The bubble is bursting. Professionalism has pushed the Women’s Super League to new heights, but that growth has stretched to the limit the infrastructures, personnel and, let’s face it, the commitment of those involved in the game’s development.
Although the postponement of all six games on Sunday was unavoidable, as storm Ciara battered Britain, the scattergun cancellation of eight games before that was not; because the pitches WSL teams play on are, overwhelmingly, not fit to host top-level professional teams. Birmingham’s home ground, Damson Park, the home of National League Solihull Moors, has had two games abandoned. Prenton Park, where Liverpool Women and League One Tranmere Rovers play, is a bog where two women’s games have been called off. To avoid further chaos Liverpool’s game against Arsenal on Thursday has been moved to Chester. So hard has it been to find a ground for the sister team of the likely Premier League champions that they are resorting to a pitch that straddles the Welsh border, 26 miles from Anfield.
Tottenham, who play at National League Barnet’s The Hive, have had one game postponed. As have Everton, who play at National League North Southport’s ground, and Bristol City, who play at the Stoke Gifford Stadium.
Players and fans deserve better. Yes, clubs have committed to token games at their main stadiums; all bar Manchester United, Arsenal and Birmingham have hosted league games at their primary stadiums this term. Those gestures deserve to be applauded and celebrated. But professionalism has accelerated the change and clubs are failing to keep up with the demands that change brings. This is not about sharing main stadiums, yet. But it is time to question what is holding clubs back from properly investing in their women’s teams.
Committing to funding drainage systems or pitch heaters at the ground their teams play on should be a no-brainer. Quality surfaces protect players. These are, on the whole, extremely wealthy clubs. That women’s teams currently operate at a loss should not be an issue. The trickle of resources should be flowing more freely and that the tap is not being turned is a choice.
Being kind, perhaps they have been caught off guard by the demand. But these are not the only wrongs that need righting. Short‑term contracts are still the norm, low wages are standard for the majority, conditions at many clubs lag way behind the provisions afforded the men’s teams. It is not hard to at the very least share resources.
Before leaving for New York City FC, the former Manchester City manager Nick Cushing said: “It was really simple for us – all it took was that the staff didn’t have a negative perception of the girls in the women’s game. When I look at maybe teams not training at their facility or playing on different grounds, I just think it’s crazy. Not crazy, but I see how simple it was for us that I don’t see why that doesn’t happen at other clubs. We have found it so easy. It comes from the top.
“All of the senior leadership team support our women’s team, and believe in our women’s team. I could say they loan us their expertise – but they don’t, we are all part of the same football club.”
In fact it must be harder to build anything close to that expertise from scratch as a separate enterprise than to find a way to integrate a women’s set-up.
Clubs are not the only ones to have been caught napping, though. The Football Association has struggled to build the infrastructure around the league. Refereeing is at breaking point. A weekend does not pass without a litany of errors. It is no fault of the referees, who are not full-time, taking home a £120 match fee. The penalty awarded to Reading for a perceived handball by Katie Zelem, who had in fact cleanly headed the ball, went viral. All too often women’s football clips go mainstream for the wrong reasons. The ambition of the FA is, eventually, for professional referees but it has no timescale. A professional league requires professional officials. It is, again, not fair to fans, players or, for that matter, referees.
From top to bottom the FA is struggling. The admission by the head of women’s football, Sue Campbell, that it lacks the coaches to deal with the women’s football boom is staggering. “[Partly] because we hadn’t expected the amount of influx we’ve had,” she said. “The World Cup generated a vast number of girls and women coming back into the sport.”
It is staggering because, by all accounts, the FA was caught out by the huge increase in interest following the 2015 World Cup and failed to capitalise on it. Every plan since, the core of its Gameplan for Growth, has been to make sure those opportunities do not go to waste again. Yet here we are. The arguments for investment have been won, big attendances have been proven, TV audiences are strong, sponsors are on board; it is time clubs and the FA threw themselves in head first, instead of easing in slowly.
• The FA is discussing shifting next year’s Community Shield from Wembley to sidestep a clash with the Women’s European Championship finals. The curtain-raiser to the Premier League season was played at Villa Park in 2012 during the Olympics.
• Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 10-1 in the Spanish Super Cup final. Marta Torrejón scored four, Alexia Putellas and former Arsenal player Asisat Oshoala both scored twice, with the Norwegian Caroline Graham Hansen also on the scoresheet.
• Jess Fishlock has signed a new two-year contract with the NWSL side Reign FC. The 33-year-old is due to return soon from an ACL rupture last June. Fishlock won the Champions League on loan with Lyon last season.
• Kiera Walsh has signed a new three-year deal with Manchester City. The defensive midfielder, whom Nick Cushing labelled “the most intelligent player” he has worked with, has made 142 appearances for City and won a domestic cup double last season.
More information: THE GUARDIAN.