English women’s football comes of age

“One club” ethos with men’s EPL teams helps women’s game as it tries to catch up with the likes of Germany and the U.S.

Arsenal dominated the women's game in England for 10 years until last season [Getty Images]

Mention the transfer window to a European football fan, and their mind jumps to January and the last opportunity for their club to buy players that could determine Champions League spots, relegation or more likely mid-league mediocrity.

The January transfer window blows open with such ferocity that it scarcely matters if any big signings are made. Even if high-profile moves are lacking, the rumour mill grinds its teeth to chalky stumps while fans’ excitement accelerates to fever pitch until the window slams shut in everyone’s faces.

However, over the last month, a more understated transfer market has been quietly ticking along quite nicely. Better than ever before, in fact. This transfer market has also seen the movement of players from Arsenal to Manchester City, Birmingham to Chelsea, England to North America – but without such fanfare.

And while none of these players call the Premier League home, they owe their growing demand to the success of the men’s game.   

It has been a long time coming but the UK’s big clubs are finally awakening to the potential of women’s football. And the flurry of transfer activity in the Women’s Super League is clear evidence of that. While 2013 was a landmark season for the WSL, 2014 promises to be even more significant.

The 2014 season sees the arrival of Manchester City – and a second tier of ten teams entering the fray. With the possibility of promotion and relegation, the WSL is starting to resemble a league with greater sponsorship and marketing opportunities.  

The arrival of the UK’s richest club is certainly a good sign. But before we talk about City, we should spare a few words for Liverpool.

All change

The 2013 season was a landmark season because it was the first time in a decade that Arsenal did not win the league. It was also the first time anyone other than Arsenal held the WSL trophy, since its inauguration in 2011.

The was not due to a slump in quality from the Arsenal players but rather the growing importance of signing talent, either from home or overseas.  

“It hurt,” Arsenal and England defender Alex Scott told Al Jazeera when the Gunners’ historic failure came into the conversation.

“It was a really competitive season. Liverpool Ladies pretty much got rid of their whole team and bought a new one, and then went on to win the league.”

Buying a new team seems a lazy way of achieving success – but in the competitive world of football, transfers are vital. And not just in the men’s game.

After releasing 10 players, Liverpool manager Matt Beard signed foreign acquisitions from the United States, New Zealand, Iceland, Sweden and Germany. This was a watershed moment for the women’s game, as overseas players rarely moved to England. A nation obsessed with the men’s version had always lagged behind countries like the United States, who were at the forefront of development.  

“The league is getting more competitive. It’s great for women’s football that it is going this way and that we are getting backing and financial support from the men’s team,” says Scott at England’s national training headquarters, St. George’s Park.

“I never get bored of winning with Arsenal but at the same time it’s good for women’s football overall.”

There is a market for women's football in this country and the men's teams are seeing the benefits of working with the ladies team and integrating the two markets alongside each other

by Alex Scott,

But Scott’s Arsenal have more to worry about than Liverpool next season.

Manchester City have blasted into the WSL with all guns blazing and are spending cash in a similar vein to the way Roberto Mancini did with the men’s team (albeit with a few zeros included in the weekly wage).

Last week saw City add Arsenal’s top talent Stephanie Houghton to a haul that includes three other England internationals – Jill Scott, Karen Bardsley and Toni Duggan.

Defender Houghton, who scores more than most strikers, is a massive loss for the Gunners who have also sold Kim Little to Seattle Reign in the U.S.

“I’m so glad that City came in for me because as soon as I heard their plans for the future, I knew I wanted to be part of it,” the former Sunderland and Leeds player told City’s website.

City used to compete in the Women’s Premier League, the division below the WSL, but were approved by the FA to join the top tier of the WSL – with Doncaster Belles getting relegated.

After formalising their partnership with Manchester City Football Club, the Sky Blues now have the bonus of financial backing and support from the men’s team. This decision is part of an ongoing campaign to expand and strengthen City’s national and global brand – which has seen them purchase a major league soccer franchise in New York and unveil plans for a $160m training facility across the road from their Etihad Stadium.

Instead of Arsenal running away with the title, there are now four teams (Bristol also finished above the Gunners in 2013) who consider themselves up for the cup. The competitive edge once missing is now there. 
The English FA has been busy paving the way for this process. Chairman Greg Dyke intends to grow women’s football into the second-largest participation sport in England, and last year general secretary Alex Horne pledged just under $6 million to develop the game over the next four years.
Alex Scott is one of many footballers feeling the difference.  

“There is a market for women’s football in this country and the men’s teams are seeing the benefits of working with the ladies team and integrating the two markets alongside each other,” she says.

“Clubs are becoming one. There is ‘One Arsenal’ and that can be a powerful club ethos and marketing tool.

“The thing that makes me happy is when I’m at games and I have young boys asking for autographs. That’s the most important thing. They are the next generation and they don’t think anything of going up to a woman footballer. They don’t believe that only men should be playing football. They are used to seeing women as role models on TV and in the public eye and it is a normal thing for them.”

If women playing football has become “normal”, then there is nothing unusual about this recent transfer activity.

WSL signings are yet to cause waves among mainstream football fans. But the fact they are happening is a sign of intent for a women’s game that has been waiting in the wings for a long time.

Follow Joanna Tilley on Twitter: @JoannaTilley, or on her sports blog: http://mythoughtonsport.blogspot.co.uk

Source: Al Jazeera