Appreciation, admiration, progress, and respect are the names of the game today when it comes to women’s football, and they were all on display at Cobham training ground for a special session between Chelsea Ladies and Kingston University Ladies Football Club.
From over 70 entries, Kingston Ladies were the lucky winners of club sponsor Gazprom’s competition for an amateur women’s team to win the chance to train with the newly professional club, in celebration of International Women’s Day.
On a day built around acknowledging the women of the world, it’s fitting to see a founding member of the FA Women’s Super League (FAWSL) working to empower what is hopefully the next generation of professionals. The Offside Rule spoke with Chelsea Ladies midfielders Jackie Groenen and Gemma Davison to discuss the development of women’s football in England.
“For me, the most important thing is that I see a lot of progression,” muses 20-year-old Groenen, a Dutch footballer born in Belgium who joined Chelsea from Duisburg in the women’s Bundesliga last year. “We’re all full-time professionals this year, which is a major step for us.” And she’s right – female players being able to concentrate solely on the game signifies a huge advance for the industry.
Davison, a 27-year-old English international, is quick to echo this sentiment, with a bright and generous nod to the future. “There’s more [money] going into it every year, so you’re thinking, ‘it might not be our time, but it might be the kids’ time’. It has to start somewhere.”
Now that football is finally a profession for women in England, Groenen believes Chelsea play a big role in growing the women’s game as she reflects on her own career path. She said: “I came from Germany myself and Germany has one of the biggest leagues. The amount of attention they pay to it is very high in England. It’s very professional. And [Chelsea] is giving us so much attention and helping us out to [be] more and more professional.”
A brief chat with Kingston Ladies vice-captain Keri Ventre, wholly confirmed the unanimous sentiments of the professionals. “It’s definitely growing. Every year, the sport’s getting bigger – there’s more recognition and it’s on the TV more now. There are a lot more opportunities now than there were 10 years ago.”
A decent indicator of women’s acceptance in the sport is seen at the grassroots level today. Davison, who spends time coaching youngsters, says these days it’s quite normal for girls and boys to train together – a contrast to her childhood when she was the only girl amongst boys and continuously had to prove herself. But she knows when she’s coaching a boys’ team, the preconception still sometimes exists.
“Straight away, to stop them thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a girl,’ I just have to do a trick, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you can play!’” Davison says, happy to continue breaking down any leftover stereotypes about female footballers.
The Offside Rule also spoke with Chelsea Ladies boss Emma Hayes, who knows that, at the end of the day, it’s about “ticket sales and putting bums on seats” – in other words, increasing their audience – something we hope will happen as the women’s leagues gain more media attention, including increased television coverage.
“It’s very simple,” says Davison, driving home the point. “The more it’s televised, the more interest it’s going to get.”
“They need to get out there,” Groenen declares in a plea to get fans to the matches. Both Groenen and Davison claim the almost universal reaction from fans who attend for the first time seems to be, “‘Whoa, I didn’t actually expect this!’”
And it’s only going to get better, Davison thinks, examining women’s sport on a whole. “Look at the women’s Olympics,” she comments. “They nearly filled whole stadiums – so it’s possible.”
Hayes, a veteran of the game, lauded the current state of women’s football. “I think it’s better than ever – but of course, it can get better.”
“We have to do more outreach, but we couldn’t do that before because players had other jobs. Now, we can do more, to get more days like today. We gained some fans today. To be honest with you, that’s how it goes – it’s little by little.”
Hayes believes and accepts that women’s football is unlikely to ever touch the men’s game in terms of popularity, but she sensibly maintains that they should aim to sustain themselves with 2,500 paying fans, week-in, week-out. She added: “I’ve been in the women’s game long enough to know that that is what success is.”
Though it might not reach the same dizzying heights of the men’s Premier League and its counterparts around the world, the question is, should it really even strive to? Hayes offered the perfect response.
“At times, we compare [women’s football] to something that’s tricky to achieve. It’s institutionalised, the love for the men’s game; it’s part of our national culture, our heritage,” explained Hayes. “Appreciate [women’s football] in its own right. It’s a great product.”
Simple yet elegant advice. While the swirling comparisons to men’s football are irresistible and unavoidable at times, Hayes’ call to stay grounded when viewing the evolution of the women’s game is a wonderfully sound reminder to us all. Celebrate women’s football for what it is – and enjoy every minute of its growth and development.
The new season of the FAWSL 1 kicks off Wednesday, 25 March 2015, between Liverpool Ladies and Sunderland Ladies. Chelsea Ladies play their first match of the season away to Notts County Ladies on Sunday, 29 March.
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Follow Meghan D’Amore @thefootylady