Jill Scott has a tattoo encircling her right wrist. It is largely hidden by her watch strap but when she pulls on the white shirt of England or the royal blue of Everton it is plain to see. It reads: “Step by step, day by day, mile by mile.”
“It’s a Whitney Houston song,” says Scott, tugging at the strap to reveal the words. “I got it done at the last Euros. It sums everything up for me.”
It sums up everything for the women’s game too. This evening in the Halton Stadium in Widnes – home of the town’s rugby league side – the third season of the Women’s Super League begins with a Merseyside derby. It is a Continental Cup fixture, their version of the League Cup, and instigates a campaign that is potentially decisive for the women’s game in this country. The Football Association has backed the WSL with more money than ever, there has never been greater television coverage and come this summer the only live senior footballing show in town will be England’s attempt to win the European Championship.
It is the last of that trinity that offers the greatest opportunity. England were runner’s-up at the 2009 Euros, where Scott’s tattoo originated, and if they can go one better in Sweden and claim that trophy – live on the BBC – it could make for a whole new ball game. As the Olympics loudly demonstrated, this country revels in sporting success and a football triumph, no matter the sex (and there is no men’s event this summer to dominate attention, only the Under-21 European Championship), would be embraced beyond the sport’s boundaries.
“It would make a difference,” says Scott. “We always say that when you go out and play a game you are not just playing for yourself or your team you are playing for the whole of women’s and girls’ football. You want to put it out there and try and get good publicity.
“On the back of the Olympics we got a lot of attention – we get a buzz around tournaments but then it tends to die off. The key thing for women’s football is to try and sustain that interest. Being on BBC for the Euros hopefully we can generate that interest and continue that interest. To go out and win something would make it very interesting to see what happens.”
The women’s game has come many steps and many miles since Scott made her England debut seven years ago, the same year she left her native Sunderland – she was a season ticket-holder at the Stadium of Light, going to games with her granddad – to join Everton. England have become regulars in the squeaky-bottom stages of major competitions, quarter-finalists at the last two World Cups, finalists at the last Euros – after Scott scored the semi-final winner against the Netherlands – with Britain, a side largely made up of England players, reaching the last eight at the Olympics too and attracting 70,000 to Wembley to watch them beat Brazil en route.
Scott is fresh from two weeks in Cyprus, where England won the Cyprus Cup – beating Canada, the side that knocked Team GB out of London, in the final. They are a settled and experienced group that has grown together on and off the pitch.
“That was one of the things that was highlighted on this trip, our team spirit is very good,” suggests Scott, who collected a 64th cap in the final. “We were in Cyprus for 14 days and that is a lot of time together as a squad. We all hung around together, did quizzes, played poker for fun. It’s all about team building. Sometimes the best teams don’t win tournaments – it is the one with the best team spirit.
“I’ve been lucky enough to go to two World Cups, a European Championship, an Olympics and I’m not even one of the most experienced players. For some of them this will be their third European Championship. For Eniola Aluko, who is only my age, 26, it will be her third European Championship. In terms of that you can’t really beat having the experience. You definitely need that going into tournaments.”
First, though, there are domestic duties to be attended to, a third season of the WSL. “For the first two years it’s gone well but there have been things that could have been improved, like the quality of the pitches and getting more people along to the game,” says Scott.
If the pitches are poor, she points out, it will always be an uphill battle to improve quality. Crowds have risen but still average out at around 500. In the wake of last year’s Olympics and low ticket prices – it’s £5 for an adult in Widnes tonight, half that for a child – they should keep creeping upwards.
This winter – the women’s season runs over the summer, with a break for international tournaments – has seen significant changes on Merseyside. Everton finished third in each of the WSL’s first two seasons, behind Arsenal and Birmingham both times. Liverpool were bottom of the eight-team league each time, having won only two games in two seasons, but the club have invested heavily to recruit 12 new players, including six from abroad and one in particular from rather closer to home – Fara Williams, Scott’s long-term midfield partner with Everton and England.
It will add a frisson to the occasion. “It will be very odd,” says Scott. “We have played together for seven years for Everton and England. It is a bit of a mad situation. Once you get out on the pitch and tackle someone it will be fine. [The derby] has not been as competitive as the men’s game. No disrespect to Liverpool but in the past there has been a little bit of a gap between us. They have given us exciting games – we drew 3-3 in the first game of last season – but it will be a bit of added rivalry this time, especially with us losing four of our players to them. Both sets of players will want to prove a point.”
This is the first season since the FA launched a five-year plan for the women’s game in October. The governing body has promised to support the WSL with an extra £3.5m of funding – small change by the standards of the men’s game but still a significant investment on this side of the fence. A second division to the WSL is planned for next season. The FA also agreed to a first pay rise for their centrally contracted England players for three years. The initial offer was rejected by the players before they agreed to an increase of £4,000 to £20,000 a year as well as a rise in the number of hours they are free to seek extra income. Again, paltry compared to the men but it makes a difference. The collapse last year of the professional league in the US was a reminder that the state of the women’s game remains delicate – the WSL’s launch was initially delayed due to financial concerns.
“I am part-time,” says Scott, who supplements her income through coaching. “I feel quite lucky in terms of when I came into the game. I was lucky enough to be around when central contracts came into play. I know girls who played for 20 years, got no support and had to pay to play so I do feel privileged to be in this position.”
The game has come a long way, step by step, mile by hard-earned mile. Scott pushes her watch back into place, covering her tattoo. “If we win the Euros I’ll get the other arm done,” she says and laughs.
Jill Scott wears the PUMA evoSPEED boot available now from www.prodirectsoccer.com.To find out which PUMA boot matches your game head to www.facebook.com/pumafootball
Women’s game: 2013 season details
* Teams Arsenal, Birmingham, Bristol Academy, Chelsea, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Everton, Lincoln, Liverpool.
* 2012 champions Arsenal. Continental Cup Arsenal. FA Cup Chelsea
* Key dates: Today Domestic season starts with FA WSL Continental Cup, including Liverpool v Everton
7 Apr England v Canada (friendly; Rotherham)
14 Apr League fixtures begin
23 May Women’s Champions League final (Stamford Bridge)
26 May Women’s FA Cup final (Doncaster)
10-28 July Euro 2013 (Sweden) inc: 12 July England v Spain; 15 July v Russia; 18 July v France
* TV ESPN will show live WSL games including Liverpool v Everton. BBC will show four round-up shows during the season, and Euro 2013.