What a year it was. Our first session was on May the 24th, and took place at Hounsdown School at 18:45. Eight players were in attendance that evening. Of those eight, Nicola Curtis, Kath Heath, Divina Alo Ilolo, and Kaylee Senter would be playing for the as yet unnamed Southampton Aztecs just 131 days later.
This was the poster we had spammed all over social media in the hope of drumming up some interest. So what is Azteca Football? In late 2020, I (Will) was approached by the owner of the British Football Coaches Network. He wanted to sell. Did I want to buy? Sure! Helping football coaches get jobs around the world. Why not? But in order to buy, I would need a loan. In order to get a loan, I would need a business. That took a long time to setup. As a coach, not a businessman, that was a difficult transition. Nevertheless, having a business gave me the opportunity to start to do some things I had wanted to do since returning from England.
One of those was to get back into futsal. Very little had changed in the local futsal landscape, especially for women. Maybe we could do something? Back in 2016, when at Southampton Saints GLFC, a few of us joined the inaugural Hampshire FA Women's Futsal League, and won it undefeated. In that team were future Aztecs Nicola Curtis, Belinda Villa Rodriguez, and Kaylee Senter.
It was a promising start to the futsal sessions, yet momentum was hard to gain. Holidays, quarantines, bank holidays, venue closures etc. The following session was at Warsash Wasps. It was fun and light-hearted, as we wanted, but there were no signs yet of what was to come.
We didn't yet know what we wanted to become. Just play sessions? A casual team? Training and games? Something serious? Anything was on the cards. We were thinking just casual sessions with a commitment for those who wanted it to a local league. But there had not been a local league for a number of years, and with the status of indoor sport constantly under threat, we didn't know if there would be one.
We eventually moved in to what would become our home, Wyvern College, and got some kit just in case. Maybe we could play tournaments? Some friendlies? We had a look at our options. The LNFS appeared easier to get into than the FA NFS, but didn't have a women's league. The NFS, which had their Summer Showdown broadcast on BT Sport, was open for applications for new women's teams. So we tried it. Why not? There was nothing to lose.
A pivotal moment occurred in June, when Rebecca Moody attended a session. Moody, who would become a very important part of the Aztecs, was hesitant toward attending. Sat in the car park, teetering on the fence, she saw former teammate Nicola Curtis walking in, and decided to give it a go. She enjoyed it enough to return the following week with half a team. One Lauren Sayler, and two Tonks.
The team now had a strong ex-Saints and a strong ex-Pompey connection. Some of these players had been coached by Will against each other only five years earlier. The familiarity did help ease everybody in, so it didn't feel like we were starting completely from scratch.
The session kept coming, and we could see the team starting to form. It began to look less like footballers playing futsal, and now futsal. Some were brand new to the sport, some had limited experience, whereas some, like Kayleigh Tonks, were part of futsal programmes in college. With momentum now gaining, and entry to the FA NFS on the cards, it was time to get a little serious. The first ever iteration of the Southampton Aztecs happened on July 4th.
The Aztecs went to a tournament in Aldershot, but as has been common throughout covid times, there was a steep dropout, and an on the day injury to Kath Heath. Four players made the journey to Aldershot, borrowing a player from a resting team during each fixture. The first four to put on the shirts and kick a ball under the name Southampton Aztecs were Divina Alo Ilolo, Lauren Sayler, Rebekah Tonks, and Kaylee Tonks. It was immensely pleasurable to see them play together for the first time, and to achieve first place.
We needed an extra pair of hands on the sidelines, and we needed to know which players were in this for the long haul. In came Football Studies student, Sean Dye. Currently at Southampton Solent, this added to the large Solent contingent within the team, with Will, Belinda, Lauren, Kayleigh T, Rebekah T, Moody, and now Sean all having studied at the illustrious educational institution.
With limited futsal experience between us, especially at a high level, it's important to have someone as keen and as sharp as Sean. He wants to learn, is deceptively intelligent, but is also, most importantly, not a dickhead. It's our number one priority, taken straight from the New Zealand All Blacks. We pride ourselves on creating a welcoming atmosphere. Much like playing, we don't always get it right, but it is something we actively work on, and it's a huge compliment when people notice the environment we have around the team.
