Chelsea and Manchester City must lead a general uplift in WSL, not buy overwhelming domination

THE WEEKEND DOSSIER

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The Independent Online

This summer England’s lionesses made the front and back pages as they finished third in the Women’s World Cup, the best finish for an England football team of either sex since 1966. When they returned, the players were feted, enjoying audiences with Prince William and David Cameron.

Meanwhile, back home, the wife of one Women’s Super League manager, whose team includes England players, was stuffing the team kit in the family washing machine as the club would not pay the £40 cost of the launderette.

This is the strange place women’s football finds itself – no longer a hobby but not yet a fully fledged professional sport. The fifth WSL season, which ends tomorrow, has been the most successful to date, but while a few players are now making a decent living, many are still effectively part-time. Attendances, given a major boost by the World Cup, have increased 41 per cent on last season, but at 1,028 would still disappoint most National League clubs.

Bumper attendances are expected tomorrow, with the title race having gone to the wire and both contenders at home. Their identity – Chelsea and Manchester City – underlines the league’s development, but also signposts potential problems. 

When the WSL began in 2011, Chelsea were not very good, City did not even have a team. Chelsea, who have already won the Women’s FA Cup, will complete the Double unless they slip up at home to Sunderland, which could let in City. Arsenal are likely to be third. The probable 1-2-3 will thus mirror that of the men’s Premier League in May. 

At the other end of the table, Bristol Academy Women, the only WSL 1 club not affiliated to a men’s club, have been relegated. Bristol were runners-up in 2013, but the investment now being put into the women’s game by some men’s clubs means their business model – linking with a local educational establishment and developing players – is fast becoming obsolete. 

That was once the Football Association’s original preference, in large part due to the debacle at Charlton Athletic in 2007, when the FA Cup-winning women’s team was axed to save £40,000 after the men were relegated from the Premier League. Now, however, there is an acceptance that the women’s game needs to tap into the vast resources of the men’s if developmental aspirations are to be met. 

This inevitably will involve compromises. There is concern that City and Chelsea could dominate the women’s game in the same way Arsenal used to – leading to a return to the days when the league was insufficiently competitive to develop international quality players. A tweaking of salary regulations to create a fixed cap (currently wages are limited to 40 per cent of turnover rather than a set figure) was floated but shelved when some clubs responded aggressively to what they saw as a restraint on ambition. 

The hope is that City and Chelsea will instead lead a general uplift in investment. Arsenal are thought to be planning a bold response to being overtaken – but Liverpool, back-to-back reigning champions, appear to have scaled back. Manager Matt Beard, who quits after tomorrow’s match to work in the United States, recently tweeted a picture of himself stenciling the numbers on players’ shirts – not a job Brendan Rodgers has had to do.

The other problem with the big men’s clubs becoming involved is that as the proportion of club turnover provided by the FA decreases, clubs will start resenting England’s demands on their players. The FA is hopeful that clubs recognise they and the national team need each other – gates rose by a quarter after the World Cup.

England’s performance in Canada, with a squad almost entirely drawn from WSL, underlined the league’s growing depth. While WSL 2 scores still regularly feature wins by as much as eight goals, until City beat Bristol 6-1 last weekend, the biggest margin of defeat in WSL 1 was 4-0, and leaders Chelsea were on the wrong end of one such result. That was at promoted Sunderland, whose easy transition to the top flight was especially encouraging.

Next year WSL 1 expands to nine teams, with Reading and Doncaster Belles coming up. It means one team has a blank fixture each round, which none are happy with. The FA’s reasoning is it wants expansion (to 10 clubs by 2017) to be measured to avoid clubs being out of their depth.

Clubs are also unhappy with the FA over the lack of fixtures. WSL 1 began in March, it has taken eight months to play 14 rounds. The break for the World Cup did not help but there was less excuse for the FA when it came to a player-eligibility fiasco in the Continental Tyres Cup (the women’s equivalent of the Capital One Cup) which led to a late quarter-final postponement, then a hasty re-arrangement. The FA had lost the paperwork.

“Lessons have been learned,” say the FA, who will be considering the other issues in a post-season strategy review. As an indication of their commitment, the ongoing FA staff cuts will not affect those working in the women’s game.

Back on the pitch a Chelsea victory tomorrow would, in a week when women’s place in football is again on the agenda, be a major boost as manager Emma Hayes is the WSL 1’s only female boss. With Jayne Ludlow, WSL 2’s only female manager, having steered Reading to promotion, it would be a fitting double.

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FIVE ASIDES

Harvey fails to reign despite finishing top

Commiserations to Laura Harvey, coach of US club Seattle Reign, beaten in the National Women’s Soccer League championship final by Kansas late on Thursday night. Reign, with Scotland’s Kim Little, won the regular league season but in most US sports (and rugby codes here) that is not enough.

League’s £14.08 is just the ticket amid rising prices 

With neat timing, given today’s ticket-price protests, the Football League announce an average admission price –including seasons, corporates and concessions – is £14.08. Another 1.3m were let in free. Sometimes it pays to support a lower-league team.

Carneiro – another fine mess the FA has got us into

It was like the bad old days for the Football Association which, thanks to Greg Dyke’s intervention, managed to both acquit and infuriate Jose Mourinho over the Eva Carneiro affair. It is possible that Dyke and the inquiry team are right, but what a typical mess.

But there is good news for Dyke as work starts on hub 

Better news from the FA was the sight of Dyke wearing the hard hat at a building site in a field in Sheffield to mark the six-month countdown to the first FA Parklife hub, the £50m scheme which, it is hoped, will transform grassroots football facilities, in cities at least.

Old Firm will not move south despite new rumour

The old chestnut suggesting the Old Firm will join the Premier League raised its head again this week. It won’t happen. Neither Premier League clubs (two of whom would have to make way) nor police forces want it. Besides, Scotland may be independent soon.

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