Making their debut at the 18th Maccabiah Games, the Team GB Ladies Open football squad are ready for battle, and they’ll be no soft touch. Take it from someone who found out the hard way.
With the first match around a fortnight away, I joined a training session at Rowley Lane and came away with a lot more than a bruised ego, nursing a swollen eye and damaged finger.
Following a gruelling two-hour workout, this veteran Maccabi League goalkeeper departed duly impressed, with tail firmly between legs.
With four players absent, and Claire Lewis having withdrawn from the squad through injury, the session started with a small-sided match. It was not a case of blouses for goalposts and there was not a broken nail in sight: more like hard-as-nails tackling. The silky skills of winger Tania Willman, aka Cryuff, caught my eye early on. Willman, a 23-year-old teacher, reminded me of a young Chris Waddle.
Keeper Dana Lucas, 22, is the most high-profile member of the squad. The Brentford stopper put me to shame with a string of athletic and brave saves. To my amazement, the big tackles started to fly in, with Geordie Kate Freeman putting life and limb on the line, before the first of many shots flew past me.
It took some time to adjust: it felt wrong to shout “man on” to defenders. Then it was on to shooting practice with the strikers put through their paces by assistant-coach Elliot Smith, a former trialist at Arsenal.
Polish-born Ewa Holender had my number, beating me with consummate ease time and again.
On to penalties, and having saved 11 out of my past 12 in competitive matches, I felt confident I would come into my own but Willman, wearing bright pink nail polish, had other ideas, finding the top corner with every attempt. She clearly has the technique and temperament down to a tee and Fabio Capello could do worse that to put her in the squad for the 2010 World Cup. I restored some pride when I saved a cheeky, dinked effort from Smith.
With the light fading, I was happy when time was called, although the girls showed no signs of tiring.
It is clear the squad is focused on the task. Keeper Lucas said: “The USA have four full internationals but if we can start with a win, it will lift heads. We’ve been working on penalties a bit but you know England’s history.”
Centre back Dani Bassin, wife of assistant-manager Lee, said: “We’re very excited but nervous. I can’t wait. We’ve got a tough schedule but we’re going for gold. Preparations have gone well, everyone is focused and we’ve stepped up the pace. Everyone realises what’s at stake and we know we must be really strong in defence and prepared for the heat.”
Unlike the Canada squad, who have been doing hot yoga, GB’s preparations have been slightly more traditional. “We’ve been training in thermals and know it will be survival of the fittest.”
At 16, Aimee Rose is the youngest member. She was promoted to the Ladies squad after just one session with the junior girls delegation. Defensive-midfielder Judith Addleson, 39, is the most experienced, having played for Spurs and Watford Ladies in the 1990s. She said: “The quality of women’s football is really high. I’ve no idea of the quality of opposition but we’ve bonded really well and trained very hard. It’ll be an experience we’ll take away for the rest of our lives.”
Manager Brad Solomon said: “Over the past few weeks the squad have really stepped up a gear with regards to training and have found a healthy balance between competitiveness and friendship. They are working exceptionally hard on their fitness and conditioning and their focus in training is nothing short of exemplary.
“We have bonded well, and despite the fact that most of the players have not worked with each other before, the coaching team have been able to mould them into a well disciplined group.
“Each player is having fitness sessions with me to ensure that they are mentally prepared for the Games as well as the heat and I am positive if we take the attitude we have shown in the past few months out to Israel, along with a little bit of luck, then a medal in our inaugural Games is a possibility.
“The opportunity to play the likes of USA and Brazil along with Australia and Israel is very exciting, but a punishing schedule will really test the depth of the squad, which with only 16 players will be stretched to the limit.”
Not content with bringing one big name to training, Solomon asked former Watford manager Aidy Boothroyd to cast his eye over the squad at the next session in Hatfield.
Solomon said Boothroyd had told him: “If we could cope with the heat we would have the tenacity to do well”.
The squad: Dana Lucas, Jo Strous, Kate Freeman, Dani Bassin, Sheri Ben Atar, Judith Addelson, Tanya Willman, Aimee Cohen, Ellie Bard, Tamar Koch, Sophie Joseph, Jaime Minter-Green, Aimee Rose, Aimee Lindsay, Ewa Holender, Talia Ben Harosh. Manager: Brad Solomon, Assistant-manager: Lee Bassin, Assistant-coach: Elliot Smith