FORMER Saints youngster Laura Rafferty is helping girls in the Southampton area boost their chances of becoming a professional footballer.

Rafferty currently plays for Brighton in the Women’s Super League but knows the importance of giving back to her community.

This led to her creating the Advanced Player Development Southampton academy which, during normal times, would take place at Goals in Millbrook every Monday.

The Northern Ireland international last year helped 32 girls get into academies across the south.

“It’s for girls of all abilities and ages from six to 16. It’s an individualised centre where the girls have a ball each and I’ll be coaching them along with England Street Football coach Kabir Breathen,” Rafferty told the Daily Echo.

“It’s a place for girls to get extra training, extra fitness and to learn a bit more from professionals and then put it into practice when they play for their club or school team.

“We do express that it’s not a team and that it’s not taking you away from your club, it’s just extra training for those who want to come and have a kickabout with myself and Kabir.

“The girls we have love it and we try to push them on to academies if we think they are good enough due to the links myself and Kabir have already got.

“Last year, we helped 32 girls get into different academies across the south. We do video analysis to see where the girls’ strengths and weaknesses are to help them across the board.”

Rafferty started her playing career at Saints but found herself without a team once the St Mary’s side entered administration.

In order to save money, the women’s team was scrapped which caused a devastating impact on girls’ football in the area.

The Brighton defender realises she was one of the lucky ones who was able to be picked up by Hampshire Academy before signing for Chelsea.

“There were a lot of girls, who were my good friends, that dropped out of football because they couldn’t find another route,” Rafferty added.

“Southampton was their life for such a long time and then they had to get into another team which, unfortunately, isn’t always easy because these teams already girls there.

Saints have reintroduced a women’s team and have England legend Marieanne Spacey-Cale at the helm.

Their first season back saw them win every single game to seal promotion in spectacular style.

The 2019/20 campaign was following a similar path, winning 10 of their 11 matches and drawing the other one, before it was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

And Rafferty stressed the importance of making sure what happened to her all those years ago doesn’t happen to the next generation.

She added: “For a club like Southampton, which is such a great club, it’s so important to keep the girls going because there is such a good atmosphere surrounding it down here.

“I know Southampton are impressed with the support they already have and you’re building a bigger community.

“It doesn’t bring in as many fans as the men’s team but I’m sure that will change once the women move through the leagues.”