Ladies’ Night? More like Ladies’ Week, Month and Year: Why it’s been a great few days for women’s football, and women in football, in England

October 3, 2013 in Women's Football by Emma Lucy Whitney

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From the epochal shift of a team that isn’t Arsenal winning the highest domestic prize on offer in women’s football in England, to the national side thrashing Belarus and Turkey in their World Cup qualifiers - clocking up an aggregate score of 14-0 from just two games, no less – not to mention Charlotte Green taking on the mantle of reading the classified football results on the Beeb, it’s been quite a week or so for those interested in the beautiful game and the place of women in it. After the disappointments of the summer, with the senior England girls dismally underachieving in Sweden at the Euros preceding the sacking of Hope Powell, some autumnal optimism is just what the doctor ordered. With the newly restructured Women’s Super League to look forward to next year, the Under 17 European Championships taking place over here in November and December, and the Super League Continental Cup clash between newly dethroned Arsenal and soon to be re-branded Lincoln Ladies taking place at Barnet’s Hive this Friday night, there’s plenty more to whet our appetites and get excited about. However, let’s focus for now on the events of the past fortnight, and exactly what is starting to go so right in the English women’s game.women1

Back on 21st September, the England women’s national side played under a new manager for the first time in fifteen years. Interim manager Brent Hills led the girls out for their World Cup qualifier against Belarus, and, after all the tribulations of the summer, England had a point to prove. Blasting six past a hapless Belarus side, courtesy of a first half hat-trick from Karen Carney (including, to quote my esteemed BB colleague Matty Deller, an absolute thunderbastard of a goal), and a strike apiece from White, Dowie and Aluko, England went some way towards shrugging off the disappointments of July. Fast forward a week, and amidst warnings not to get carried away by Hills, the girls made light work of their match against Turkey, a side ranked 65th in the world; 6-0 up after 38 minutes, the Lionesses were 2 to the good inside two minutes, thanks a brace of superb strikes from Everton’s Toni Duggan, who completed her hat-trick on the 37 minute mark after White and Aluko had scored England’s third and fourth respectively. White’s second goal, a sublime header came a minute after Duggan’s third, taking England to their second half-dozen tally in the space of a week. Aluko and Dowie completed the rout after half-time, leaving England on a high after a magnificent performance, and doing the permanent job prospects of Brent Hills absolutely no harm at all, though it should be said that anything other than comfortable victories against Belarus and Turkey would have been a disaster for the girls. Hope’s legacy will live on in the England set-up – what she did for the women’s game in this country should be rightly lauded – but it’s nice to see the team playing to their potential again, albeit against significantly weaker opposition. With a tasty World Cup qualifier against Wales to look forward to at the end of the month, plus a trip to Turkey for the away fixture, it’ll be interesting to see if Hills is still around, and whether England’s women can keep this sort of momentum up.women2

The future looks promising for England in other ways too, however; the U19s finished runners- up in the European Championships held in Wales this August, losing out to France in a heart-breaking final after impressive victories over Finland in the semis and Wales and Denmark in the group stages. Three players from the England side, goalkeeper Lizzie Durack, left-back Paige Williams and striker Nikita Parris - all Evertonians – were named in UEFA’s Top Ten Emerging Talents list after the tournament, boding well for the national team. If the senior England side keep up their current form and qualify for the World Cup in 2015, Durack, Williams and Parris each have a shout of being on the plane to Canada in two years’ time. Another reason to be excited about English women’s football both internationally and domestically is the fact that Arsenal’s monopoly over the Women’s Super League/ Premier League has at last been broken. Arsenal’s impressive record should be rightly applauded – they have won the elite competition in domestic women’s football in England every year from 2004 up until now – but the investment, vision and faith given to Liverpool Ladies’ has paid off in 2013.women3

In the end, it came down to a final day title decider between the Reds (the WSL equivalent of Man City in a way, thanks to the money poured into the women’s side from their American owners), and underdogs Bristol Academy, the only WSL team not officially affiliated with a men’s club. Despite having a young, relatively inexperienced side at his disposal, Bristol’s manager Mark Sampson still guided his girls to a second place finish in the WSL; Bristol were also runners-up to Arsenal in this year’s FA Women’s Cup, and the Vixens also qualified for Champions League football for only the second time in their history. There can only ever be one winner, however, and this year it was the turn of the Reds from Merseyside. As Lincoln and England Captain Casey Stoney commented in her BBC Sport column, ‘Liverpool’s victory over Bristol…signalled a real power shift in the women’s game and it’s set a new level that other teams will now have to match.’ Stoney points out that Liverpool’s success shows what investment in women’s football is capable of; since finishing bottom of the WSL for the second time in 2012, the Reds signed a whole new team of superstars, gained a new manager, Matt Beard, began training four-five times a week and benefitted from a ‘one-club mentality’, according to Liverpool MD Ian Ayre, which saw the ladies train with their men’s counterparts at the beginning of the season. For Stoney, the transition to a professional training programme was what gave Liverpool the edge over their rivals this year; she comments that ‘[o]ther teams, including former champions Arsenal, still train only two to three times a week but I believe Liverpool’s move to a full-time schedule has made a telling difference.’ It can only be hoped that the others teams in the WSL and WPL start to follow suit. Professionalism and a one-club philosophy are desperately needed to take the women’s game to the next level in this country, and ensure we have both exciting domestic competitions and real international prospects to look forward to.women4

Even the classifieds will have a woman’s touch from now on, as ex-Radio 4 newsreader Charlotte Green took over from James Gordon Alexander this weekend to occupy one of the most exalted positions in British sports broadcasting. Spurs fan Green, despite admitting to nerves beforehand, made a flawless debut on Radio 5 Live and the World Service on Saturday, garnering widespread praise for her efforts from the media. The Telegraph’s Jim White was effusive in his assessment of her, wondering why it’s taken ‘so long for broadcasting’s last glass ceiling to be broken… Green sounded as if she had been reading the results all her life. Which in a sense she had: she admits to practising for this moment since she was a six year old five decades ago.’ I have to say it’s nice to imagine little girls listening to Green read out the results and maybe even becoming inspired to get into sports broadcasting and journalism because of her. There seems to be a real interest in capitalising on the interest in the women’s game at the moment, no doubt a positive fall-out of the success of women’s football in the London Olympics. Events such as Raise Your Game, taking place at City’s Etihad Stadium in November, are especially exciting, and seemingly tailored to help make it easier for women to break into the footballing industry. With the likes of Karren Brady – now at her second club - and Margaret Byrne on the boards of West Ham and Sunderland respectively, it’s hard to imagine that just two decades ago, Rachel Yankey, who became the most capped England player ever this July had to disguise herself as a boy in order to play. Such surreal stories remind us how far the women’s game has come in England, but also, like the national side, how far it still must go in order to reach its true potential.