Eventually our application was accepted. Now we were in the big leagues. We were going to compete nationally, and have a game on live television. This took a lot of coming to terms with. We'd recently been a turn up and play session, and out of nothing, we had to get ready for a game on BT Sport? No way could this be real. It was time for some friendlies.
On the 14th of August, six Aztecs head to the Reading Royals tournament, finishing second. This was eye-opening for the team, as we had no idea where we were in relation to the other teams in the league. At least now we knew we wouldn't be the league's whipping boys, and would have a somewhat competitive season ahead of us. The other teams were Worcester from the Northern Division, and Southern compatriots Bedford and Reading Royals. What can you really learn from friendlies? It turns out that Bedford and Reading were two of our most nailbiting games all season, and were hugely pivotal in how the league played out. Kayleigh Tonks, Rebekah Tonks, Kaylee Senter, Divina Alo Ilolo, Belinda Villa Rodriguez, and Lauren Sayler represented the Aztecs that day, and five different nationalities between them.
Up next on the 27th of August was a trip to Wolverhampton, at the site of the future BT Sport game, where the Aztecs were to play a friendly against Birmingham WLV. Before kick-off was a complete disaster, with all sorts of issues occurring along the three hour journey. Eventually Lauren, Kaylee S, Kayeligh T, Rebekah M, Divina, and now also Kath Heath made the trip to play with just the one sub. The Aztecs came away 5-4 winners, giving more confidence to the team for the season ahead.
And that was it. We tried to get more friendlies under the belt, which is really hard when there is little time to prepare, scarce facilities, a lack of funding, and long distances between teams. With minimal preparation, players new to futsal, and some having not even played a game, all we had to do was play against the current champions and England's strongest team, London Helvecia. As you can imagine, it wasn't the most pleasant experience. Yet, we felt that it was good to get our most difficult game out of the way at a time when we were brand new. You learn a line from a victory, and a page from a defeat. Well, a 15-2 thrashing at the hands of the champions was more like an entire book.
The nine Aztecs to take to the court that day on the 2nd of October were Lauren Sayler, Kaylee Senter, Rebecca Moody, Kath Heath, Nicola Curtis, Kayleigh Tonks, Rebekah Tonks, Divina Alo Ilolo, and Emily Digweed. It wasn't as big of a disaster as one might think. We played well in parts, and showed improvements in key areas as the game went on. Even scored a couple decent goals. The first ever competitive Aztecs goal was scored by our Welsh superstar Kathryn Heath, and assisted by Kayleigh Tonks.
Kath was pivotal again in the second goal. Her decoy run at the free-kick created space for Rebecca Moody to fire home from Kaylee Senter's pass.
Amazingly, we weren't sad or angry at the end of the game. The entire experience was so thrilling. Spending time with your friends, playing sport against quality opposition, doing something brand new and exciting. Many of us couldn't sleep that night, replaying the whole event back in our minds. It was so cool! What do we need to do better? How are we going to do it? What will it be like on TV at our next game?
A week later, on October the 12th, we had a day none of us will ever forget. We had seven days to prepare to do battle against Coventry on BT Sport. How would we cope knowing people would be watching? Would we let our nerves get the better of us? How much of this is about avoiding disappointment by not being the idiot to make a mistake on the grand stage, and instead trying to show the best you can be? Can you really stick to the plan, relax, and entertain under that much pressure?
The game started really well, and we thought it would be our day. Sod's Law in sport is that when you have all of the ball and the chances, the other team usually scores. We were 1-0 down at half-time, but knew we we could come back. Our resolve was tested, however, when we went 2-0 down in the second-half. We were throwing the kitchen sink at Coventry, but could not hit the back of the net. Their keeper was having a great game. Eventually we got through. Divina stole the ball from a restart, juked the keeper, and cemented herself in legend. No matter what else she does in life, she scored a goal on live TV. Fortunately for us, she was not alone. Bekah Tonks pulled us level. It was all going our way now. Coventry had been on five fouls for around ten minutes, and we were desperate to get a ten metre penalty. Then with only two minutes remaining, Coventry handled in our half. And that was it. With sixty thousand people watching, who was to be brave and take responsibility?
