The NWFL Interviews: Bethany Pilkington of the Leeds Chargers

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Do you feel the rumble? Do you feel the electricity in the air? Well, there is only one reason why…

The NWFL season kicks off in two days and the shockwaves are coming

Today in the NWFL interview series we have Bethany Pilkington, coming to us from the Leeds Chargers, Team GB & the Yorkshire Rams, we talk about the development of the sport and Bethany’s own experiences playing American Football.

Who are you?

I am Bethany Pilkington, I play for the Leeds Chargers and played for the Yorkshire Rams or Yorkshire Academy Rams, also I’m a part of team GB.

 I’ve played for seven years. I had a couple of years out with injury. Where I coached and didn’t like it as much, but I’m back now so it’s all good. It’s all fine.

How did you get into the sport?

I knew some boys on the Uni team when I was at Uni at Leeds Beckett. And they had said that there were girls playing nearby and they kind of just like, come down, see how you find it.

I put it off for a month maybe, and then like forced myself to go.

Like my granddad used to watch it and stuff like that, so it just kinda fit when there was a team nearby.

What NFL team do you support?

Eagles, fly Eagles fly.

I’m an original Eagles fan though. Not like a post Superbowl one.

Okay, then how did last year’s season go in your eyes?

It was a tricky season. I think considering COVID and the big delay between seasons, I think we did well.

We lost our training facility, so we used to train at Leeds Beckett, but they couldn’t host us because they had to prioritize the uni teams and we were an affiliation and not a uni team.

We had to find somewhere else, then a lot of places shut down or like, couldn’t take more bookings, then we ended up where we are now at Yanbury RUFC.

Then we have to change our day, we lost a lot of players who couldn’t commit. Cause we ended up as a Friday spot, which like isn’t ideal because people like getting back to post-covid life and they want to just like, you know, see friends, hang out.

Friday night lights are great, but the practicality of it is a bit different. It was an interesting season. I think we learned a lot as a club, as players, as coaches and everything like that

It was also interesting to play Birmingham, to play Cheshire Bears, we always end up playing Manchester. So that wasn’t that much of a surprise. Yeah. But we spent a lot of time together and kind of reconnected as a team and figured out what we wanted, so it was a good season.

How does it feel to be a premiership team?

It’s good. You can tell from the years that we’ve had, so I think this is our seventh season, maybe seventh year. You can tell the work that the players put in.

So, we have a very good base of returners who really help lead the team, they are like kind of keystones within the offence and defence, then each year we kind of pick up a couple of like freakishly outstanding rookies.

So, it kind of keeps us ticking on until, you know, people leave. So, it’s nice because it’s like an honour to the girls that had originally played all those years ago, like putting in the work and trying to learn the rules and everything like that.

It’s a good feeling. I feel like we all kind of like paving the way a little bit for the sport to grow, being a premiership team. It’s a nice feeling to kind of keep our head above water for all these years.

And then due to the changing of the league, what are your thoughts on the Teesside Steelers?

We have players that have mixed between the two teams. I think, maybe four players come from Teesside to Leeds a few years ago before Teesside got promoted.

So, we’re really friendly with them and like we’ve made a lot of good friends and there’s no bad blood between people moving teams. 

It’s good that they’ve managed to kind of come into our league because they’ve got a lot of talented players. They’ve got really good coaches.

 My best friend plays for them and then met her girlfriend there so she’s there. So, it’d be an interesting one because we’re very friendly between the teams like outside on a social level.

I don’t know how it’ll be on the field because we’ve not played them for a couple of years. But it’ll be interesting. It’s always, it’s always nice playing them they got really talented players.

They’ve got big, big girls where we are quite a physically small team where they must feed them something weird in the water in Teesside, cause they’re all like six-foot, I swear.

Given that the last few years, the divisions haven’t seen much change in terms of teams, who would you say your biggest rivalry is with?

I think everyone is going to say Birmingham because they’re top of the top, but I also feel as if that’s a bit of a cop-out answer.

So, I’m going to go, I’m going to go for the ballsy one. And maybe upset some of my friends in Teesside and say that probably Cheshire Bears.

