Not everything beneath the glittering surface of women’s football is as it seems. Despite the success of the Lionesses, and the template set by Manchester City, teams below the elite face uncertain futures. Katie Whyatt investigates the current state of the game
Manchester United still don’t want to play women’s football. Why, when a peak audience of four million people tuned in to watch England’s semi-final defeat by Holland in the European Championship and marked another television record for women’s football in this country, are one of the biggest football brands in the world still so resistance? Why, when according to gambling.com’s ‘Raising the Bar’ report, the FA have allocated more money to women’s football in the last four years – £56.46 million – than any other European country?
Women’s football is growing faster in England than on the continent. The statistics – largely where the Lionesses are concerned – are genuinely staggering. But is there a sub-plot bubbling beneath the surface that, in the rush to be thrilled by this growth, we are yet to interrogate properly? Yes, the narrative of exponential growth is compelling. But is it entirely true? It is surely reasonable to wonder whether, at this stage, that narrative is as helpful, ambitious, maybe even as accurate, as it could be.
The thought process underpinning it is obvious and, in several respects, reasonably accurate. It begins, as most journeys of progress do, with an era and sentiments we like to consider remote. Between 1917 and 1921, women’s football was one of the fastest growing sports in the UK. The munitionettes of WWI – replacing the men who had left for war – formed football teams as light relief from the trying mundanities of the factory floor. Spearheaded by the iconic Dick, Kerr Ladies team, who at the height of their powers played to a crowd of 53,000. This was until the FA, fearful of the brewing cocktail of (female, working class) independence and increased political confidence that had grown in tandem with the game, irrecoverably re-routed the pathway of the women’s game: on December 5, 1921, football’s ruling body decreed that women could no longer play at FA-affiliated grounds.
This sparked the stigma from which, almost a century on, women’s football is still grappling to break free. Femininity and athleticism became mutually exclusive concepts, locked in a binary that is still prevalent. It was fifty years before the FA finally lifted the ban, but there was no quick-fix solution: former England captain Gillian Coultard remembered last month a career that involved “selling Golden Goal tickets, selling raffle tickets, selling lottery tickets. Going to games was self-funded – petrol money, people using each other’s cars. It was park pitches: making sure there’s no dog excrement, putting your own nets up, corner flags, grass that’s never been cut for weeks. You look at those days and you think, ‘God, how did we survive?’”
The whereabouts of the archives for the Women’s Football Association – the sport’s governing body at that point – are unknown. Official records are, therefore, almost impossible to find. As a result, women’s football endures an uncomfortable relationship with its history. A sign of progress will come when the game is in a position to honour its own history with the same verve with which the FA marked its 150th birthday.
Manchester City are winning plaudits across the board for the ground-breaking progress they are making, and it is not difficult to comprehend why. The world is by now well-versed in their methods – namely, full-time contracts, and training facilities, marketing and social media strategies that are intertwined with the men’s. Geographically, Manchester City Women’s pristine Academy Stadium sits a bridge away in the same complex as the cantilevered Etihad. At the Etihad’s main entrance, stretched far above the double glass doors, is a giant print of Steph Houghton with the Continental Cup next to a billboard of Vincent Kompany and the Premier League trophy. The Academy Stadium has set three attendance records for a FA WSL game. In May this year, City became the first team to hold all the major English honours at once since the foundation of the modern Super League: FA Cup, WSL 1 title and Continental Cup. This is the future – better, the present – of women’s football.
But it is not universal, and it is amid this perception of all-encompassing growth that the discord between media hyperbole and reality begins to rankle. Matthew Syed wrote an article in The Times headlined: No stopping the boom in women’s football. He explained: “I have not merely been impressed by the skill and stamina of the England team … but at the remarkable progress when compared with archive footage of the 1970s. In the past two years alone … there has been a vivid leap forward in athleticism and technique.”
It is worth reiterating that many of Syed’s observations ring true. Manchester City and England midfielder Jill Scott noted: “I see the young girls coming in now and they’re getting ball contact four times a week. Up until the age of about 26, I was probably only having two ball sessions a week.” Still, can we not move beyond this narrative of ‘look how far the game has come’ when covering women’s football? Of ‘nothing can stop women’s football growing’? The reality is there are myriad obstacles preventing, or hindering, the growth of the women’s game in this country and, on the back of a major tournament that has seen media and societal interest spike once more, now is the crucial time to begin to ask more probing questions. It feels that existing shortcomings are easily overlooked in the rush to praise perceived progress.