This is where Kaylee Senter demanded the ball. Our hearts stopped as we waited for the whistle. Time froze. Kaylee stepped up and toe-punted the ball into the bottom corner. Everyone erupted. Myself and Sean were molesting each other with joy on the sidelines. You'll see Kaylee pointing at the bench and saying something when watching on BT. That was her saying something to me. I've forgotten exactly what it was, but it was in response to me joking that I had hoped she'd miss, because if she scored, we'd have never heard the end of it. But I hope I never do. We loved our big day. I'd say it was the moment we truly arrived as the Southampton Aztecs.
I know personally that I will be dining out on this for years.
The next game after Coventry, on the 16th of October, we faced Birmingham WLV. We know more about the league and the opposition. We did our research, concocted a plan, and gave it our best shot. This game gave league debuts to Hannah Humphreys and Charlotte Broughton. We ultimately lost the game 6-0, but were in it until about ten minutes to go, at which point we collapsed. That happens sometimes, but I wasn't worried. I knew what our lads were capable of. We learned a lot and continued to improve. The players blame the red shirts.
Two weeks later, and it would be Bedford on the 6th of November. A 10:00am game. The journey up is about two and a half hours, so we stayed in a hotel the night before. It's great for team bonding, but what helps is that the team are all great anyway, with there being many pre-existing relationships. Again, we had done our research. We had gotten into the habit of recording bits of games, as well as watching the games from BT. It was also around this time we began to put serious work into learning restart routines. As you see, over time, we improved in different areas of the game.
For the neutral, the Bedford clash must have been really entertaining. It was a 6-5 thriller with lots of comebacks. We just ended up on the wrong side of it.
The evidence is there. We are a team that can play. Just a couple self-inflicted mistakes that sabotaged our chances. It was hard to have pulled it back twice and still lost, especially against a team we would be competing with for those top four spaces. So now what? We were four games in, with only one victory. Two of our final three games were the figurative six-pointers. It was so exciting!
There was a week between Bedford and our next opponents, London Genesis, on the 13th of November. Now they were going to believe us. We took the lead almost immediately, and stayed in front for all of the match. This was the first and only time we scored the first goal in a game. Something we need to work on, but then... do we? Perhaps it's the adversity that inspires our great performances.
Kayleigh Tonks showed no mercy in this game, scoring seven times, and even finishing off what was one of my favourite moves of the season. Not everyone is a fan of good passing moves, but for me, it's a sign that game understanding and decision making was improving.
And now with those three points, we were back in contention. The only problem is we needed two wins from two games, against our direct rivals. Here came the six-pointers. Both games felt like cup finals, and first up was Bloomsbury on 27th of November.
We were ready. We had a done our research. We had rehearsed. We had our plan. We were... a goal down inside fifteen seconds. But that's cool. Still a long time to go. And then... we conceded again. Bollocks! The big game, and we were already two behind against a direct rival. Lesser men would have panicked, but with thirty-nine minutes to go, and a team as great as ours? Not a chance. And as if by magic, the best performance of the season was provoked out of us...
Wow! Every player on the team touched the ball. We played it round them like they were cones. The ball moved like it was pinball! This was futsal at its finest, and it was being produced by the Aztecs! I swelled with pride when I saw this. To see this amazing group of people from day one, go from occasional sessions with only a couple players, to forming a team, to winning on TV, to now scoring a goal of the highest calibre. I couldn't be happier for the team. I believe in them so much and love seeing them play. This goal signifies to others the joy that I get to experience when I see this bunch of people succeed. The long drives up the motorway are worth it for these fleeting glances of excellence.
So we'd just resurrected Pep's Barcelona on the futsal court, and now had a game to win. It was 4-2 to the Aztecs at half-time, and finished 9-3. The lads were relentless. We dominated. We outplayed. We won our first cup final. The goal difference had massively improved too, as that was six goals against a rival. Now we were there, on the cusp, with just one more game to go. Another cup final.
