team with the backing of the club and the fans!
And the fans have travelled with you on these journey’s as well!
Oh yeah unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. They’re so great, I can’t name them all but when we set up at the London Seaward game, seeing thousands of flags behind the goal there were tears in my eyes. We were all so chuffed to see the familiar faces in such unfamiliar locations.
It’s not just the fans who are following your every step, but you’re inspiring a new generation of girls to take up football. Every week a new youth team are the City Women’s mascots, that must be so rewarding for your team?
Growing up, I rarely if ever had a female football role model, especially a local one. I always had to look to the men’s game- I was Paul Scholes girl. But now for girls in the area, it’s amazing that they’re are looking up to us as local heroes and say they “wanna be just like us”. They can do it too; they’ve just got to stick at it. That’s what we tell them, and to see young female footballers with my name on the backs of their shirts its absolutely crazy!
2021 has been a great year for the Women’s team but what are the goals for 2022?
Personally, I’d love to reach 100 League appearences for the Club. I’m on 98 now and with all this success in the cups, I have to wait! A decent reason to keep taking it back. I want to keep as many clean sheets as possible as well. But as a team we just want to keep the success going. The momentum going. Ultimately there’s only one goal and that’s promotion and we need to make sure we do everything we can to make it happen. At the end of the day, we really appreciate everyone who comes to watch us, win lose or draw, so I suppose my final message for the year is… Up the City!!
Brilliant, Cheers for joining us Manfy!
Listen to the extended interview👇