The first leg of their European Championship quarter-final in Reykjavik's National Stadium tomorrow (the return match is in Brighton on 30 October) is the biggest fixture in the history of the English women's game; progress to the semi-finals is desirable enough in itself, but it would also ensure qualification for the second Fifa Women's World Cup in Sweden next summer.
England got this far by coming top of a tough group involving Spain, Belgium and Slovenia; Iceland progressed at the expense of the Netherlands and Greece. After watching the Icelanders win 1-0 in Rotterdam, Ted Copeland, England's manager, described his opposition as 'very strong, very organised, very physical, very good. Anyone who writes them off as a minor force is fooling themselves - and after beating Holland they'll be on a high, they'll be looking for another scalp, so we'll really have to compete.'
Though it is not yet translating into decent crowds at club level, more and more people are aware now that women's football is indeed a competitive business. Copeland's squad features players from six of the 10 teams in the National Division, the women's equivalent of the Premiership; overall, it is reckoned that at least 12,000 women are now playing at more than 450 clubs, while participation in schools is mushrooming. So if England can get past Iceland and go on to do well in Sweden, Copeland says, 'That would attract the media attention we need to develop the women's game. People are realising now that it's a game to be watched and enjoyed, and any success we can gain is vital to furthering that recognition.'
Unfortunately, however, there are questions about the real commitment of the FA to that aim. Obeying a Fifa directive which says, according to Copeland, that all football should be run by a single body, the Women's FA was dissolved in June last year when Lancaster Gate took over the national side. It completed the takeover of the women's game as a whole this summer, but many remain suspicious of its motives. It is not easily forgotten that for 50 years until 1971, the FA banned women from playing on league grounds altogether. Sheila Edmunds, a founder member in 1969 of last season's double-winning Doncaster Belles, still worries that the FA has taken over 'to control us, to keep us in our place'. Linda Whitehead, secretary for 13 years of the Women's FA before its demise, said: 'A lot of people felt very bitter. It wasn't what they wanted to do, it was the way they did it - they just rode roughshod all over us.'
She echoes a widespread fear that the FA is only interested in the national side, not the grassroots - a fear Copeland, who in his day job is the FA's Regional Director of Coaching for the North, says is unfounded. Talking of a five-year development plan he said, 'We're concerned with getting the structure right, so it isn't going to happen overnight, and people have to be patient.'
Having discovered the women's game, however, and come to the belief that the quality and commitment of those who play it deserve a wider audience, I have found that patience is indeed a necessity. When Vic Wakeling, of Sky Sport, told me he was negotiating with the FA for the rights to women's football as a separate entity, I took this as an encouraging sign, so I asked if he had any plans regarding this crucial tie with Iceland - and it turned out no one had told him about it. The FA says the appointment of someone to take specific responsibility for the promotion of women's football is imminent, and that its sincerity should not be doubted - but Copeland, meanwhile, is telling players they should speak to no one without his permission, as if the international media were knocking down their doors.
Moreover - though he naturally denies this - he seems to run a camp so joylessly strait-laced that the Belles' England players, says Sheila Edmunds, return to Doncaster 'demoralised'. Players themselves say that the improvement in kit, facilities, coaching and other back-up staff that the FA's greater resources have brought is immeasurably welcome, and that they certainly needed to become more disciplined. But in the words of one of those now in Iceland, 'You can go too far. They've got to understand that we're amateurs, we're not getting paid for this, and it should be a bit more light-hearted. Because what's the point of winning if you can't enjoy it, and you can't show that you enjoy it?'
Sheila Edmunds' husband Paul, the manager of the Belles, finds it desperately sad. 'They should feel proud to the core to play for England - but they don't enjoy it, and there's something wrong there.' But what, precisely, he does not know - because he says Copeland is not in the habit of ringing him.
Again, Copeland denies this - but a disagreement this plain between the manager of the national side, and the manager of the most successful club in the country is obviously not healthy. I asked Copeland what games he had seen this season, and he said he had watched the Belles beat Millwall 7-1 on the opening day. The crowd that day was 87 (I counted them) and I did not see him among them. Copeland says he went there 'quietly and discreetly. I wanted to slip in without being noticed.'
This is the man who leads England against Iceland tomorrow. One hopes fervently, of course, that they get a result. But one also hopes fervently that the FA starts taking women's football as seriously as it says it does.
ENGLAND SQUAD v Iceland, Reykjavik, tomorrow: Shipp (Wembley), Davidson (Liverpool); Pealling (Arsenal), Mapes (Croydon), Taylor (Liverpool), Fletcher (Millwall Lionesses), Smith (Croydon); Coultard (Doncaster Belles), Bampton (Croydon), Burke (Liverpool), Powell (Croydon), Spacey, Williams (both Arsenal); Walker (Doncaster Belles), Davis (Liverpool).
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