Season to attract crowds for Arsenal's ladies man

Pete Davies anticipates a season of challenge ahead for women's football
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Bruce Rioch may have felt the Highbury turf open up beneath him, but at least one Arsenal manager can face the new season with confidence. Vic Akers's Arsenal Ladies have better backing from the Gunners' board than any other women's team: aside from Akers's own salary, there is the Nike kit, the training facilities, maybe even a house and a job for the player who transfers from outside the capital. The goalkeeper Sara King, indeed, has transferred in from Australia.

But rich and poor alike get injured. Akers goes into today's opening game against the Doncaster Belles at Armthorpe Welfare missing the full- back, Kirsty Pealling, to an ankle injury, while his playmaker Joanne Broadhurst is doubtful pending knee surgery. In the 10-team FA National Division, the Belles finished second last season, seven points clear of third-placed Arsenal. Akers says: "We could have had an easier start. But you get a good crowd up there for this fixture. They expect a decent tight game, and it generally is."

A good crowd in the women's game is 200; indeed, Akers suspects today's game may be his biggest crowd of the season. Doncaster, starting their 27th season still proudly independent of any men's club, are well established at Armthorpe and, with a sponsorship deal from the sports insurers NPS Healthcare, they are healthy at the bank as well. With the striker Karen Walker keen to prove a point after her omission from the England squad for next weekend's international in Spain, and Doncaster hungry after two years without silverware, the season should get a lively kick-off.

Croydon's match with Liverpool in South Norwood will be combative stuff, too. A replay of last season's WFA Cup Final, which Croydon won on penalties, the game involves nine members of the England squad, with Liverpool's midfielder Karen Burke and Croydon's striker Hope Powell likely to feature. Liverpool finished fifth last season while Croydon went on from their cup win to take the double in heroic fashion. Obliged in the disorder of the season's closing to play five games in 10 days, they won four and drew the fifth to pip Doncaster to the title on goal difference.

As with the men's game, it is hard to see the championship escaping from this clutch of top sides. As with the men's game, if anyone can unsettle the top sides, it will be the fast- improving Everton. They play today at Vale Farm in north London against Wembley, whose attractive football won them last season's League Cup. Wembley offer stark contrast to Arsenal. It cost pounds 18,000 to run the club last season, and, apart from pounds 2,000 from Brent Council, they raised it all themselves.

Compared with women's football in Germany and Scandinavia, the English game still runs on a shoestring budget, helped by post-match raffles and car-boot sales. It is getting better, but progress is painfully slow. Like Wembley, the league remains unsponsored, but at least UK Living's backing of the WFA Cup did net the finalists pounds 1,750 each - per club, of course, not per player. While that only buys you a few hours of Alan Shearer, in the women's game it is a rollover jackpot.

Still, if more sponsorship does not come forward, and better marketing does not bring in bigger crowds, the women's game will start losing players. The Wembley midfielder Kelly Smith, just 17 and with four goals to her name in six England appearances, is a player as exciting as you will see on any pitch. Because of a lack of opportunities, she is now considering offers of scholarships in the United States. Some of the top US women football players make $100,000 a year while Britain's still have trouble getting time off work.

At Arsenal, Akers is aware of the struggle women's football clubs face. "We've not had to work as hard as other clubs to get support. But if you're successful, people notice, and you hope that rubs off. It's developing at Liverpool and Everton - the more forward-looking men's clubs take their women's teams seriously now. And that's good for the game because it's not just us and Doncaster any more; there's half a dozen teams that could win this league. But getting people to watch - that's a different matter."