By John Kelly
Millwall Lionesses manager Katie Whitmore has outlined some of the “obstacles” she faced growing up playing with boys – and how regular trips to The Den fired her ambition.
Whitmore took over Millwall in July 2020, charged with continuing to rebuild a club that was demoted from the second to the sixth tier of English football after the breakaway of the previous board to form London City Lionesses.
But that kind of challenge suits Whitmore, given her background.
Whitmore was a regular at The Den with her family, and her father, who worked nights, also brought her to training and games at weekends after she started playing at the age of six.
Speaking on International Women’s Day on Millwall’s podcast, Wall Talk, she described how important Millwall’s ground was to her when she was growing up.
“The Den hosted an England-Wales fixture, a women’s international that I came to. Seeing you’re able to play at these stadiums – okay, there weren’t as big crowds – but ultimately it was quite big for us,” Whitmore said.
“It was always a case of if I couldn’t make it in the women’s game would there be an opportunity for me to make it within the men’s game, whether it be coaching or a different role? How hard would that be?
“Unfortunately growing up that stigma was still there within the women’s game and with girls playing football.
“But because role models were coming through – okay, not as strong as they are now – it allowed me to think, ‘no, if I want to do it I’ve just got to be determined, there are going to be obstacles to overcome’.
“Coming to the games made me want it that little bit more. Coming down [to The Den] played a big part because it made you see the environment you had around you. Okay, it’s got a little bit of a reputation but we always felt safe – if we didn’t my dad wouldn’t have taken me.
“I played at Leyton Orient at the time when I was coming here to watch the games. I was playing at Orient from the age of six, but at that age you’re playing as a hobby and you don’t really know where you’re going to go with it.
“For me it was about staying within that environment because if you drop out of that environment you lose the vision you originally had of where you wanted to go.”
Whitmore described how important the encouragement was from the adults around her, including her family and teachers.
And her own determination.
“I was the only girl playing in my school team so you had to overcome that obstacle of, it’s okay to pass the ball to me, I’m not going to mess it up,” she said.
“Once they realised that you kind of felt you were all right, they were fine with it.
“But there’s that added pressure of not wanting to let anyone down. And it’s not just necessarily your team-mates, it’s the family view whether or not the girl should be on the team.
“All the PE teachers I’ve ever had have always been encouraging. They always pushed me to do it. I remember when I started secondary school my PE teacher put me into district trials.
“The key for me was primary school, when I was the only girl, and the PE teachers always supported that. I was hardly ever subbed or just put on or put in goal. A girl would often be a goalkeeper just because it’s a position that they then didn’t need to worry about, or you’d just get five minutes at the end.
“Dad was very much supportive, reminded me why I played the sport. A lot of the time it was just me standing my ground. At the end of the day I loved football that much no one was going to stop me playing.
“No matter what your comments were or how far you wanted to push me, if you didn’t want to pass me the ball I’d make sure to go and get it.”
Whitmore didn’t make it to the professional game as a player, but coaching and management was always the ambition.
“It was always a case that if I wasn’t going to continue as a player I was always going to get into coaching and try and work my way up,” she said.
“I was lucky that I had a great role model growing up in Sam Fisher. I’m still in contact with her now, she coached me from when I was six. She still watches my journey now.
“When I got the Millwall job she was the very first person I rang and she rings me throughout the season.
[The women’s game] has grown massively. There is still work to be done, but when I look back the opportunities the girls have now in comparison to what I did [are more].
“As long as they know they have those opportunities they should grab it.”