They’ve got a big team; they’ve got a load of good coaches. They have quite a few like rookie players, but that are incredibly good, considering they’ve played like maybe one or two seasons.]

 Within like our league, I would say like, Bears are probably the ones to watch. Last season we played two games, we won the first one and they won the second one then we had to tap out of the third tournament.

So, in my eyes, it’s an even draw.

It would be good to get back on the field with them. Even when I see their pictures and stuff on social media, there are thousands of them, the catchment area, and the recruitment that they’re doing is incredible. They’ve got a huge squad. I don’t want to say as big as Birmingham, but it’s getting that way, hats off to them.

And then what has been your best playing moment so far?

I would say it was my first season back after injury. It was like 2018, 2019.

I’d been out a couple of years on two seasons off like rehabilitating my knee. I had the usual ACL stuff with football. I was kind of nervous about going back and our first tournament was up in East Kilbride.

I love the East Kilbride Pirates. I think the girls and stuff are amazing, but it is a fair drive. So, you go up the night before, the nerves were mounting.

We got on the field, and we have Sam Fossey from the Titans as our DB coach and Sam Fossey just being Sam Fossey was like kinda like trying to psych me out a little bit.

I just wanted to get a relatively decent hit on someone just to kind of get it out of the way.

And he was like psyching out and it was the first play and the running back just flared out into my zone, I absolutely nailed her, like she was trying to catch her breath on the floor.

Like my team were cheering me on, it was really nice to have a comeback and like kind of prove that I can do it for myself and for my team to be so supportive.

I just kinda like looked around at Fossey and he was smugly nodding his head. And I just thought like, this is kind of the reason that year you do these things to get the support from your coaches and team.

What are the notable differences between senior ball and the NWFL?

The main difference as most people know is it’s seven aside versus 11 aside.

So, then there are quite a few role changes. In a seven aside game is a lot different to read than in a seven aside game.

For example, my o-line reads are an awful lot different because I have three o line versus five linemen.

The main reason I joined the Rams, was so that I could get more experience within the national team because both of them of course were 11s.

There are no special teams in the women’s game. Which is kind of sad. Cause special teams is a lot of fun.

Is the community different at all?

The community I find is quite different.

In the senior league, my team is so, so supportive. I couldn’t ask for a more supportive team, but outside of that, I’ve not got a lot of knowledge about other players in other teams, really.

Like we don’t kind of hang out and speak whereas in the women’s I find it’s completely different. And so, it’s very much like women supporting women.

And like, it doesn’t matter what team you play for. Like, you’ll get support no matter what you do.

I used to go watch the Bears before they got promoted and like, it’s so friendly.

And how do you feel about the tournament style of play?

it’s difficult playing two games in a tournament, having the preparation before can be quite difficult.

If you play in two teams that are quite different, I’ll have, you know, different playbooks and different.

You know, things like that, like schematically, can be quite difficult to prepare for that because in the two weeks before you’ve got to prepare for two games.

So, it’s hard to flip your mind switch and kind of go, okay, so I’m playing, you know, Bears so this is what they’re going to do, and this is what we need to do.

And then, okay, now I’m playing Teesside and not so it’s quite difficult in that way. It makes sense where I got to do it.

Cause I wouldn’t want to be travelling like even an hour, for a 40-minute game.

In the Northern League, some teams have got to go and travel for five hours, so that for a forty-minute game, isn’t really realistic.

It works for now, but it is difficult and you don’t get that much time between the games, it’s very much like 20 minutes you go through the bathroom, take some pre-workout have a drink and then you’re into the next one.

I would like to see a bit more of a mix of the different geographical areas. A few years back we would do like one tournament where we were flipped half and half. So, then we got to play like teams that aren’t typically in our like league slash area. So that’s really good.

Because it gives you something fresh and something new and it’s good to see like the north-south kind of divide on, on skill and talent back then it was the south would tend to rain over. But I think now it be a bit more evenly matched. So, I’d like to see that.

And then how do the Leeds Chargers prepare for playing two games in a day?

So, two weeks before we will focus very heavily on who we’re playing and what.

I presume that they’re going to do so we do try and make our sessions, especially the two weeks before quite contact-based so that we kind of ready for it.

