Although more female footballers are turning professional as the women’s game grows, tackling the twin demands of a full-time job and a playing career is common for those at FA Women’s Championship level.
One such player is Charlton Athletics’s Charley Clifford, who works for a motor finance company by day and joins up with her Addicks team-mates in the evening.
“I am in the office at eight every morning, and I leave about half four, or whenever I can get out, and then it is straight to training and then we don’t finish until at least 10pm,” the 27-year-old explains.
“If we can get on the pitches earlier, then we may leave earlier but it is always a late night and we do it again the next day.”
Clifford’s brother Tom plays for Southend United under Sol Campbell, but the Gravesend-born midfielder has her cousins to thank for introducing her to the game.
“They got me into football. I was put in goal in the back garden, they would kick balls at me as training, despite one of them being a keeper themselves, which is funny when you look back at it. From there, I initially joined my local boys’ team, and haven’t looked back since.”
Clifford has a great eye for goal, with 64 to her name for the Addicks. Last season, she established a formidable partnership with Kit Graham, however, she originally played in defence as a youngster.
“I just fell into this position, really. When we first started playing on 11-a-side pitches, I was played at right-back, but after a while I was moved into the centre of the park and have stayed there ever since, though I would be happy to play anywhere that the gaffer puts me.”
Growing up, the Addicks star was supported by her parents as they juggled watching her and her brother make a career for themselves in football.
“Both my parents have sacrificed a lot, taking me and my brother to matches. My dad used to take me to all my games, but since my brother has gone pro, my mum has been watching mine more. Ours are on a Sunday, so it means they can both watch us as we now play on different days.”
Making over 250 appearances in the famous red and white shirt, Clifford is a player who her younger team-mates look up to.
“We have got a very young team and everyone has got a lot of learning to do including me, even though people say ‘you’ve got all the experience’. I have, but I’ve still got learn how to deal with the younger players. With the fans, you don’t realise that all the young girls look up to you until you see their faces when they come to games.”
With seven matches left this season, Charlton are rooted to the bottom of the table on seven points, two off Lewes Women and Coventry City Ladies. The rest of the campaign is about belief if the Addicks are going to beat the drop.
With only one victory all season – a 1-0 win over London City Lionesses in the Conti Cup Group stage back in November – Charlton have it all to do if they want to retain their Championship spot next season. However, Clifford believes they can still achieve that aim.
“I feel we can get out of this situation as the points difference isn’t huge, so if we can just win some of our remaining games then we will be fine. We will not want it to go down to the last game of the season because the pressure is just too much. The losing feeling isn’t a great one, especially when you have come out on top and that feeling is like nothing else. Touch wood, I have never suffered a relegation.”
With a whole host of players coming and going, Charlton’s team chemistry took a hit, and the midfielder believes this has played a part in the team’s shortcomings this season.
“At the start of the season, we had 14 new players, and to gel with that many new people is hard and it takes more than a season. Playing with Kit Graham and Charlotte Gurr for the last few years, it has taken me at least this year to get on the same wavelength and gel with my new team-mates.”
This turnover of players is something that is common practice in the women’s game, with most teams getting several new faces during the season. For Clifford, it’s a case of getting used to all the changes happening around her.
“People jump from club to club, so there will be people that might be your friend from other teams you were in. You might go out for dinner with them one night and then the next day you might be on the pitch against them. You have to play for the team and put aside any personal relationships when on the pitch.”
Clifford has achieved a lot since making her debut for the Addicks, playing for England at youth level and gaining promotion twice.
“When we won the league in 2017/2018, that was a pretty special moment as it was a really good season and everyone gelled together really well. The play-off match when we beat Blackburn Rovers was just unreal and it got us to the league we are in now. The feeling you get from being promoted on unbelievable.”
Riteesh Mishra joined as first-team coach in 2017 and has made a big impression on the midfielder’s footballing life.
“He brings new ideas, I like the way that he coaches, and I like that he goes down into the details. Also, his encouragement on the sidelines is massive and for us where we are at right now – we just need the encouragement rather than a battering.
“I feel like I have been coached really well in the last couple of years and I have learned a lot about the game, and that is largely down to him.”
The women’s game is seemingly going from strength to strength, with interest, attendances and media coverage increasing steadily, and Clifford says this bodes well for young girls who see football as their future.
“For the young girls coming through now, everything is in place for them to become professional footballers. When I was a kid that never was a thing, but now as a young girl, that should be every young girl’s dream to be a professional and I think more and more clubs are going to become professional. The women’s game could become massive as long as the money gets pumped into it.”
Charlton next play at The Oakwood on Sunday, 15 March 2020, when they take on eighth-placed Crystal Palace in a vital relegation six-pointer.
All images courtesy of Charlton Athletic Women’s photographer Keith Gillard. Find his photos at: https://topsnapper.photoshelter.com/index