In January this year, for instance, Sunderland Ladies reverted to part-time status. A more nuanced examination of what that entails in practice is overdue. But, in a nutshell, it is unlikely they will be troubling Manchester City anytime soon. More damagingly, Notts County Ladies folded in April, two days before the start of the WSL Spring Series: cruelly, the players found out just five minutes before the announcement hit social media. Both highlight the issue of reliance on men’s clubs for financial and infrastructural support; that leaves women’s clubs at the mercy and whims of others at a time when money is more critical than ever before.
“I think the writing was on the wall when Liverpool lost interest a few years ago,” Mick Mulhern, now an England scout, says of the changed status of the Sunderland Ladies set-up he used to manage. “They had a couple of successful years, [but] I think as soon as they realised it was costing a lot of money, and they weren’t going to win the Champions League without stepping it up another level, they kind of lost interest. And I thought then, clubs are going to have to really want to do this financially. It’s not cheap.
“Arsenal have been the ones who’ve always done it – their budget was massive seven, eight years ago, when no one else had a budget. It’s kind of refreshing that they’ve been surpassed by the likes of Chelsea, Man City. I think that’s a good thing, and it’s for everybody else to follow. But the point I’m making is a lot of clubs realise that they can’t follow that, and unless they’re going to win something, they’re not going to follow that. Therefore, they reduce the funds.”
Carrie Dunn, author of The Roar of the Lionesses, one of the most comprehensive portraits of women’s football in England, has similar worries. “Since the start of the WSL, I’ve always been a little bit concerned about the amount of money required to run a football club successfully,” she begins. “Having links with men’s clubs is fine, in theory. But if there’s a financial problem, the women’s teams are always going to be the first ones to go. If there’s a change of ownership, and the new people aren’t that interested in the women’s team, then the chances are the women’s team is going to be affected. It worries me when there’s that kind of financial reliance.
“Some safeguards in place would be helpful. Manchester City have been very committed to treating players equally, and that kind of safeguard is there – they’re building for the future. In terms of other clubs, maybe that synergy isn’t quite there yet.” Is that the only way? “It’s not. There can be independent clubs. I would prefer to see independent women’s teams. But I think, for the time being, this is the set-up that we have – and that’s what we’re going to have to get used to.”
Ambivalence towards this Janus-faced relationship echoes through Dunn’s book, and it is surprising that Syed quotes from The Roar of the Lionesses in his Times piece, but does not pursue this line of inquiry himself. There are consequences, chiefly, for competitive balance: Birmingham City Ladies reached the FA Cup final this year, but the scoreline – 4-1 to Manchester City – spoke volumes of the broader disparities between the two clubs. This is not uncommon. “The thing that always tells is fitness, and you can’t expect anything else when you’ve got professional players who are training every day,” Dunn continues. “Spurs, for instance, ran away with WPL [Women’s Premier League] in the season just gone. And they played Arsenal in the FA Cup, and Arsenal absolutely thrashed them. Spurs didn’t play badly, that gap in fitness was a gulf.
“You can say it’s up to the other clubs to step up to the mark and meet that challenge, but there’s only so much money to go round at some places. I remember [former Birmingham City Ladies manager] David Parker saying, when he left, that he’d been asked to do stuff on a lower budget than he’d had previously – and there’s only so much you can do with a limited budget. It’s a shame that there isn’t that same competitive element that there was two or three years ago.”
The death of Notts County Ladies stands as a cautionary tale. “I don’t think that’s the end of it,” says Mulhern. “I think others have seen what Notts County have done and they’ll have a look at it, and they’ll do it season by season. The boat might be sailing along nicely somewhere, and then it will just sink, and it will be that sudden. If you’re tied to a men’s club, it depends on the success of that men’s club. There are other clubs who just don’t want a women’s team, or they might have a good deal of money for the men’s set-up and the boys’ set-up, but they’re not prepared to fund the women’s team. I think that’s sad.”
The narrative of unequivocal, ubiquitous progress is a half-truth. There is truth in it, clearly, but the issue is that the media reliance on the ‘then versus now’ thread betrays a potential naivety about the current landscape. Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal command the headlines, but they are not the only story; to treat them as such is to misread – maybe even ignore – part of the picture.
This is not to deny the progress made by the game’s forebears, but to implore those shaping the discourse to probe the status quo as much as they applaud it. In changing the parameters of the debate, we can move closer to sustained change.
Dunn sums it up best when she says: “You can put money into a team, you can invest, you can buy players. Is it sustainable long-term? Is it going to be worth doing? Are you attracting fans? Are you attracting the advertising? There are all sorts of questions specifically for the women’s game.” With media interest at an all-time high, now is the perfect time to ask them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Whyatt. Katie’s latest articles