Gillingham Ladies of the Women’s Premier League are ‘Changing The Game’

By Charlotte Richardson. Back in 2013 the FA introduced ‘Game Changer’ – a five year strategy outlining how football’s national governing body would utilise both the momentum and exposure created by Team England in the Olympics to deliver a “game for everyone”.

Whilst initially greeted with a tidal wave of support from across the game, after a subdued period, a campaign – ‘Save Our WPL’ – appeared to question exactly what the FA was changing about the game they cherished.

With emphasis on elite performance and galvanising a “fledgling” FA Women’s Super League (WSL), the tier of women’s football supporting the WSL, the Women’s Premier League (WPL) seemed isolated from the rapid and exciting development at the elite level. The FA was pressed to communicate plans more widely; the WPL was arguably starting to raise its own game.

The WPL is far behind the WSL in terms of funding, support and facilities, with teams such as West Ham United Ladies having to buy their own players' kit

The WPL is far behind the WSL in terms of funding, support and facilities, with teams such as West Ham United Ladies having to buy their own players’ kit

Over the last two years, as a part of the WPL Gillingham Ladies set up, I’ve experienced first-hand the challenges WPL clubs face. With little funding and support, there’s a real struggle to engage, publicise and develop at anything like the dramatic rate of WSL powerhouses such as Manchester City WFC, Liverpool Ladies and Chelsea Ladies FC.

The inception of the Women's Super league left many women's footballers and fans disillusioned after feeling neglected by the FA

The inception of the Women’s Super league left many women’s footballers and fans disillusioned after feeling neglected by the FA

Consequently, WPL teams have to utilise minimal resources to maximum effect. Social media has helped as it was  the ‘Save Our WPL’ campaign that resulted in an FA response, making intentions and commitment, always there, much clearer. Never has there been quite so much excitement, anticipation and build up to a WPL league season as there was this August.

Clearly, the FA’s plans need to link the fixture timetables between the two leagues, as in the men’s game, and welcome WPL fixtures to the summer schedule alongside the WSL. This will enable clubs to boost attendances with all-year football – men in winter, women in summer.

At Gillingham Ladies, I’ve been a part of an amazing team with volunteers including UEFA B coaches, qualified sports therapists, committed parents, and a loyal band of supporters not to mention the players themselves (who until this season had to pay to play), all giving significant free time to change the game and they’ve done an outstanding job

For WSL teams paying-to-play is very much a thing of the past, but for WPL Gillingham it was a reality even as recently as last season

For WSL teams, paying-to-play is very much a thing of the past, but for WPL Gillingham it was a reality even as recently as last season

Over the summer this has really paid off, as the hard work to professionalise, re-structure and engage widely was rewarded with the new partnership with Gillingham FC. It’s not the be all and end all to link with the men’s outfit and clubs both in the WSL and across the game have durable and innovative football clubs without this. But for Gills Ladies we’re writing a new chapter of our history and it’s exciting. This Sunday, we host our first WPL home game of the season at MEMS Priestfield Stadium and we are inviting fans to come along and watch for free.

Very few clubs in the WSL, let alone the WPL, have the opportunity to play in a Football League stadium, nor do they have the commitment and leadership from a Chairman allowing their home ground to be visited for free.

Such support from Gillingham FC acknowledges the potential and recognises its role to help change the game. There’s plenty of work ahead but with more historic moments such as those for Gillingham Ladies this Sunday and the national side who play at Wembley  in November, then, as we gear up for next year’s Women’s World Cup, we really could be on the brink of delivering a ‘game for everyone’.

Should clubs be more committed to their female counterparts? Is it better for women’s teams to play at smaller venues for a better atmosphere?

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