Twenty years old, with one England cap so far at left back and a day job in mail order at Leeds United, Chantel Woodhead was one of nearly 400 players gathered at Manor Park in Mansfield for the pre-season Reebok Women's Football Festival. It was baking hot, the pitches were rock hard and bone dry, the schedule required that all 24 teams play at least six 40-minute games in two days, but Channy didn't mind: in an enthralling 3-2 quarter-final win over Ilkeston Town, she'd put in a blistering free kick from 20 yards. And when she scored, she said, "I go mad, me, run about, arms wide - I want hugs, don't I?"
The women love their game just as the men do, and they have to because they don't get paid for it. But with 15,000 registered players at more than 450 clubs, and participation mushrooming in schools, women's football is reckoned to be the fastest growing sport in the country; when the national side made the World Cup quarter-finals in June, they made it on to Match Of The Day, too. So, amid the usual hullabaloo about the money-sodden men's game, there's a chance that as the fifth season of the Women's Premier League kicks off on Sunday, a few people might take notice now. As Reebok's Glenn Joyce put it: "If people haven't seen the skill level they should take a look. They'll be very pleasantly surprised."
The league has three divisions, with the top 10 clubs in the National Division, and 10 more in each of the Northern and Southern feeders. So far, the league title has been won twice by the Belles, twice by Arsenal Ladies - but with standards everywhere rising, this season promises to be the most competitive yet.
Arsenal will be hard pressed to keep the title they won last spring. Pauline Cope, considered by the England manager Ted Copeland to be the best keeper in the world, has transferred to Millwall, while at a tournament in Germany two weeks before the Reebok, Gill Wylie, the captain and centre half, ruptured a cruciate ligament. It was, said Arsenal's manager, Vic Akers, "a massive loss, right down the middle. But it'll go to the wire anyway, it'll be very exciting. There are five or six teams who can contest it now, it's not just us and the Belles any more, and that's good to see."
My own tip for silverware are John Jones's Wembley Ladies, a strong, well-organised outfit who have in the 16-year-old Kelly Smith the outstanding prospect in the women's game today. She's lethally quick, bountifully gifted, and she's only one among several impressive young players Jones has brought on these past few years.
In a woefully underfunded sport, Jones also has the advantage of his club's residency at Vale Farm, home of Wembley FC in the Diadora League. For many other clubs, it's still too often the case that they don't know from one Sunday to the next what pitch they'll be playing on - and that lack of continuity makes it hard to generate a regular audience. Even Wembley only get a hundred or so at home games, but others would die for that many; a crying shame, when I've seen matches last season that deserved thousands watching, not handfuls.
The Football Association doesn't help much. It took over the national team two years ago, and the administration of the domestic game last season - which then shambolically overran, ending six weeks late. In the FA's annual report last year, some pounds 250,000 was allocated to women's football, and the national team have seen improvements accordingly in kit, accommodation and training facilities - but along the way the clubs feel the grassroots have been pretty much ignored. After two years, they are still waiting to hear just exactly what the FA plans to do, and to date they have been sorely disillusioned. One club chairman at the Reebok said he attended his first league committee meeting this summer, and then thought carefully about how to describe it. Eventually, he said: "You know the problem Will Carling spoke of in the summer? Not dissimilar. And trying to be positive ... well, the food was nice."
The FA does give small subsidies towards expenses incurred on travel and match officials, but they don't begin to cover those, never mind all the other costs. It wouldn't exactly break the bank to help, though. A typical club's budget, including the development programmes many now run to bring youngsters into the game, is only pounds 8,000-pounds 10,000 a year - one week's wages for a fair few men playing football these days. But even the women's teams now affiliated to men's professional clubs do not, in most cases, see much more from it than the shirts they play in; they're something that happens in the community programme, rather than real teams in their own right.
Arsenal have shown the way to do it. As well as their kit,Vic Akers's side get their manager's salary, they get training facilities and travel assistance - staying in the same hotels the men use when they play in Liverpool, for example, when most clubs can't afford to stay overnight at all - and they get their own page in the programme every match day at Highbury. When they've won trophies, they've gone out in front of 30,000 to show them off before Premier League games, and they've seen the crowd rise to them and known that they're part of it.
With Wolves, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa and Millwall now backing National Division sides, other women's teams should soon start getting that kind of backing and recognition. Independent clubs like the Belles, however, can only raise money as best they can out of players' subscriptions, social nights, raffles, membership schemes and local sponsors - and at the Reebok, the Belles were still casting about for a sponsor only four weeks before their 26th season began.
Mel Woodhall, who took over as manager of the Belles this summer, is optimistic. Only 10 years ago, a woman playing football was still a freak, but for the new generation coming out of school now, to play football is no more unnatural than hockey or tennis. So, with more and more players coming through, and the media beginning to take an interest, Woodhall believes the beginnings of an audience can be generated. If it can be the best sides could be semi-pro in five years, professional in 10. Of that prospect, John Jones says simply: "I hope so. Because the players deserve it."
Two promising signs are the discussions the FA is having with a major commercial name about sponsorship for the league, and the reported interest from a television station in starting a magazine programme to cover each Sunday's games. If these things happen, the kind of problems players have now might begin to be solved.
At the Reebok, the Belles were knocked out on penalties in the semi- finals by the Villa Aztecs, a big, uncompromising side newly promoted from the Northern to the National League. The Aztecs went on to beat Sheffield Wednesday in the final. Channy, vexed that she'd had her penalty saved, sat watching in a small tin stand set up amid a crowd of several hundred, spread out round the pitch on rugs and in deckchairs, hands flapping at wasps. "I'm aching," Channy sighed, "like I never ached before. Me legs are all jellywobble." Then she grinned and said, "Don't tell manager, mind."
She knew Woodhall planned to institute a new fitness programme, as did John Jones at Wembley. Jones said, "If they want to compete at the top - and they're one step away from internationals, these - they've got to be strong, they've got to be athletic, the league demands it now. And I just wish people knew the value of the entertainment that means we lay on."Reuse content