These are exciting times for West Ham United Ladies. September will mark the launch of their Youth Academy, while the club's application to join Women's Super League Two is currently pending.

If that weren't enough to occupy the mind, Julia Setford's side are in the throngs of a title challenge, with none other than league leaders Millwall Lionesses to play on Sunday.

In support of International Women's Day, West Ham United are to run a three-part feature on the Ladies, starting with a closer look at the forward-thinking plans for an Academy programme.

When she is not scoring goals in claret and blue, Hammers forward Becky Merritt is usually to be found coaching the next generation, on behalf of SCL (Schools Coaching Ltd). It is they who will run the Ladies' Academy and Merritt who is spearheading the campaign. Merritt is in no doubt of the importance of the plans, if West Ham are to compete with the biggest and the best in the game.

Merritt told West Ham TV: "The Academy will run alongside an education system, whereby girls from the age of 16 to 18 can incorporate education, while still training and playing on a competitive basis. They will be training every day and playing against the colleges in the league. So it will virtually be a professional set up, but one where they can gain qualifications as well.

"It's massive for us because we don't have a development side, so it's a huge step for the girls from Under-16s to come and step into senior football. Hopefully this will bridge the gap. It will give us the opportunity to develop those players further, even if they are not quite ready for senior football. We'll be able to retain those players, where in the past we've lost them to other clubs that can offer these facilities.

"With the management here they are very keen to focus on the youth. So bringing the youngsters through will give them a great opportunity. They will be training every day, developing at a pace and hopefully coming to try and steal my shirt."

The Academy is likely to take on 24 girls in its first year, with that number expected to double for the following season should all go to plan. Merritt and her colleagues are busy getting the word out there and Merritt expects the club to reap the benefits of the very welcome publicity.

"It's a massive advertising tool for us. Getting us out there among the bigger clubs who already have these set ups in place. By putting these things in place it gives us an extra chance to be in contention with the big guns.

"It's all very exciting, especially for me being involved as much as I am. It's a bit of a guinea pig project for the company I work for, so, no pressure then! But we're really trying to progress into women's football and hopefully all being well this is will be the start of something brilliant.

"There are already some girls coming through now who are looking very promising. It can only get better for us."

Trials for the Academy are to be held at 60a Albatross Close, Beckton, London E6 5NX on Wednesday 10 April and Wednesday 29 May from 3pm until 5. For further details, see the following information pack.  Meanwhile, to keep up to date with all the latest goings on at West Ham United Ladies, visit their official website here.

West Bromwich Albion