And we will plan and strategize over what we are much and we’re going to see against, you know, Bears. And then kind of the, well, it used to be the day before, because we train on a Friday, but the week before we’ll do walkthroughs, we’ll make sure that everyone is kind of head ready in the playbook, doing all the things I want them to do.

And asked him to chill a couple of nights before we try to not make anybody do anything to, you know, consuming so that everyone can get an early night and kind of get well-rested.

In the morning, we’ll try and pick everyone back up, we’ll do a bit of defence pretending to be someone else, a bit of offence and then have a little bit of a break and then try and flip it to the second team?

What is it like representing Great Britain?

It is fabulous. I think it’s a really great achievement for any player who’s in the team or the development squad. I feel like as one of the girls that are trying to help develop and encourage more players to get into the sport or to continue in the sport.

When they like younger. It’s a really nice thing to get to say. Cause I’ve always been relatively sporty, like at school and stuff, but never to a point where it was considered elite. It’s kind of like that, but you don’t need to spend all your time in the gym and all the time in a sports environment, which I think is really relatable.

A lot of our girls are PTs because they’re absolute athletes and if I could be one, if my job would allow me to spend every single minute in the gym, I’d love that but can’t do it.

I have an office job. They’ll allow me, you know, a couple hours a week on my lunch to go to the gym, which is appreciated.

And it’s nice that it’s a bit more relatable for what I would say is like the larger percentage of people to have this sort of thing is actually achievable.

I love wearing my GB Kit around to get rinsed all the time by the lads on the team. And one of my head coaches, Jason calls me Ms GB, and he does it purely to annoy me, but in the most supportive, way where, it’s nice that you know, again, we’ve got the guy support on it and just trying to do everything we can to help grow the sport.

I think it’s a real key part of that as well. Much more relatable people around you don’t find that really in other sports you don’t see, you know, kind of your national players nipping down to local rugby team as much where, where we are everywhere in every single team.

We’re kind of, I want to say key players, but I would presume presumably key players in most teams, anyone that’s on the squad. And so, I would hope that we kind of encourage them in our own place to just kind of be the best that they can be.

What has been the evolution of this sport since your first season?

It’s been a lot.

I remember the very first season, our head coach at the time, Dale Bottomley. He’s the head coach of the Leeds Beckett team. And he’s an incredible coach. And poor Dale was very much on his own.

But he was trying his absolute best to explain this sport to essentially 15 girls, one of which who had an idea of what was going on, maybe two, the rest of us. Absolutely. No idea.

Dale tried to impart wisdom whilst we’re on the field and like, we didn’t really what we were doing, we just kind of followed some rules and like, he was trying to explain why we were doing things, most coaches will agree that women like to ask questions and understand where, you know, a lot of men are point and press.

A lot of girls are saying why am I doing this particular thing?

He was trying his best to like to adjust to coaching a bunch of women who say some very interesting things because we’re a bunch of women.

But now it’s like a lot more strategical and we’ve got like great playbooks. I think Dale’s probably favourite was like maybe like a bubble screen something like that.

So, to see the development in our plays alone is quite incredible.

We’ve got maybe five or six girls who started when the team did. So, it’s fun to sit back and remember that time when we have no idea what we were doing.

What could be done to aid coverage and recruitment?

This is maybe a controversial answer, I think the main thing is coverage and this isn’t just people within Britball, but this is from different parties.

For example, we have the NFL that comes to London. Like four times a year, but we rarely showcase the teams that are across the UK we get like maybe like a school team that plays a game of flag.

I don’t think that that’s representative of the talent that we have. Like, we have national teams, which are ranking well. We’ve got like uni teams, like who I’ve got imports of all of this amazing talent.

For some reason, the NFL’s kind of go-to is like children. And I like that, trying to get them young and things like that and develop it from a young age.

But we have thousands of people that go down there from all around the UK, and they won’t know unless they know, and we need that support.

We just kind of need more support and that. Well, I want to say that the biggest way we’ve got great local media outlet. So, like yourself and girlsofgridiron, as I’m sure you’re aware of them now, they’re doing a fantastic job to showcase women in football

I think people potentially have an image of what you think, someone who plays a contact sport might be and I don’t think that it’s representative of the athletes actually play.

