They won’t like to admit it, but Phil Neville’s England players looked tired during the international break, particularly in their 0-0 draw with Wales. While both the players and their manager have insisted that an intense run of fixtures is part and parcel of competing at the highest level, the number of injuries and withdrawals from the squad once again raises the question about whether the FA could do more to protect its players.
The stuttering WSL1 season has seen gaps followed by congested spells of matches putting the heaviest strain on the teams and players competing for silverware on multiple fronts. It’s an issue that Emma Hayes raised following Chelsea’s 2-2 draw with Reading in March, as both her team and Nick Cushing’s Manchester City have been forced to juggle league, cup and Champions League commitment within short spaces of time.
In the last month alone, Chelsea and Manchester City have played 11 matches between them across all competitions. That, added to England’s two qualifiers and some of the Lionesses squad could have played in up to eight games in the space of four weeks.
It’s not all that surprising then that a number of the England squad pulled out due to fatigue or injury before and during the latest international break. Millie Bright, Fran Kirby, Demi Stokes and Jill Scott all needed time off for recovery – a quartet of players that, of course, play for either Chelsea or Manchester City.
While on paper it seems as if both teams are powering on without much trouble, as they maintain the top spots in the league and have reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, in the long run it will surely be hard to sustain.
It’s not just the top teams that have been affected, however. Reading’s away visit to Yeovil Town was twice rearranged because of the weather and postponed fixtures have been the story of the Lady Glover’s season. Having started the term at Huish Park, Yeovil will now play their remaining league matches at either Taunton Town or Weston-Super-Mare FC after repeatedly struggling with waterlogged pitches and also having to move a match to allow the men’s side to host Manchester United in the men’s FA Cup.
Sharing pitches is a big disadvantage of the winter league as, more often than not, WSL teams play on surfaces that take a serious hammering during the inclement months.
This season it’s probably fair to say that football as a whole has struggled with a longer winter than usual with the ‘Beast from the East’ causing no end of trouble.
Even so, it should be a concern that so many top-level women’s matches have been rearranged – never mind the thousands of other grassroots and youth games that have been postponed over the winter.
So, what can the FA do to help WSL teams? Admittedly, there’s no quick fix when it comes to pitch sharing as it’s hardly realistic to expect every team to be able to build a stadium or find a ground exclusively for their use.
All-weather pitches like Liverpool and Everton’s home in Widnes’ Select Security stadium certainly provides an alternative, but 3G surfaces bring their own controversies and concerns over injuries and impact on playing style.
Another idea is kicking league fixtures off earlier in the year, which would allow for postponements and possibly prevent clumps of outstanding matches when it comes to the end of the season.
Whatever the solution, match scheduling is something that the FA has not quite perfected in recent years in the WSL. However it should be a priority once planning for next season begins, because if there’s one thing Phil Neville won’t want heading into a World Cup in France next year, it’s some of his best players suffering from injury and fatigue.
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