Hillier: I’m a Pompey fan - and the fans supported me

Pompey Hall-of-Famer Gemma Hillier
Pompey Hall-of-Famer Gemma Hillier
Colin Farmery, centre,  with Oli Hawkins, Adam May and Ronan Curtis

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In a lifetime thirsting for acceptance, the impromptu Wightlink ferry choir represented unified endorsement.

A group of boisterous men, spirits high yet walking unsteadily, spotted Gemma Hillier among their travelling number during departure from the Isle of Wight.

Former Pompey Ladies player Gemma Hillier

Former Pompey Ladies player Gemma Hillier

Recognition was swiftly accompanied by songs championing the 30-year-old’s name and good-natured toasting of her footballing affiliations.

By her own admission, Hillier had feared how the Fratton faithful would respond to her March induction into Pompey’s Hall of Fame.

Honoured for record-breaking exploits with Pompey Ladies, the striker resides among exalted company adorning the Victory Lounge wall whose framed faces depict the greatest players in the club’s history.

Her own pictorial entry is flanked by former England international Mark Hateley and ex-Republic of Ireland representative Mick Kennedy.

As a consequence, the Fareham Academy PE teacher is believed to be the UK’s sole female inhabiting a men’s football club’s hall of fame.

Modest and unassuming, the subsequent overwhelmingly-positive reception has stunned Hillier.

She said: ‘I played a beach soccer tournament on the Isle of Wight a couple of weeks ago and, on the Wightlink ferry back, this group noticed we had Pompey tops on. One asked if any of us were famous.

‘They were all a bit drunk and one of his mates said: “Hang on, we know this woman” and they looked me up on the internet and said: “This is you, this is you”.

‘They started singing and dancing, giving renditions of Pompey songs such as “There’s only one Gemma Hillier”. It was a nice gesture, but really embarrassing!

‘That’s how the hall of fame has changed things, I suppose. I don’t think that would have happened before, they would have passed me off as another football fan wearing a Pompey top.

‘To be honest, I had been really worried ahead of the hall of fame. I was going to be up in front of a male-dominated crowd, while women’s football is not always perceived in the best light.

‘As soon as they read out my introduction the room fell silent, I thought: “Is this a good thing?”

‘Then people actually stood up and clapped, I cannot describe the feeling, it was surreal, absolutely surreal.

‘Obviously, all these guys are a lot more famous than me, have represented their countries more than I have and played a lot bigger games than me - but I seemed to get a bigger cheer than some present.

‘I have been asked for my autograph before, but not to the extent of that night. What’s more, I was being asked by elderly men, usually the kind of age group who would think: “A lady getting inducted into the hall of fame, what’s that about?” They were queuing up for quite a while.

‘It was a male-dominated crowd, but the amount of men who came up and told me I deserved the honour was astonishing.

‘In football, I don’t think you are going to get men who are not genuine, they will say what they think, yet I didn’t hear a bad word.

‘There may have been people who didn’t want me there, but none of them made their voice known to me, which shows respect in itself. It was just so overwhelming.’

Hillier’s Pompey record of 99 goals in 293 appearances certainly survives scrutiny when stood alongside her hall of fame companions.

The former Crofton School pupil represented the Centre of Excellence at Southampton and then Fulham before arriving at her home-town club.

Granted a first-team debut at the age of 14, she remained a Pompey Ladies constant for the next 15 years, of which eight were served as skipper.

Then, in November 2017, she quit to focus on a flourishing England Women’s beach soccer career which last summer brought the golden boot during their Women’s Euro Beach Soccer Cup triumph.

Hillier added: ‘I had lengthy conversations with Jake Payne from the hall of fame committee, who told me I was not in as a token female, that I really deserved it - and he was genuine.

‘In terms of women’s football in general, you still get all the idiots on social media with their comments, I think you just have to laugh it off.

‘There are always going to be people that think that, not only about women’s football but every walk of life, you get people who disagree. There will always be a stigma but that’s life, I guess.

‘The perception towards women’s football has definitely got better, seeing some of the positive responses towards Pompey Ladies recently being affiliated to the men’s club showed how things have changed.

‘I have never really had any stigma against me, whether that is because I am naive and have chosen to ignore it, I don’t know.

‘At primary school I trained for the boys team but never got picked, whether that was because I wasn’t good enough or down to me being a girl, I’ll never know. However, I really value girls at a young age playing with the boys because you learn so much.

‘Generally, if you look at 100 boys and 100 girls, of course the skill levels are going to be higher playing with boys, they are more physical, but playing with boys is really important.

‘I actually believe girls should do both, join local girls teams and boys teams, it’s allowed and you’ll learn such different things. There’s technique off the girls and maybe the physical side off the boys, there are values playing for both.

‘So many initiatives for girls are out there these days and hopefully, over the next few years, numbers will increase as well as the skill level.’

Svetoslav Todorov presented Hillier with her entry into club folklore.

Himself a Blues hall-of-famer, his willingness to venture from Bulgaria to fulfil the duty is indicative of the respect her achievements are held in - also among male footballers.

Hillier said: ‘From the age of six or seven, my dad started taking me to Pompey games, even though he wasn’t really into football until I got into it! He was soon hooked.

‘I soon had a season ticket, just 10 rows down from John Westwood in the Fratton End, and during the Premier League years we visited every ground over a couple of seasons.

‘Lassana Diarra was one of the best I saw, being a striker I liked Jermain Defoe, while Toddy is one of my heroes. To meet him was incredible - and I had to get his autograph and loads of pictures!

‘You see, I’m a Pompey fan, just like everyone in that room at the hall of fame. We are all Pompey supporters.’