On the progress of women’s football in England

The sixth season of England’s Women’s Super League (WSL) starts tonight. With the season just starting I thought I’d write my views on the progress of the League and what might happen this season.

First of all the season should not be starting now. Since the WSL started in 2011 it has been a summer League. The FA in its wisdom or lack thereof do this to avoid clashing with men’s football especially the behemoth that is the Premier League. But as anybody reading this will probably know the Premier League is still going on – and will do until May 15th. The Premier League then resumes again in August. Plus in June/July there is Euro 2016 in France. So that is no justification for a summer season as men’s football goes on for most of the year. And it is out of touch with all the other countries in Europe. All the other countries have their women’s season running at the same time as the men’s (August to May in France and Germany for example and summer in Sweden and Norway). Frankly if I were running UEFA or FIFA I would insist the women’s season runs at the same time as the men’s in each country and any country that does not should be banned from the World Cup, the Champions League and the Euros. Why do we Brits insist on being different?

What makes the summer season even more ludicrous is that only the two divisions of the WSL play in the summer. All the rest of the women’s teams play in the winter. Also another ludicrous aspect of the calendar is the FA Cup Final which when the elite women played from August to May was the climax of the season is now in the middle of the season in August. Also women’s football has the Continental Cup – a League Cup equivalent and just as useless. Another example of FA incompetence is that the WSL season starts on the same night as the Champions League Quarter Finals. Genius!

This is not the only example of the FA running the WSL unfairly. When it started the eight teams were selected not decided by where they had finished in the Premier League (which was the elite competition pre WSL). The League also had no relegation for its first three years. Then in 2013 a shocking decision was made. A second teir WSL 2 was established and the existing eight teams in what became WSL 1 were forced to reapply to keep their status. One game into the 2013 season Doncaster Belles were told that they would be in WSL 2 for 2014 regardless of where they finished in WSL 1 in 2013. They would be replaced by Manchester City…who finished fourth in the Premier League. Good logic FA. It was in two cases a blatant case of favouring elite male Premier League clubs. First City should not have been promoted. Secondly Liverpool should have been relegated as they were bottom in 2013 and they can’t even find a grass pitch in Liverpool to play on. Surely the first rule of football is to have a decent pitch. The turf pitch in Widnes Liverpool (and Everton) play on is awful and it might be the reason Liverpool have lost so many players in the off season.

I should state it is not all doom and gloom. The WSL has made progress since 2011 but that is due to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City investing in their women’s teams rather than anything the FA has done. When the WSL started in 2011 Arsenal were as dominant in UK women’s football as Lyon are in France. The Gunners had won the Premier League seven years in a row and continued their domination in the first two seasons of the WSL.

But then things changed. Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea began investing in their women’s teams and reaped their rewards. Liverpool won the WSL in 2013 and 2014, Chelsea did the League and Cup double last year and Manchester City won the 2014 Continental Cup and qualified for the Champions League next season.

So what could happen this year? While I hate to compare women’s football to men’s football the women’s and men’s game have gone in inverse directions. The big story in the male game this season has of course been the remarkable Premier League title challenge of Leicester City. But the WSL has had its equivalents of Leicester in the past. In 2013 and 2014 Bristol Academy and Birmingham City had unlikely title challenges that in both cases only failed on the last day of the season. But now the WSL resembles what the Premier League was before this season. It is likely to be a race between Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal with Liverpool an outside bet. Apart from the sexist anomaly of Manchester United* the same as what we expected in the Premier League this season!

If I were to predict a winner it would be Manchester City. Post the World Cup break they were the best team in the WSL last year but a thrown away 2-0 lead at Notts County and their poor form pre World Cup cost them. They have an impressive spine of Karen Bardsley, England captain Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and the brilliant Toni Duggan who at one stage seemed to score a great goal every week. To this can be added newly signed Swedish star Kosovare Aslani. If they avoid injuries they have a great chance.

Not that Chelsea – unlike their men – will surrender their title easily. They have star players Emi Aluko, Fran Kirby and reigning PFA player of the year Ji So-yun. Like City they have strengthened their squad with the signing of Gemma Davison and the experienced Karen Carney.  They will go close again.

Although Arsenal are not the dominant force of old they are probably third favourites. They have experience – Kelly Smith, Emma Byrne, Casey Stoney and new signing Fara Williams as well as young talent like Young Player of the Year Leah Williamson, Jordan Nobbs and Danielle Carter. If anyone can challenge Chelsea and City it is this team especially if Nigeria star Asiant Oshoala has adapted to the WSL after an injury hit first season at Liverpool.

Talking of which… it is anybody’s guess what Liverpool will do this season. The two time Champions crashed to seventh out of eight last season and as a result changes have been made with a new manager in Scott Rogers and nine players leaving and nine players arriving. All these changes will probably mean a poor start as a 0-2 FA Cup defeat to Manchester City suggests. But I still suspect they will improve on last season.

If the WSL is to have a “Leicester” this year it could be Notts County. They got to both Cup Finals last year but lost to Chelsea (FA Cup) and Arsenal (Continental Cup). They have in my opinion the League’s best goalkeeper Carly Telford, the unlucky Laura Bassett and strikers Ellen White and Jess Clarke. And getting experienced Rachael Yankey on loan could be a coup. The “Lady Pies” should not finish lower than fourth and could break into the top three.

Sunderland were the first club promoted to WSL on merit and led by prodigy Beth Mead never looked like being relegated and at one stage topped the table. They will hope Mead like Harry Kane is no one season wonder. If she is not (and I don’t think she will be) they will be safe. This season there are two promoted clubs. After the injustice of 2014 Doncaster Belles are back in WSL 1.  With the experienced of Sue Smith and Natasha Dowie they should be good enough to survive especially if WSL 2 top scorer Courtney Sweetman-Kirk can adapt to WSL 1 as well as Mead did. The second promoted side Reading could find it harder with a young team lacking in stars after they lost Fran Kirby to Chelsea after last year’s World Cup. Their target will be eighth place avoiding the one relegation place.

Which they could do. Birmingham City – who nearly won the League in 2014 – could be in serious trouble this time. They scored just seven League goals last season and three of those were penalties. And they have lost their best player Karen Carney to Chelsea. All the other teams seem to have more goal scoring threat and it is a good bet that the city of Birmingham will lose its WSL 1 team as well as it’s Premier League team (Aston Villa who are certainties to go down).

One thing is certain. The WSL will be competitive again this year. The last three seasons have seen the title decided only on the last day and there is no reason to expect anything different. If I had to predict I’d say Manchester City but my hope is that the League continues to grow. If it does it will be despite the FA not because of them.

*Who STILL don’t have a women’s team.

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