Denise's story. "A football scout wanted to get me into the England team. Then everything came crumbling down."
“Football was all I cared about from when I left nursery at four years old. They couldn’t distract me with anything else. I never learnt anything at school. I just wanted to do sport. Girls didn’t play football back then though so I always had to play with the boys. I could do things with the ball that none of them could do but I had to pretend I wasn't a girl to play against other teams with them. All the other boys called me Dennis. When I got to ten or eleven it started to become awkward. I’d have to go to the matches in my kit because I couldn’t go into the changing room. I never saw another girl play in the boys team ever. I played netball as well but that was only because the school wrote a letter to my mum saying that unless I did some more feminine pastimes I wouldn’t be allowed to play football at all.
When I was ten my school coach wanted me to officially sign for a professional club called the Panthers, but when the club rep came to my teacher’s house with the papers he didn’t know I was a girl. My brother was there too and he was so proud of me that as we were signing he casually said, She’s my brother.
The bloke just stopped. Girls aren’t allowed to play. They were his exact words. I don’t know what happened after that. I've blacked it out. The rep left and that was it.
Afterwards I went to an all girls' school. I carried on playing for a few different girls' teams over the years but the opportunities were limited. There was some interest from Millwall after a newspaper printed a story about my footballing opportunities being limited in a girls school. I also had compliments from professionals at Arsenal and West Ham who saw me play. They asked me where I learnt to kick a ball like that. I just shrugged. But football went from being my whole life to just playing against other girls who weren’t the same standard as me at primary school. I started to change personally after that too; being more disruptive and acting up. I just preferred being around men and doing sport to what the girls were doing. I loved football, skateboarding and pretending to be in the Olympics with my brother. Other girls didn’t do things like that.
Looking back I’d also become anxious about my sexuality. I came out when I was nineteen but it’s only in the last five years that I’ve had therapy and dealt with it properly for myself. I think people accepted me then because I was still quite girly and feminine looking. I had long curly hair and was a good looking girl but I used that to hide my inner anxiety for decades. Inside I was still in a lot of denial. I had a girlfriend who I saw secretly after school but boys got in the middle and when it ended I was so angry and confused. I was only seventeen. It really upset me. I think I’ve had that fear of abandonment in all my relationships ever since.
Then one day when I was nineteen a football scout who had watched me play over the years rang me up and wanted to get me into the England team. I just said I didn’t want to play football anymore. Simple as that. I threw it all out the window. It’s my biggest regret. But by that time I'd just stopped seeing football as a real option for me. We lived in a very closed community in a block of flats in the East End and that was all we knew. I never got any encouragement or support to think outside of the box. My mum was very supportive but I never knew my dad. I had no male role models at all. There was no one telling me to think differently. I think that scout's name was Ray. I’d love to track him down just to apologise for not appreciating him being the only one who believed in me.
I stopped football completely after that. Didn’t play it, didn’t watch it, didn’t want to think about it. I was too emotional when I thought about football so I just cut it off and that’s how I dealt with it for years. I’ve done that all through my life. I just cut myself off.
I was attracted to both sexes but I tried to live a straight life because I just hated being gay. I met a bloke I liked and I knew it probably wasn't love but I just wanted to run away from it all. I thought “Why me?” I was worried it was because people had done things to me when I was a kid. Some of the things that went on in the block of flats we grew up in you couldn't make up. They’d make a reality TV show about it now. Things happened that shouldn't have happened. Things that kids shouldn't have to see. That’s when my anxieties really started. I’ve never really talked about it before because I felt so ashamed and embarrassed.
I went out with men and women until I met a girl I was with for the next eighteen years. We ran a gift shop together and about that time I bought an old SLR camera and started taking photos as well. Where my shop was based there were a lot of famous people and I’m quite talkative so I wasn't afraid to ask people for a picture. I was embarrassed really because I behave like that to hide my insecurities but nine times out of ten they would say yes.
I never wanted to be a paparazzi but I did a lot of red carpets. It was another very male dominated industry and sometimes I felt like pushing those guys off their ladders but I knew if I did I would be found out because I never had a press badge. I always got into places because I asked in the right way. We used to have to put all our press cards in a hat to decide who got to stand where and I had put my drivers licence in there instead. Over the years I’ve photographed people like Ed Sheeran and Amy Winehouse. I think I’ve got that natural ability to see what someone’s got. One of my pictures was in Amy Winehouse’s dad’s book 'My Daughter' by Mitch Winehouse. It was even meant to be on the cover but they changed their mind at the last minute.
I still thought about football and I even had an offer to help out coaching with Arsenal ladies in my thirties but I turned that one down as well. I knew it would bring back all that frustration and upset and I was working so much at the time I felt I had to dedicate myself to that instead. In the end it was the pressure of work that got between my partner and I.
We ended up separating and when I left her I tried to move on but I could feel my anxieties coming back. I wanted a new start so I decided to train as nightclub security but dealing with other people’s problems and being around drunk people made me drink myself to calm my nerves. I was one woman amongst loads of men again, and I also had girls coming on to me all the time which could have been great but I was paranoid that I might get the sack and I just wanted to be professional. I got into the wrong relationships. I had therapy. I knew I was going to completely breakdown but I was just avoiding it.
Then everything came crumbling down. The past, the work, the guilt, the shame. I thought about suicide. I slept on the streets for two weeks. That’s when it was rock bottom for me. I had nowhere to go. My life was an utter mess. Then I ended up in a hostel with 118 other women. There was everything from dependent women and professional women to Muslim women. A big percentage had been in jail and half of them said the hostel was harder than prison.
I was there for a year and half until I got housed in a flat. I was having therapy three times a week at one point from three different services. I was supposed to get support every week when I left the hostel but I never got one home visit from my support worker in six months. They didn’t even turn up for my first appointment. I was in a bad area and was afraid to go outside my front door. I ended up having another meltdown and having to stay in a crisis home for three weeks.
Now I've just completed my level one coaching course with the FA and hope to become a professional coach. It’s taken me 47 years of struggles, shame and guilt but now I’m finally moving on. I’ve accepted who I am and I’m the happiest I’ve been for a long time. An organisation called UpSkill that helps people back into work heard about my story and they got me funding to pay for the qualification.
I’m still the only girl out of thirty men but they’re all young ambitious guys and I love that. I feel like they respect me and I respect them. At the start the coach asked me if there was anything I wasn’t comfortable with and I joked that I’d rather be around thirty men than thirty women. That’s not true anymore but I just wanted them to know it was alright. Sometimes they say ‘guys’ when talking to the group but I said I don’t mind. I’m not offended by that. But I did make it clear that I am a woman, I like being a woman, I enjoy having a woman’s body and acting like a woman. I just like doing men’s sports. I’m also the oldest and the least fit but I keep up with them. If I didn’t talk up in the group I’d be left in the shadows so I make sure I make my presence felt. I can give myself a pat on the back for that.
There’s definitely more women playing now but there’s still not many women coaches. I don’t want any girl to miss out on playing football as much as they can like I did. Now I’m training with the FA I know that girls and boys can play together up to the age of eighteen. I would have loved that. If only I’d had that support and been around the right people. Just someone to say - don’t throw this opportunity away. Sometimes just a couple of words can change everything.
I’d be devastated if anything took me away from football now and I’m hoping to continue my photography as well. My brother is a football coach too and we often say that if I had been born one decade later my life would have been different. But who knows. I always joke with him that if I ever write a book about my life I’ll call it She’s my Brother.”
(Photo edits by Denise)
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