Football: Women's football enters era of explosive growth

A Uefa conference held in London shows that England and the FA mean business
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EVERTON ARE the current League champions. No, not that struggling bunch who have barely found the net all season in the Premiership, but Everton Ladies. Last May, they won the FA Women's National Division.

This Sunday, they play Arsenal - and, as usual, the crowd will be a handful of friends and relatives. Continuing poor attendances, however, should not mask the fact that the women's game in England is in better shape than ever.

The third Uefa conference on women's football finishes in London today. Since Tuesday, 140 delegates from 44 countries have been discussing such issues as youth development, the structure of European competition and examples of good practice in leading nations like Norway and Germany.

One hopes they will find a better seeding system for the World Cup qualifiers. England will not be at the third Women's World Cup in the United States next year - but there is no disgrace in that, after being drawn in an impossibly tough group containing both Norway and Germany, respectively the world and European champions.

Finishing behind these two and the Netherlands obliged England to contest a play-off to confirm their status in Europe's top tier - something they did with aplomb, beating Romania 2-1 at home, 4-1 away. The home game at Wycombe earlier this month drew a crowd of 1,500; it featured a free- kick by Croydon's Joanne Broadhurst curled so sweetly into the top-left corner from 25 yards that Sky Sports included it in their pick of the week.

That preserved England's standing, but the Football Association acknowledge that there is a long way to go yet. What has changed is that it is doing something about it; the human and financial resources now being pumped into the women's game are unprecedented.

Kelly Simmons, the FA's women's football co-ordinator - formerly a centre- half with Brighton - said: "The fact that we bid to host the conference this week shows we mean business, but people shouldn't think it's a one- off. There's a whole range of programmes in place and it's making a dramatic difference."

In 1990, there were 7,000 women registered as players at Lancaster Gate. Last year that figure climbed to 22,500 and this year it has leapt to 34,000. Most of the increase is in young girls coming to the game, as opportunities to play multiply exponentially. In 1990, only 80 clubs had junior girls' teams; today there are 1,000.

The talent development programme for women involved 20 new centres of excellence, spotting promising players as young as 10. It has seen the former international Hope Powell appointed as the first full-time coach for the national side, supported with permanent set-ups for national teams at Under-16 and Under-18 levels to bring the best players through.

Simmons said: "Half a million women play in Germany, and in 10 years' time we'd like to be where they are. One day, we'd like a professional women's game - but we've got to get the playing base first. We want more girls playing at school, more clubs, more leagues, and it's happening. You'll see the benefits coming through in the younger players very soon."

When the FA took over in 1993, the women's game was profoundly mistrustful; they thought the FA was paying them lip service, and not much of that.

Alan Burton, the secretary of the Doncaster Belles, used to be permanently fed up with what he saw as a lordly, cackhanded regime. But now he has said: "They've listened to us and we've learnt from them. Overall, things have massively improved."

There are still men who can't take all this progress. One reviewer of Alyson Rudd's new book Astroturf Blonde was so dumbfounded by the notion of a woman trying to chip the keeper from the half-way line that he decided the book must be fiction.

Rudd said: "My publisher was having kittens. But a refreshing number of people have seen it for what it is. It's not a women's book - it's just about a woman wanting to play, and there are more and more who do."

There are more women involved in every way, watching football, writing about it, even running it - half the staff at Lancaster Gate are now women. Katherine Knight, a vibrantly enthusiastic FA press officer, said: "You can't call it the people's game if half the people are excluded, can you? And today, they're not." Asked about the current state of women's football, she laughed and said: "Wicked!"

Ann Taylor, the Leader of the House of Commons, thinks it is getting better, too. (Not least in that more grounds have better ladies' toilets, after she pressed the Football Trust to make grants available for that). Taylor's no sally-come-lately to football; she started going to Bolton as a child 40 years ago. She said: "What's changed is attitudes in the boxes and boardrooms. I went to Barnsley two seasons back, and I was told I was the first woman ever invited into their boardroom. Today, their boardroom is unisex. I still don't think there are as many women involved as could be the case, or as may be the case in future - but it's getting very much better."

Asked if she considered herself an expert, Taylor smiled and said: "We're all experts. None of us can play, but we can all be managers. I pick the Bolton team every week. But look, there are women everywhere who can talk football - and if some men haven't noticed yet that women can do that, they're probably not worth talking to, are they?"