Many people talk about life-changing amounts of money that are awarded for some of football’s biggest games. While the ‘£60m game’ is the Championship play-off final, UEFA distribute ridiculous amounts of cash to clubs who already have several multi-millionaires on their wage bills.
The only genuine life-changing game this weekend is at the Select Security Stadium in Widnes on Saturday evening. Very few people will even know it’s happening. It’s not on TV or radio, and less than a thousand people will likely be watching live inside the stadium – but it very much could be the most important game of some players’ lives so far.
It is of course Everton Ladies vs Bristol City Women and a win for the visitors will confirm promotion back to FA WSL 1 from FA WSL 2, whilst the permutations are a little bit more complex should Bristol fail to win. They currently sit 2 points ahead of Everton in second place with just one more game remaining next week once their grudge match is out of the way.
Some players in the Championship play-off will earn more from playing in that game than any of the 22 players on the pitch on Saturday night will make in a lifetime. Whilst Bristol have been training full-time since their rebrand from Bristol Academy last winter, they very much pay part-time wages, with the highest earner bringing in around £105-per-week plus accommodation.
This is a side who, just a few years ago, were beating Barcelona in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, had previously been under the guidance of England boss Mark Sampson and had names such as Jemma Rose, Natasha Harding and Natalia Pablos in their starting eleven.
Despite his best efforts, manager Willie Kirk couldn’t save Bristol from relegation last year but quickly went about rebuilding his side for a promotion push. He signed proven FA WSL 2 players whilst adding three quality loan signings from Chelsea – one of them, Rosella Ayane, will line-up against Bristol tomorrow after swapping Bristol for Merseyside in the summer.
For four players, Saturday is the opportunity of a lifetime to play in the top tier of women’s football – some for the first time – and potentially become full-time footballers. Attacker Claire Emslie knows Kirk better than most. She played under him at Hibernian in Scotland when she was 15-years-old before moving to Florida to study at college. After graduating, she moved to Bristol in the summer on a £40-per-week contract and currently works part-time at a local 5-a-side centre to bring in extra money.
Promotion into WSL1 would be the biggest achievement in my football career” says Emslie.
“Fighting for promotion with Bristol City has been a great challenge – the reason I moved to Bristol from Florida in June. I’ve loved training with the motivation of playing top flight football next year.
“The chance to play with giant clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool is something that any aspiring footballer dreams of. It would be an incredible reward for all the hard work that the players and staff put into our team.”
Georgia Evans, meanwhile, is Bristol through and through. After joining the Centre of Excellence at 14, Evans was earning nothing when she first broke into the team but has steadily improved her wage to £50-per-week and now £75-per-week.
Evans has also just started a degree at university and would love to team that up with promotion to FA WSL 1.
“Being part of Bristol City Women’s since the age of 14, I have seen the club go through ups and downs,” recalls Evans.
“Being relegated last season was horrible for the club and obviously we are hoping for promotion this year. I have seen the club grow and for us to go into FA WSL 1 would be what the club and everyone involved deserves.
“I have played in FA WSL 1 for Bristol in past seasons and to know you’re playing with the top players in England and some to players in the world, it couldn’t get any better really. Career-wise it would mean playing with and against top players which would hopefully improve my game as well. With me training full-time at the moment anyway, nothing will change in terms of that but everybody wants to be playing at their best and at the highest league they can.”
Youngsters Olivia Fergusson and Caitlin Leach both know each other well; the pair were both at Aston Villa Ladies in 2015 and joined Bristol last winter after their relegation. Both were so keen to train every day they joined Bristol on £0 contracts before the club managed to put them both on £40-per-week over the summer.
Like Evans, Fergusson has just begun a Masters at UWE in Bristol, saving up inheritance money to be able to do so.
“Having played for Aston Villa Ladies prior to moving to Bristol City this season, I have never experienced this exciting promotion push until now,” says Fergusson.
“My move to Bristol was a massive step up for me – signing my first contract and training full-time at these brilliant facilities. Getting promoted into FA WSL 1 would be the next progression for my career. Promotion would be my career highlight and a great achievement for the team and staff who have worked so hard.
“It would mean playing at the highest level which would be an amazing experience and opportunity for me to develop as a player. There would potentially also be an improved contract, which is a bonus! I am currently studying for a part-time Psychology Masters alongside training, which will continue if promoted with a long term career in mind.”
On the flip side, Leach will be working as a one-to-one carer over the winter to build up money ahead of next year.
“Playing in FA WSL 1 would give me the opportunity to test myself against some of the best players in the country. Even though the standard of football has been very high this season in FA WSL 2, the two leagues are of very different standards.
“I want to be involved with England and it gives me chance to show people what I’m capable of.
Since signing for Bristol, after being part-time at other clubs you notice the difference in full-time training and being able to remain full-time would further develop my skills and knowledge of the game. This season has been a great experience and hopefully we can finish it off with promotion!”
For Emslie, Evans, Fergusson, Leach and the rest of the Bristol playing and coaching staff, Saturday really could be the day their careers and their lives change for the better. FA WSL 2 promoted sides from 2015 (Doncaster Belles and Reading) put over 20 players on full-time contracts between them last winter due to the extra benefits that come with FA WSL 1 football.
Whilst Everton will be out to ensure it is them who move into the top division next year, Kirk and his side know it can all be over come 8pm on Saturday night.