Women's football: Can Super League's booming new era inspire England team?

The Weekend Dossier: Adding to the sense of vibrancy is WSL’s expansion to two divisions

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The Independent Football

A new era begins for women’s football today when England play an international without Hope Powell in the dugout for the first time in 15 years. Powell was hugely influential in raising the profile and professionalism of the ladies’ game, but by the end her regime was a sour place, which showed in the team’s dreadful performance at Euro 2013.

While her permanent successor is yet to be appointed, there has been a more upbeat mood around the England camp as, under Powell’s former assistant Brent Hills, they prepare for a World Cup 2015 qualifying double-header on the South Coast. This lunchtime they play Belarus at Bournemouth followed by Turkey at Portsmouth on Thursday.

It is not just the lifting of the toxic cloud over the national team that has invigorated women’s football. The third season of the FA Women’s Super League, an unpredictable thriller, has boiled down to a title decider a week on Sunday between Liverpool Ladies and Bristol Academy.

As significant as the dramatic finish is the fact Arsenal are not in the denouement. Anyone with even a scant knowledge of the women’s game knows Arsenal have been the dominant club, not least because their success became another stick with which to beat the trophyless men’s team. Not any more. Arsenal lost 4-0 to Liverpool in their showpiece match at the Emirates in May (top right) and never recovered. Having won nine titles in succession their eclipse is as necessary a process for the league’s development as the move towards more full-time players.

Adding to the sense of vibrancy is WSL’s expansion to two divisions next season, with a 10-team second tier extending the game’s reach to 18 clubs based from Sunderland to Yeovil.

This development has not been without controversy after Doncaster Rovers Belles were told, early in this campaign, that they would play in the second division regardless of results. The Belles are one of the women’s game’s most established clubs, one that achieved national prominence when female football was still universally sneered at. Their compulsory relegation caused an outcry, one exacerbated by the  fact that it was nouveau riche Manchester City who replaced them in the new elite division.

The Football Association, which pumps £1m a year into the women’s game but hopes it will eventually be self-sustaining, is doubtless delighted to welcome City, but Belles are said to have had a flawed bid with doubts about their financing model and other aspects. More problematic, in many ways, has been the FA’s sanction of Notts County’s takeover of Lincoln Ladies, much to the fury of Notting-ham Forest, whose own bid failed, as well as Lincoln fans. County have the advantage of a strong link with the men’s club, but how strong that will be if Notts County are relegated to League Two remains to be seen.  

This is one of the quandries for the FA. Charlton Athletic’s decision to pull the plug on their highly successful ladies team after the men’s 2007 relegation from the Premier League haunts the sport. But the women still struggle to attract finance. Sponsor-ship is increasing, as is TV coverage, but WSL naming rights are unsold and with average crowds of 700 paying £5-6 a head not much income comes through the gate. Being linked with a men’s club is an obvious short-cut to growing the game.

The effects of such a tie-in can be seen at Liverpool Ladies. Bottom last season, they will win the championship this time if they avoid defeat to Bristol Academy, their only remaining challengers, on 29 September. The difference has been substantial investment from Liverpool FC, enough to transform the playing squad (including poaching England internationals such as Natasha Dowie and Fara Williams from Everton) and fund training four nights a week. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has also welcomed Ladies boss Matt Beard and his players into Melwood.

By contrast Bristol Academy are associated not with City or Rovers, but South Gloucestershire and Stroud College, with many players students. While most clubs rent grounds (Liverpool play at Widnes rugby league club and  Arsenal at Borehamwood) Bristol play in a purpose-built stadium at the campus. 

Incidentally, the leading club north of the border, Glasgow City, have deliberately avoided allying with Celtic or Rangers, to avoid alienating either half of the community.

While the expanding WSL indicates progress it is yet to be seen if there are enough fans, sponsors and players to support this growth. Standards have improved (though goalkeeping coaches are urgently required). Aside from a 9-0 drubbing of a nine-woman Belles by Liverpool there have been none of the mis-matches that once damaged credibility. But a lack of quality players has prompted an influx of foreign footballers. It is understood this is partly because the professionalism of young English players can leave much to be desired with many treating the game as a hobby. This is perhaps to be expected given the lack of career options historically, but the FA does not want to create another foreign-dominated league especially as the WSL was formed to boost the England team.

The game’s best advertisement is the national side – there has been a surge of attention whenever England (or Great Britain in the Olympics) have done well.  A healthy 6,000-plus gate is expected in Bournemouth today with live coverage on BBC TV too. Everyone involved will be hoping England can put the Euro 2013 debacle behind them and successfully launch a campaign that ends in triumph in Vancouver on 5 July 2015.

World Cup 2015: Road to Canada

England aim to be one in eight 

Eight of the 24 World Cup 2015 places are allocated to Europe. Seven group winners qualify plus one runner-up through play-offs. England and Wales are paired with Belarus, Turkey, Poland and Montenegro. Scotland (away to Faroe Islands today) and Northern Ireland must overcome European No 1-ranked team Sweden, while the Republic of Ireland (at home to Slovakia today) have Euro 2013 winners Germany in their group. The finals are in Canada in June-July 2015.

Five Asides

1. City blaze a trail in the great Premier League kit rip-off

With fanfare and a 3-0 win Manchester City launched their “away cup shirt” in the Czech Republic this week. The new kit, like the home and away kits, costs £115 for shirts, shorts, socks plus badges, name and number. Adults, admittedly, rarely buy the works, but kids do, and their bill comes in at £72. That is £216 for all three kits. Football kits are near-indestructible, easy to wash, and worn as often as parents allow. So they would actually be decent value if it were not for the fact they will be obsolete next July. City are by no means the only offenders, and the Premier League quote figures that suggest shirt prices are even higher overseas, but the annual replacement means we’re just talking degrees of rip-off.

2. Narcissists’ coffee date must have been a bore

The image of Mark Halsey and Jose Mourinho sharing a cosy coffee, as described in the referee’s book, raises a question. Did either of these self-regarding narcissists stop talking about themselves long enough for the other to get a word in edgeways?

3. Will football politics trump human rights in Euro bids?

Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Belarus, three countries very much on the human rights blacklist, are among the applicants to stage matches at Michel Platini’s pan-Continental Euro 2020 (sponsored by Airmiles and InterRail). Given the problems other governing bodies have faced over the choice of showpiece, hosts Uefa will presumably consider these bids very carefully. Then again, they all have a vote in Uefa and Fifa, so maybe the questions will not be too pointed.

4. Bookies aren’t the best bet for anti-bigotry campaign

The sentiments behind Stonewall’s anti-homophobia campaign are admirable. What a pity they felt the need to ally themselves to a bookmaker with a history of publicity stunts, and allow the use of a slogan that plays on prejudice. 

5. Give clubs more incentives to play home-grown players

Durham win cricket’s county championship with a core of local players. The ECB pays counties a bonus for fielding England-qualified players. If the Premier League really want to boost the England team they can insert a similar incentive into the share-out of TV millions, thus countering the positional bonus that deters clubs from picking youngsters in dead end-of-season games.