Ahead of the new WSL season, Florence Lloyd-Hughes looks at the new teams and changes to the domestic women’s game.
Forget everything you know about domestic women’s football. The 2018-19 season signifies the start of a brand new era for the women’s game in England.
After several years of semi-successful football, the Football Association has made the bold decision to create a top-tier of women’s football that is strictly “full-time”.
Teams operating in the WSL, formerly WSL One, have to meet a series of criteria, including a squad of full-time professional players.
The second-tier Championship, previously known as WSL Two, will consist of a semi-professional, part-time environment. The change has resulted in several teams being demoted or promoted based on financial capabilities and club structure.
Sunderland, who were competing in WSL One last year, now find themselves in the third-tier, the new National League. By contrast, West Ham United were moved from third-tier straight to the top. The club also signed ex-Chelsea player Claire Rafferty, signalling an intent to be a long-running WSL side.
The Hammers are relative newcomers to the higher echelons of the women’s game as are football giants Manchester United. United only announced they were launching a women’s football team earlier this year, but the club have already secured a place in the second-tier Championship and appointed former England superstar Casey Stoney as manager.
This week, Stoney’s pre-season preparations were overshadowed by a 9-0 defeat to Salford men’s youth team. It’s probably not a definitive sign of the sort season that lies ahead, but its definitely a reason to worry. A free pass to the near-top of women’s football could have come too early for a squad that has only just got together.
Despite a few grievances from the clubs that didn’t make the FA’s cut, women’s football in England finally finds itself with a firm structure and recognisable names from the men’s game.
The latest iteration of the women’s system should provide some much needed sustainability, as only the clubs that can afford to will sign up fully-professional players. Moreover, as huge clubs like United climb the pyramid, the WSL can strive to become a commercially successful sporting product.
Until now, clubs like Notts County have subsidised their women’s team as part of budgets that can barely pay for a men’s squad. Women’s football shouldn’t be considered an afterthought, but for most clubs it is. As the transfer system becomes crazier, only so many teams can maintain a team in both sides of the game.
The one risk the WSL must avoid is becoming a carbon copy of the Premier League. Chelsea, Manchester City, United and Arsenal could all drift further and further away from the rest of women’s football as they have the capability to invest far beyond some of their rivals.
In order to prevent a “big six” in women’s football, the media, public and sponsors must get behind the WSL so it can thrive on its own terms.
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