Increasing professionalisation of the women’s game has brought FA mishaps hand-in-hand with ever-improving results and attendance. As 2020 creeps ever closer, Jessy Parker-Humphreys considers how the 2010s changed the women’s game.
In the past ten years, English women’s football has taken steps that many would have thought impossible to imagine. The establishment of a professional league has come with matches being held at the biggest stadiums in the country alongside national success that the men’s team could only dream of.
The Women’s Super League was established at the start of the decade to replace the Women’s Premier League, but it started with less of a bang and more of a whimper; the economic downturn meant its introduction was delayed until 2011. This was more of the same from the FA — the women’s game always being the first place suits look when they need to cut costs.
The first league in 2011 doesn’t look dissimilar from the league table at the end of 2019. Arsenal finished top and Liverpool bottom, with Kim Little and Ellen White being among the top scorers for the season. Yet the stand-out element from that original league are the names no longer situated at the top of women’s football — in particular, Doncaster Rovers Belles and Lincoln Ladies.
Both teams are the main casualties of the professionalisation of women’s league football that has taken place over the past decade. Doncaster Belles have a history in the women’s game stretching back to 1969, but in 2013 they were demoted to what was then the FA WSL2 by the FA in favour of Manchester City Women. It was a decision many objected to at the time, seeing it as evidence that the FA were more interested in encouraging women’s teams associated with “big name” men’s clubs than actually growing the game in and of itself.
A similar set of problems befell Lincoln Ladies, who started off the decade with stand-out signings like Casey Stoney and Sue Smith, and were the first British women’s team to play a full season at a Football League stadium. Despite swathes of local support, the club were bizarrely relocated to Nottingham to link up with the Notts County men’s team, at a time where the FA demanded that women’s teams in the FA WSL had links to a men’s side. Ostensibly this was a requirement that was supposed to guarantee financial stability and to push on the standards of the women’s game — but it also stifled any opportunity for standalone women’s teams which had grown organically to take part. In 2017, Notts County Ladies withdrew from the Women’s Super League two days before its Spring Series was due to start, leaving players out of contract and in the lurch.
The FA continued to push past the numerous issues that plagued the Women’s Super League, including large gaps between the top and bottom teams, and a season that ran along the calendar year (rather than alongside the men’s season). In 2015, the Women’s FA Cup Final was held at Wembley for the first time, with Chelsea beating Notts County in a game attended by 30,000 people. The Women’s Super League was expanded over the decade and the league below went through a number of different reinventions, currently being settled on as the Women’s Championship.
Yet it was arguably the national team that caught the most public attention across the decade, starting with the GB team at the 2012 Olympics in London. The squad was overwhelmingly dominated by English players as a result of widespread friction amongst the other home nations. Despite being knocked out by Canada in the quarter-finals, the victory against Brazil in front of 70,000 people at Wembley was a high point, and was probably the first time many people had heard of goal-scorer Steph Houghton.
Mark Sampson replaced Hope Powell as England manager in 2013, and oversaw the most successful period the team had experienced, with a third place finish at the 2015 World Cup in Canada and a semi-final finish at the 2017 Euros where Jodie Taylor won the Golden Boot. Yet accusations of racism and inappropriate behaviour led to Sampson being sacked. Phil Neville took over the team, despite concerns that he had no real management experience or knowledge of women’s football, compounded by his decision to follow much of the squad on Twitter just before his appointment was announced.
It is a testament to the development of England that the fourth-place finish at the 2019 World Cup was seen by some as disappointing, despite England putting up an impressive fight against eventual winners USA. Neville has rubbed many people the wrong way with his confidence that can often be perceived as arrogance, and the 2020 Olympics in Japan will offer him a new challenge as he looks to integrate other home nation players more successfully eight years after GB’s last Olympic appearance.
The ten year period between the 2012 Olympics and England hosting the 2021 Euros will probably offer a better opportunity for reflection at the changes that have taken place, yet there has undeniably been an increase in interest as English stars have become household names for the first time. The challenge will be to sustain and grow this interest. The risk the women’s game faces is to avoid losing its soul to commercial demands: a fate that men’s football has arguably succumbed to.
Follow Jessy on Twitter at @jessyjph