MissKick - how a Skelmersdale sportswear firm is helping grassroots football
- Credit: not Archant
Grace Vella turned her schoolgirl football obsession into a business helping to help level the playing field for girls across the North West.
When Grace Vella first kicked a ball, the notion of women playing professional football was little more than a dream. Skelmersdale-born Grace grew up watching her beloved Liverpool FC play, but her true passion was getting on the pitch herself.
Now 23, Grace has taken her own journey and used it as inspiration for an award-winning business, MissKick, which aims to offer inclusive football opportunities for all young girls and women.
Grace's dad was well aware of his eight-year-old daughter's love of the beautiful game, and he helped her do something about it when she wanted more than a kickabout in the park.
'From as early as I can remember I used to sit in the field behind my house and watch people play football and I really wanted to do that as soon as I could,' she says. 'I was really lucky because when I said: 'Dad, I want to play football', he collected all my friends together and set up a team.'
Instantly hooked, Grace started playing for a grassroots team, 'Skem Athletic', when she wasn't even 10 years old, starting a local league to play with other girls her age.
Her dad's investment of time and effort paid off.
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'When I was 13, I signed for Liverpool so I got to play at the Academy there for five years which was absolutely amazing. Then I played at Manchester City until I was 18, so football was always a big part of my life,' she says.
'I think sport was my superpower in school. I would go away training, and it was so good for me as a release. It was always my go-to when I was stressed out. It helped build my confidence and it made me the person I am today.
'I always threw myself into anything - netball or running or athletics. I was sporty so I enjoyed it. When you're good at something you tend to enjoy it more.'
Following her stint at Manchester City, Gemma went to the University of Manchester and got her psychology degree, which she says has helped her understand sportspeople and their motivations even more than she did as a player.
'What I took away the most from my degree in terms of sport is how important your mindset is, and how big a role that plays in how you prepare and perform. People know how important it is, it's become more prominent in the last few years.'
Although she played football for Lancashire at county level and now plays for Chorley Ladies FC, her dream of playing professionally didn't come to fruition. But she has found that the skills, determination and resiliance that have swerved her well on the pitch, are also important assets off it.
'I saw a tweet on Twitter 'what would you do if you set up your own business?' and was thinking 'what do I know a bit about?' - and the answer was football.'
Grace's idea was to design T-shirts for girls who played football and give them out to promote it.
She was put in touch with Alan Horridge, former CEO of Bench clothing who is also from Skelmersdale, and asked for his help.
'My dad organises this big football tournament every year in Skelmersdale for girls, so I got a few T-shirts made and had a stand there and we sold 170 T-shirts across three days!'
And that success has been followed by win after win. With help from the Natwest Entrepreneur Accelerator, Grace not only designs and sells MissKick branded T-shirts, she has also set up a portion of the company as a social enterprise - the MissKick Foundation - that delivers grant-funded 'girls only' projects and initiatives that incorporate football and education. And this year she will launch the MissKick Academy which aims to nurture and develop skills for young female players through paid-for coaching, offering more chances for girls in the North West to get ahead in the game. 'Miss Kick is about giving girls the identity that they've never had,' she says. 'I've had messages from parents saying 'thank you so much'. It blows my mind.
'I forget sometimes that girls are wearing these tops and going out. They genuinely love the branding, and it's like there's finally something that's for them, something they can put on and they feel like it's who they are.'
And besides the fashion, there is, of course, the football, which is still her first love.
'When I was in the Liverpool Academy there wasn't the option to play professionally, so I was always really conscious of being in school and getting my education. It was around the time I was at City that they really started to professionalise it for women.
'It's great now for girls, but I wish it had happened sooner, because I probably would've devoted a bit more time and effort to it.'
Now though, Grace is offering young women the chances she wishes she'd had - and although she won an Enterprise Vision Awards Young Entrepreneur One To Watch award last year, her competitive spirit won't allow her to rest on her laurels.
'Football is so male dominated, so since I was younger I've always felt like I had to compete against men. I want to do that now. I want to be commended because - whether I'm a female or a male - I'm the best.'
To find out more, go to misskick.com.