Natalie Benville

December Women's Watch

Natalie Benville, Chair of Deal Town FC

Each month, the Kent FA is shinning a light on incredible women from across the County who are positively impacting the Kent game. This month, friend of Kent FA, Faye Hackwell caught up with Natalie Benville, Chair of Deal Town FC to learn about her journey in the beautiful game. 

As a four-year-old girl enjoying chips at her local non-league football club with her dad, Natalie Benville never imagined she would one day go on to chair that club – and become the first woman to do so.

But three decades on, she is at the helm of a successful voluntary board overseeing a Deal Town side that attracts among the biggest crowds for their level of football in the region. 

Her earliest memories of following the game, however, relate to one of the other important elements of a football matchday – the catering offering. 

“I remember this food hut, a really tall wooden shack-type thing, and my dad would give me a pound to buy some chips,” she recalls. 

“I’m sure I went for the football side as well, but the thought of getting a bag of chips on a Saturday afternoon with my dad is one of my earliest memories.”

Natalie Benville
Natalie Benville

That particular food hut is no longer a fixture at The Charles Sports Ground, following a fire and redevelopment that saw much of the site updated a decade ago, and these days Natalie often finds herself inside the replacement clubhouse’s kitchen as she prepares the ground to host matchdays. 

Eight years ago, she joined the club’s committee as secretary, at a time when attendances at men’s first team games were as low as 60 and there was a need for a refreshed committee to help make the club sustainable. 

Following a reshuffle, Natalie then took over as chair during the Covid pandemic – a time she describes as “really tough” for non-league football, with the challenges of adhering to Government health guidance and no gate income. 

“The board approached me and said ‘would you consider taking over as chair?’ and I can hand on heart say it’s not a position I ever imagined going for, but I absolutely love it and wouldn’t change it for the world.

“I couldn’t do it without the support of the board I’ve got with me, though. 

“I look at us as a successful club now and I hope that what we’ve installed in the club continues and that is purely through having good people around you.” 

A typical matchday for Natalie usually involves a morning pitch inspection before taking her daughter to ballet, then returning to the ground at midday to help load details into the scoreboard, get the changing rooms ready for the officials, greet the opposing team’s committee and ensure the bar is set up before the turnstiles open at 1.30pm. 

Attendances now average 430 – the second highest in the Southern Counties East League Premier Division this season – and Natalie says there’s a real “family feel” around the club, with youth team players turning up to cheer on their senior counterparts.

Deal Town also now has women’s, reserves and under-18s sides and last season, took almost 2,000 supporters to the Kent Senior Trophy Final at Maidstone United’s Gallagher Stadium.

While she rarely comes across fellow female chairs – with Erith Town being the only other SCEFL club to have one – Natalie says becoming the first woman to chair her club didn’t phase her.

“I didn’t ever think ‘I’m a woman, can I do that?’ - whether that’s because I have a daughter, I don’t know. 

“I’m not naive, I do realise there’s still a lot of negativity around women involved in football, but it wasn’t something that even fazed me. 

“The day-to-day running of a football club is like running a business, albeit with volunteers, so as long as you’ve got the right skills to be able to do that, it doesn’t even come into my mind that I’m female.” 

While her gender rarely affects how she is received within the game, one occasion sticks out in her mind when she was questioned as to who she was upon entering an opposition team’s boardroom alone last season.

“It was all men and they asked if I was in the wrong area and I said ‘no, I’m the chair’ and then I sat there, on my own, with a cup of tea and that’s the only time I’ve experienced that. 

“Have I just assumed that it was because I was female?  

“Who knows. It might have been the same if I’d been a guy, but you can’t help but question that.” 

Natalie appreciates having contact with a network of women involved in football in Kent, including the SCEFL’s chair Denise Richmond, as well as male allies at other clubs she can go to for advice. 

Two years ago, she became a non-executive director of the Kent FA, which has opened her eyes to further elements of the game and how board members from different professional backgrounds can bring their knowledge to the association. 

Natalie is able to bring experience she has gained as Regional Affairs Manager for Eurotunnel to the role and she is also part of the Kent FA’s Female Volunteer Forum, which holds events throughout the year and provides opportunities to meet like-minded people, share ideas and celebrate achievements. 

“Someone might want to reach out about coaching or how to get involved in a club, and they may still feel there’s that stigma around being a woman, and if they feel they can come to another female to ask for advice, then we’ve done our job.” 

Natalie has found one of the biggest challenges of chairing a football club to be the relentless nature of running it all year round – with even the closed season being busy with kit orders, sponsorship agreements and pitch maintenance. 

Mastering how to handle criticism about the club on social media has also been a learning curve. 

Natalie Benville

“At the beginning you take it all to heart, you can’t help it, but no-one really understands what it takes to run a football club and you’ve got to learn not to take it personally. 

“We’ve been getting quite a lot of grief over the past few weeks over games being called off because of the pitch and I’m thinking ‘where has everybody been?’ – the weather’s been horrendous.” 

As someone who didn’t get the chance to play football at school or have many female role models to look up to in the game, Natalie hopes the young girls of today will have a different outlook. 

“I have a seven-year-old daughter and I never want her to grow up feeling she can’t be involved in something because she’s female.”

Deal Town have already achieved Natalie’s short-term ambition of bringing in a women’s team and, in the future, she would love to see the club become even more of a community hub and gain funding to install a 3G pitch – but they are taking things one season at a time. 

Eight years into volunteering on the board, Natalie still believes football has as much to offer her in the future as she has to bring to the game. 

“I genuinely couldn’t imagine my life without the football club in it. 

“It’s what I do at weekends, away games I get to go to with my dad, it’s ‘me and him’ time – it's installed in me now and I couldn’t imagine not having Deal Town or football involved in some way.”

If you would like to know more about the Kent Female Volunteer Forum, please click here