Toni Upton – “They’ve fallen in love with the women’s game”
In a nation coming off the back of a successful, home, European Championship-winning tournament, the subject of women, and that of the beautiful game, has come on leaps and bounds – and rightly so.
Here, in the north-east, where several of England’s tournament heroes originate, one ‘grassroots’ footballer has been receiving attention over the summer, Darlington FC Women captain, Toni Upton.
As with most women footballers though, where Toni finds herself now, is a far cry from where it all began, and her footballing talents could just as easily have been lost to another sport, that of hockey.
Now an adopted north-easterner, Toni actually comes from the Shetland Islands, she would be seen to find a love for sport in general during the nineties, taking in both football, and hockey.
“I was lucky I guess, in that everyone else there (Shetlands) accepted me (sporting-perspective), explained Toni, looking back on those early years.
“There was no discrimination whatsoever, players only being picked (or not) because of their genuine talent and ability.
“Yes I would stop playing football when I was 12-years-old, and I was fortunate with what I had, but, where I was, football wasn’t the main sport, whereas hockey was, so, like most others, I ended up playing hockey, in goal, and it fast became a bit of a bug, my number one sport.”
Even when she headed to university, being educated at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, going on to gain an honours degree in Sport and Exercise Science with Psychology, her sporting endeavours would continue.
“I was playing hockey, at a high level, as well as football, whilst I was at university,” continued Toni.
“After I graduated, I moved to the north-east (Barnard Castle, yes, that one), but there was no hockey clubs that really suited me.
“That was when I got back into football, playing for Bishop Auckland Ladies.
“Jackie (Cleminson), she was great with me, and she really helped me to get back into football, as well as helping to incorporate the coaching side of the game.
“I was there for what, two or three seasons, but my playing music as well, that started taking hold, so I began to focus there (check out TONI SIDGWICK MUSIC – HERE).
Then, in the aftermath of what was a global pandemic, a new, women’s football club sprang forth in the region, close to where Toni now resides, and with it, a new opportunity for her.
“Yes, I only found myself coming back into football when Darlington formed their ladies team,” continued Toni.
“My father is actually from Middlesbrough and he would watch Darlington regularly.
“Because of that, I thought I’d try with their new ladies team, and was made captain.”
So, what is it like now? Granted, Toni is a little older, and that little more wiser from when she started playing on the Shetlands, even when she had that spell at Bishops; plus, with Darlington being a ‘new’ club, it’s perhaps an easier process in which to gain entry into the women’s game.
“It’s the start of a journey here, a long one, but one we’ve started,” said Toni.
“For myself though, I just need to be able to keep myself fit and active, as I feel I’ve still got a few seasons left in me yet.
“The coaching staff here, they’re doing a great job in helping push the club forward, and I’ll continue doing my bit to help promote them.
“The public though, they’ve fallen in love with the women’s game, and more those who don’t usually watch it, because of the Euros, and the success of England.”
Bringing matters up-to-date, and with the new season set to kick-off in early September, Darlington Women have been enjoying their pre-season, partaking in some high-scoring games, and the renewal of an old, derby rivalry of Darlington versus Hartlepool (the two sides played out an entertaining, 4-4 draw, at Grayfields, in late July).
It’s been a pre-season in which they hope will see them build on what they achieved, last time around.
That saw Darlington began the campaign with an impressive, 13-match unbeaten run, one that petered out in the end, and culminated in a fourth place finish – now, they’ll aim for promotion.
But what, if anything, still needs doing within the women’s game?
“Education! But things can only improve and it’s becoming a normal, everyday occurrence now (women’s football in the media),” explains Toni.
“Women’s sport is getting bigger, and that helps the game to grow.
“But it won’t happen overnight either, and the little things, they’re also just as important, especially at grassroots level.
“This though, it’s a great, team sport, which anyone can be involved with.”
Action images courtesy of Steve Halliday.
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