Surbiton school girls’ teams setting very high standards

Utilita U-13 champions. (Photo: Tommy Leighton)

As the Lionesses gear up for the World Cup, Zak Elbekri – Head of Football at Surbiton High School – will be busy preparing for another season that perhaps will provide future England players.

Surbiton High has one of the country’s most successful football programmes for youngsters, as testified by the winning of several national titles and appearances in Wembley finals. All this has come from less than promising beginnings.

Having initially joined Surbiton High as a Tennis Coach 11 years ago, two years later Mr Elbekri started an after-school football club, when the sport was no more than a footnote for staff and pupils alike. Interest levels were so low that raising a team in any year group would have been a struggle, but as soon as one group of girls emerged that was talented and capable of winning games, the floodgates opened.

“The first year I did it, we had five or six girls interested,” Zak said. “We didn’t have any footballs, so we used netballs and played on a netball court. I remember thinking at the time ‘is this really worth it? But the following year, just by chance really, we had a really good intake of footballers in year seven. So, we entered a few competitions, they did really well and more girls started to want to play after that.

“The people above me also began to take note. We got proper footballs!” Zak laughs. Not only that, his role as Football Coach became permanent.

A few years down the line, that first team of football-loving girls has just left the school as a successful year 13 side. To illustrate the impact they have made on the whole school, across the 2022/23 season, its A teams lost only a handful of nearly 200 games played, winning the year nine and year 10 English Independent Schools Football Association (ISFA) national titles and finishing runners up in the year 13 competition, out of 436 and 384 schools respectively, and finishing Runners Up in the U18 competition.

ISFA U-15 champions (Photo: Tommy Leighton)

On top of this, the school has made history in winning a clean sweep of Surrey Schools Football Association titles, U12-U18, becoming the first school in either the boys and girls game to do so. They will be hoping to add to this when they play in the U13 and U15 ISFA National Finals later this month.

For anyone who isn’t well versed in the school system, years seven to 11 are senior school and years 12 to 13 are sixth form. Year seven and eight play nine a side, then from year nine upwards, they play 11-a-side.

Over the years teams from Surbiton High have not only won national titles and reached even more finals, they have also enjoyed footballing experiences that have been pretty special too. “We’ve played at West Bromwich Albion, Stoke City and St George’s Park and in the last two years, we’ve played two finals at Wembley,” Zak said.

“The two finals at Wembley were in a six-a-side competition organised by the EFL. Around 700 schools entered the competition through their local club (ours is AFC Wimbledon) and if you win, you represent that club through different stages – area finals, then regional finals and eventually a Grand Final (North v South) at Wembley. The competition is for years seven and eight and as its only six-a-side a lot of schools can put together a pretty decent
team, so to reach the final two years running is a very good achievement. It’s played before the Papa John’s Trophy final and this season that was Plymouth Argyle v Bolton Wanderers, so when the girls played there was a big crowd in already, which was an amazing experience for them.

Utilita U-13 champions. (Photo: Tommy Leighton)

“These types of experiences and the friendships the girls build are really important. Some of the finals are even streamed live on you-tube with proper commentary. It’s so cool and that’s what school football can give you.”

A footballer and a scholar

The recognition of the value football was adding to the girls’ school lives, as well as the consistency of the results, convinced Surbiton High to introduce Football Scholarships two years ago.

“Our current year nine was the first year to be offered that,” said Zak. “We hold scholarship days and girls come in and play, so we can assess who is of the right standard football-wise. There are exams involved in it as well though and there are so many girls who apply that they can’t all be successful. You’ve built that relationship up with them over those few days though and I didn’t want that to be all we did. So, we started a Saturday morning group for
year three to year six, as well as a few year sevens and that gives free football sessions to any girls from the local community, not just the school, from September to July.

“Across the program, as well as the 150 or so girls who play football at Surbiton High, we’ve got over a 100 girls who also play for local grassroots clubs and year-on-year that is increasing significantly. Although we don’t have any official link or partnership with any academy, we’ve got seven or eight who play for academies and one of our year nine girls has been selected for England.”

u-12 surrey cup champs 2023
U-12 Surrey Cup champions. (Photo: Tommy Leighton)

Commitment and belief

Zak adds that his experience shows that if you are prepared to put the effort in and believe, then great things can happen. “When I started, I decided if I was going to do it, I was going to do it properly. Yes, it’s about the school and the success of the school, but there’s a bigger picture than that. I wanted to see more girls playing football and to give them more exposure to the game. It’s great to win stuff, but that’s never been the main goal either – we’re trying to develop football players for the future, we see it as them getting better as players and benefiting from playing football.

“Other schools are doing it now, but a lot of them are still just ticking a box with a lunchtime or break-time club. They’re not really committing to anything. At the moment, we’re one of the leading schools for sure, however, there are more schools taking it seriously too and I’m seeing standards improve.”

It surely can’t be that long before one of the Surbiton High players progresses to play for a high-profile senior team, a professional Women’s Super League outfit and who knows, to represent the Lionesses.

“When we started, that thought wasn’t even on the radar of girls at the school, but each year we’re getting more and more really talented players and I think that’s because they are seeing the potential,” said Zak. “It’s definitely become one of the aims for us to see someone go on and play professionally. If they were to go on an represent their country too, that would be unbelievable.”

u18 surrey cup champs team 2023
U-18 Surrey Cup winners. (Photo: Tommy Leighton)

Parental support

For a parent’s view, we asked fruit and vegetable wholesaler Martin Dykes, who doubles as dad/supporter and sponsor – his company Nature’s Choice has its name emblazoned on the team shirts and he routinely supplies fruit and water for every team when they play in tournaments around the country.

Martin’s daughter Ruby was one of the year sevens who has just left sixth form having been part of the school’s trailblazing team, winning two national titles and a number of regional cup competitions, as well as providing several girls to representative teams.

“Zak has put so much effort into it and he really inspires the girls. He works so hard – his drive and dedication to the girls has been incredible,” said Martin.

“He coaches girls every Saturday whether they go to Surbiton High or not and he doesn’t get paid for that. He has unearthed lots of local talent and transformed the image of girls’ football in the area. He’s an absolute gentleman and his teams love him to bits.

“He’s even asked the girls who are leaving this year to come back in the autumn and help him with the trials and selection of the teams for next year,” Martin added. “So, the legacy of the team that set the ball in motion will live on. That’s a really nice touch and hopefully it will carry on inspiring the next generation of local girls to play and enjoy their football.”

Peterborough United Women announce pre-season schedule

Upcoming Events

Would you like to read more women’s football news just like this? Sign up to receive the She Kicks Women’s Football newsletter