A week later, the final match. On the 4th of December, the Southampton Aztecs made history against the Reading Royals. But it was not an enjoyable experience. At least not until the final whistle. The lads were visibly nervous. The jokes and the laughter had been replaced with awkward silence before the game. It showed they care. It showed it meant something to them.
It was 0-0 at half-time. A very tense game. A crowd started to build. We needed to win, and then needed Bedford to lose to guarantee top four. After that, we needed Bloomsbury to lose to guarantee third. So even at the final whistle, the day wouldn't be over for us. That's a lot of pressure. Factor in that winning the game would mean more TV appearances, and competing nationally, for a chance to be champions of England.
One thing we knew Reading were good at was their rotations. They finally unlocked us in the second half and took the lead. It's alright. It's okay. The next goal would be important. And then Reading scored again. Okay. It's still alright. Fifteen minutes to go, and we know we have it in us. We'd come back to win our other games, and had lots of talent on the court.
Kaylee Senter stole the ball, Bekah Tonks laid it off to her sister, and Kayleigh poked it home. 2-1. Here we go!
Then Kayleigh Tonks was fouled in the box. A bit of confusion, with the penalty eventually being awarded. To level the game from six metres... who would do it? Up came Lauren Sayler. The American had been working on these. With the confidence she exuded when taking the ball, it was never in doubt. Lauren has been invaluable for us at both ends of the pitch. Her saves, the way she starts attacks with her distribution, and her assists. To see her bury this penalty and get her name on the scoresheet is a small reward for the worth she brings to this team. 2-2.
And then, after so many training sessions, games, and hours on the motorway, it came down to seven minutes. Bekah Tonks laid the ball off to Kaylee Senter, whose expert scoop put in Kayleigh Tonks behind the defence. We're still not quite sure how, but it ended up in the net. The team held their nerve, and the three points were ours!
It was torture waiting for the other scores to come in to guarantee our position of third place. My phone battery actually exhausted from all the refreshing I was doing.
So that's the season wrapped up. Let's look at some individual achievements.
Top goal scorer was Kayleigh Tonks with fifteen. That averages out at more than two per game. When I was at Saints, I'd hate it when we played against Kayleigh, because she was always so effective at finding the back of the net. Yet, when I went to Pompey, it was brilliant. I can't think of one thing she does well. She just seems to do everything good. Her movement, timing, positioning, and game intelligence allows her to get into situations to give her the best chance of scoring. You almost don't see her coming. She can also score a range of goals, giving her teams tremendous versatility. She can do it by herself or she can link up with others. She can dribble and she can finish one-touch.
Our player of the season has been awarded to the other Tonks, Rebekah. There's no more complete player on this team. Everybody has their worth and makes contributions. Where Bekah is different is that she can contribute in the most different areas. Skilful yet solid. Bekah scored nine goals, and provided six assists. She's also brilliant in defence too. She can start moves, finish moves, and end moves for the opponents. She's reliable, hard-working, an excellent dribbler, and makes everyone around her better.
Below are the final stats for the season.
The team scored tons of goals, and with that, we ran a goal of the season competition. There were plenty of good contenders, and we shaved it down to twenty, which were voted on by Twitter users. The full video of the goals is below for your viewing pleasure.
4th: N. Rebekah Tonks v Bloomsbury (Assisted by Lauren Sayler)
3rd: J. Rebekah Tonks v Bloomsbury (Assisted by Lauren Sayler and Kayleigh Tonks)
2nd: G. Kayleigh Tonks v Genesis (Assisted by Rebekah Tonks and Lauren Sayler)
1st: Q. Kaylee Senter v Coventry (Game winning penalty on BT Sport)
Thank you for reading this. Thank you for following this. It's been great to have a little time off. Now onto 2022. Can't wait to see what this excellent bunch can do in the new year. We've also updated our badge, moving from the name of the company to the name of the team. Still the best badge in the league.