I’m 5’2 about 70 kg. I’m quite a small human. When I tell people that I play, they are astonished. They don’t believe it’s a thing, you know, gotta show pictures here and there.

If you want to join, when you go to the NFL and you see our like teams everywhere and then come down and see how you like it. The thing is kind of, like I said, about the academy team, so like our youth team, so we have an association in Leeds where we are all under a Yorkshire banner almost.

All the teams kind of filter through that and we try and support each other. So, Yorkshire academy Rams, we’ve got the academy teams they’ve got like under nineteens, under 14. I think they’ve got like maybe under 11, but they can start from like seven or eight years old.

So, from that point of view, it’s really good. And I’m sure, you know, Lucy Peaty, she came through the academy. So, she started out when she was quite young and kind of like graduated then come to the chargers. Now she’s GB. She plays at Uni for Surry Stingers, like she’s bossing it. So that kind of shows that if we kind of tapping into players who are a lot younger.

That outcome is, is quite incredible. And so, yeah. NFL UK you can help us.

What do you think should be showcased about the NWFL?

I would say the community, and I’ve mentioned it kind of briefly before, the community within football is, is incredible.

I’ve played rugby. I used to do a bit of athletics and I’ve never found a community quite like it’s incredibly special and it doesn’t matter what size you are or what your natural sporting ability is.

You will always find a position that will kind of suit you, I think that’s really underrated because you would presume to be sporty that you’ve kind of gotta be like really hench and in really great shape and fitness where it’s not really the thing I would say.

And I know this is across the sport but specifically with the Chargers, kind of going through COVID a lot of our girls kind of like live on their own. So, it was particularly difficult for them

Coming out of that and like all the ups and downs, finding facilities then trying to figure out where we stood in each other’s lives.

The biggest thing about it is the level of support that you get kind of on-field. Then as soon as it comes off-field, most of my best friends are from the football community now.

What are the best things about playing for the leads Carnegie charges?

So, I play and the best thing for me individually is the players. Any week when I don’t want to be there. If I’ve had a busy day, I go there and have a great time.

It’s all about the players, the coaches, the people involved, the people that you meet on the way. And then you kind of go out on the field and you might not understand or know what’s going on, but it doesn’t matter if you make a mistake or if you blow a play because you know that someone else has kind of got your back.

Mr. Spencer Whybrow. He does everything for the team. He will jump through a thousand hoops, even if he doesn’t want to, because he does it for the girls that are involved. And I think that’s, that’s really incredible and selfless of him.

I don’t think he particularly wants to take on such a large role. He wants to kind of like settle down and just chill out with his dog and his wife and we’re like “It’s Us Again”, and he just does that, and he does it without question.

And then finally, just any closing remarks

So, two-ish things. So obviously women’s is growing as is the sport in general. But I think this probably goes for most teams, not just in the women’s league, but probably in the senior league and the uni, but we need more coaches and more support staff and kind of thing.

 It is difficult to run a club and, you know, Try and grow the sport.

When we’ve got a lack of coaches and coaches are really difficult to find because it takes a certain kind of person to do that. But we just kind of want people to stay involved.

We’ve had a few coaches that have retired from playing now in a coaching role instead, and I think that’s great, but because women’s clashes with either uni teams or senior, but we tend to lose like coaches because they want to coach Eleven’s, which I understand.

Within the women’s you get girls who. One, we’ll say a lot of hilarious things and we’ll absolutely have a laugh, but they want to be there, and they want to learn so much.

So, like things like filming or kit managers, like wherever it is. We have a team mum. We, we love that. And so just to kind of be involved and help as much as possible, it’s really difficult for coaches that coaches two teams.

So, we’ve got a few like that and like Adam Kelly, he plays for the Rams.

He coaches that Rams, and he is helping the Chargers and it’s really difficult to expect that much from him.

Follow @girlsofgridiron on Instagram & Tiktok and Girls Of Gridiron on facebook for more coverage.

Also, leedschargersaf to follow the journey of Beth and the Chargers.

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