By Megan Armitage, Sportsbeat
Football-mad Helen Hardy found the meaning of life in her sporting community, with her efforts in setting up Manchester's first ever women's and non-binary football club honoured with a national award.
The Manchester Laces founder always felt unwelcome on the football pitch until she started her own club and uncovered the key to happiness in 2021. Hardy has now cultivated a diverse and empowering space where anybody can play football and feel good doing it.
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To celebrate her contribution to Women's sport, Leah Williamson, Captain of the Lionesses, unveiled a striking piece of artwork at Wembley Stadium in her honour. The artwork, created by artist Charlotte Archer, celebrates Helen's commitment and achievements to progress women's football in her community through a striking mural portrait of her, which has been painted onto the steps of the iconic Wembley Stadium that comes into view when approaching the stadium.
Hardy's' unwavering dedication has been recognised as part of a campaign championing the individuals and projects who have achieved incredible things for women in sport in their communities, with the help of National Lottery funding and players, who raise Â£30 million for good causes every week.
"I'm so excited and honoured to have this experience," said Hardy.
"Most people that do stuff like [Laces] are doing it because they love it, so it feels weird to be patted on the back for doing something that I so genuinely love and get so much fulfilment from.
"I just absolutely love my football club and my community, and all the players involved in it.
"When I first moved to Manchester in 2019, I had no friends and then the pandemic happened, and I just felt like I needed to do something so started the club.
"And now I've only got happiness and joy from the community so to be recognised for it feels odd in a way because it's been as much of a saviour for me as for others."
Hardy began Manchester Laces to create a safe space for people from all walks of life to play football and the club now fields five squads with over one hundred fee-paying members.
She said: "I just wondered whether it would be possible to create a football club which focused its energy on empowerment and kindness and being friendly in exercise above winning.
"As part of that journey and going into it with an open mind, I discovered so many nuances about the football culture that I feel like we have the power to change.
"If somebody tells me they want to play football in an empowering and inclusive environment, that they just want to play casual football and identify as non-binary or as a transgender male or female, then they can.
"It's having that perspective of moving your goalposts around your players and it can be really special."
Bringing a 'fresh perspective' to the game, Hardy's club has cultured their own welcoming mini ecosystem with a team of doctors, electricians, and teachers.
And in this team, the football mad fan is pleased to say that she has finally found her community.
She added: "For me, I think that community and sport have the power to change lives and help people so from a selfish perspective it can be really fulfilling being a part of a community.
"That's the whole essence of a community. Bringing people together who all have different backgrounds and experiences and sharing in that.
"And that's got to be pretty close to the meaning of life."
Alongside the mural inspired by Helen Hardy, three additional digital portraits have been created and unveiled by digital artist, Yoniest Chun, which immortalise the stories of other individuals and projects who have achieved incredible things for women in sport in their communities. These include Tirion Thomas from Bala Rugby Club in Swansea, Fiona McIntyre head of girls' and women's football at the Scottish Football Association in Scotland and Elaine Junk from Mid-Ulster Football Association in Northern Ireland.â€ƒ
National Lottery players raise more than Â£30million a week for good causes. Find out how your numbers make amazing happen at: www.lotterygoodcauses.org.uk Sportsbeat 2022
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