Women’s football is more than a sport. It’s a movement. An ethos. A mud-splattered-flood-lit revolution, of sorts. Squad Goals, written by Michelle Payne and co-directed by Payne and Mia Jerome, nails this point with the precision of a Lucy Bronze edge-of-the-area shot. This isn’t a play about football – or at least, not entirely – it’s a play about what football means to a group of Essex teenage girls.
Performed alongside the pitch at Dagenham and Redbridge’s Victoria Road ground, the first half of Squad Goals involves a semi-promenade performance of a low-key drama involving the talented Hammers fan Lexi and her dream to get spotted by a scout. Her life-long bestie Mel has been sent by Lexi’s mum to get her back home and at a desk revising for her A Levels. Lexi isn’t the only one negotiating a split between her on- and off-pitch life. Misha (Ashley Runeckles), a glam Man-U fan, has the opposite problem. Whatever the UK version of a ‘soccer mom’ is, she’s got one, but unlike Lexi she’d be happier painting nails and giving waxes than emulating Fran Kirby.
The plot is pretty flimsy, but that doesn’t wholly matter. Partly because the setting (an actual football ground!) makes everything that happens approximately 55% more exciting than if it happened in a conventional theatre. And partly because the cast channel an infectious adolescent joy and hysteria. Ellie Seaton’s Lexi is full of droll putdowns and determinism, Holly Richard Smith’s goalkeeper Mel is so sweetly keen to please it makes me want to wrap her up in a giant duvet like a pug in wintertime, and Ellen White-lookalike Morag Davies’s Scrappy Doo is pleasingly violent towards the only male footballer taking part in the five-aside tournament.
There’s certainly room for pulling harder on several of the threads loosely woven into the piece. Lexi’s sister Missy (Holly Liburd) has recently turned down a prestigious soccer scholarship at an American university as even with the course fees paid, she can’t afford the flights over or the general living costs. The dominance of America in the international game, and the role of stateside colleges in nurturing the athletes who walk out alongside Megan Rapino, has a big impact on the ambitions and futures of young women like Lexi struggling to rise through the ranks of the underfunded UK women’s leagues. There’s a lot more to be said here about how the system that produces so many great players also excludes many talented youngsters from poorer backgrounds (both inside and outside the US) and often – as Hope Solo wrote about in 2018 for the Guardian – women of colour.
But before you really have time to seriously start considering how the script could have a little bit more substance to it, the second half switches from being a play to being a choreographed dance slash football match. There’s a followable narrative featuring a bit of foul play, some classic drama between goalie and star foreign signing á la Hugo Lloris and Heung-min Son, and a triumphant victory for the blues – kind of like this). But along with the slo-mo replay mimes, there’s a huge amount of high-energy pure pop dancing performed to a soundtrack unnervingly similar to my own current workout music ( Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Little Mix, Dua Lipa… don’t judge me, I’m trying to get my legs to move faster). Like the best times at a match, Squad Goals is really just a whole lot of fun. Plus – imagine if all football rivalries ended in a mass dance-off. Michail Antonio would be a serious asset to have in your side then.
Squad Goals played at Dagenham and Redbridge FC till 26th September. More info here.