It’s a scene commonly played out near football grounds across the country on Saturday
afternoons - dozens of away fans gathered outside a pub, raucously anticipating supporting
their team at a match.
On this occasion, a decade ago, a 21-year old girl wearing a Gillingham shirt walked past on
her way to meet a friend at nearby Priestfield - trying not to feel intimidated by the large
group of high-spirited opposition fans whose attention had turned to her.
But Paige Collins’ hopes of passing the pub that day without incident were short lived when
chants of “what’s the offside rule?”, “get your tits out”, “ginger” and “go back to the kitchen” started up.
Paige recalls: “I don’t usually get scared because there are usually police about but that day
it genuinely did frighten me a bit.
“There were 50 to 100 men and they were shouting abuse at me.
“It made me angry that I was being pinpointed for being female and because of my hair
colour, when I probably knew more about football than a lot of them.
“Why were these guys thinking it was okay to pick on one girl walking past?”
This was one of a number of incidents that led to Paige becoming Gillingham Football Club’s
ambassador for Her Game Too earlier this season - a campaign that aims to tackle sexist
abuse in sport.
The 31-year old has been following the side home and away for 26 years - witnessing the
highs of promotions and cup runs and the lows of relegations and toxic club politics.
Her uncle took her to her first game when she was five years old and one of her earliest
Gillingham memories is being at Wembley as a nine year old in 2000, when Gillingham beat
Wigan Athletic 3-2 after extra time to win the Second Division play-off final.
“We were really high up, right up the back, and I had this random man next to me pick me up and throw me about when we won.
“We went up on the coach with all the Gills fans and I remember walking up Wembley Way -
it was amazing.”
But not all Paige’s experiences of following her team have been positive.
One post-match incident at a pub in Sunderland sticks out in her mind, when light-hearted
competitions were being organised between the two sets of fans.
The Gillingham supporters were backing and helping their fellow male fans take part, but
failed to acknowledge her efforts as a female when she went up to compete.
“When the guy came off they were patting him on the back and saying well done mate, but
when I came off I got ignored until I got to the group I was with. It made me feel like I
shouldn’t be there.”
Inspired by her experiences, Paige has built up a Her Game Too team at Gillingham, which
now includes three supporter advocates, Mandy Brown, Bethany Marshall and Matt Boosey,
two first team player advocates, Glenn Morris and Jake Turner, and within the club there are
two female club liaisons, Meg Howarth and Hannah Southall, to support Paige and the wider
team with their initiatives and goals.
The club now has a process in place to report incidents of sexism, which get investigated by
a safety officer and acted upon if necessary.
A recent takeover has seen a renewed positivity around Priestfield, with the club’s new
American owners Brad and Shannon Gallinson’s arrival leading to an upturn in form on the
pitch for the relegation-threatened League Two team.
Paige’s ambassador work, which she fits in around her full-time job as a collections and
recovery officer for a bank, has had its ups and downs and progress hasn’t always been
But on matchdays, Paige feels the hard work is worthwhile when young girls approach her to
have their photos taken with the Her Game Too flag as it reflects a new generation being
brought into the game.
Paige’s overall aim is simple: “For a girl to just be at football and not be questioned why
she’s there - to not hear ‘are you here to watch so-and-so?’, ‘what’s the offside rule?’, ‘tell
me five players’.
“I want to make sure that no other woman or girl at Gills feels like I felt when I walked past
that pub and there were all those men outside.
“Why can’t a girl just go and watch football because she loves it? That would be my aim - for
girls and women to be able to just go and be.”