Liverpool Ladies, Bristol Academy and Notts County Ladies are all examples of teams that have been transformed during the WSL era into well-structured football clubs, full of both domestic and foreign talent, pushing for top spot in the table. Manchester City Women were the most talked about team during pre-season, making it very clear that they had the financial backing necessary to make marquee signings.
The success and progress of the WSL is reflected by the influx of international stars, this year and last. Arsenal’s acquisition of two Japanese World Cup winners Shinobu Ohno and Yukari Kinga caught the headlines in February this year; whilst they may not have had the immediate impact that ex-Arsenal boss Shelley Kerr would have hoped for, they have shown glimpses of their proven skill and experience. Other recent international arrivals include New Zealand international Betsy Hassett who signed for Manchester City, and Canadian international Desiree Scott who joined Notts County.
The second tier of the WSL has also had its share of success stories since its recent inception. In an interview with Arsenal.com, the then Arsenal manager Shelley Kerr noted that all teams were capable of beating one another, such was the competitiveness of the WSL. Those words returned to haunt her as her team was beaten this month by WSL 2 side Reading.
As far as recent success is concerned, Arsenal have not enjoyed even a glimmer in the league. With only one point after four games, they currently sit bottom of the WSL 1 table. To compound their disjointed start to the season, Shelly Kerr confirmed her intention to resign as the Gunners boss following their upcoming FA Cup final against Everton after growing increasingly frustrated by the restrictions set in place by the club’s hierarchy.
Whilst many have heaped deserved praise on the progress of the women’s football to date, it is important not to get carried away; there are key issues to be addressed. Attendance to this month’s Arsenal v Man City game – a clash between two of the leading names in the WSL – was a mere 829 people. Compare this to the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in America, a younger organisation than its English counterpart, albeit with a more established base, and attendance for a recent Seattle Reign game against Western New York Flash was 4,018. A telling contrast is exposed.
Attracting larger crowds is a prerequisite for the success and sustainability of any sporting league, and WSL organisers will realise that attendance numbers need to be boosted for the sake of the longevity and respectability of the English women’s game.
As the women’s game grows in England, observers and players have voiced concerns over what the influx of foreign players means for young English players coming through the ranks. There have of course been breakthroughs for a small handful of youngsters in the WSL this season, most notably for England U19s Natasha Flint and Leah Williamson of Manchester City and Arsenal respectively. However, gone are the days when large numbers of young English players were able to benefit from a lack of foreign players, and therefore regular first team experience in their teenage years. This was a tradition that saw the likes of Rachel Yankey and Eni Aluko become the stars of women’s football today.
The mood amongst young players in WSL clubs is one of scepticism, especially in teams such as Chelsea who made numerous off-season signings, meaning the process of progression into the first team is that much slower. Beneficiaries of this trend are WSL 2 clubs, such as Reading and London Bees, who have benefited immensely from signing young English players who became disillusioned with a lack of first team football, something five or ten years ago, (already a different era in women’s football) they may have had. Perhaps a required number of English players registered in the squad rather than a cap on foreign players would be suitable, as the quality and diversity that players such as Katrin Omarsdottir (Liverpool) and Yuki Ogimi (Chelsea) have already brought to the WSL is maintained.
The WSL has helped propel women’s football in England to new heights, however, lessons are to be learned from not only the successes of the NWSL, but also the failures of previous women’s leagues in America, which started brightly, yet failed to be self- sufficient, due to dwindling attendance and organisational foresight.
What changes would you make to WSL? Or do you think it is great as it is? Will Arsenal bounce back this weekend in the FA Cup final?