Circling the Wagons
Before proceeding to the thorniest of topics – comparison of Women’s and Men’s football – I want to take a moment to consider the tendency to ‘circle the wagons’. This is not by any means restricted to Women’s Football! I have been and still am associated with many causes and struggles which are constantly attacked and belittled (the ones of which I have the most personal experience, although many moons ago, are Trade Union struggles). In the case of Women’s Football, generally and historically (see Note 4), there have been and are many attacks by sexists, chauvinists and neanderthals. The formation of the WSL and subsequent greater visibility amplified these attacks.
In these circumstances, the natural tendency, apart from rebutting the attacks, is to refrain from any criticism of the game (or cause) – this is what I call ‘circling the wagons’. So even if some particular aspect of Women’s Football seemed dissatisfying, people tended to refrain from comment for fear of giving ammunition to the enemies of the game. There was, and continues to be to an extent, a strong defensive mindset.
This is utterly natural and I certainly shared the attitude at first. However, I have become increasingly convinced that it is actually a weakness. Of course one needs to combat dumb-ass comments (and even more so the vile personal attacks – both sexist and racist (see Note 5) which appear on social media). But to never criticise anything within the Women’s game betrays a lack of maturity and paradoxically indicates an inequality with the Men’s game, where criticism (however idiotic a lot of it is) is commonplace.
Women and Men
To be absolutely clear – my comments here have nothing at all to do with the game on the pitch. The sports are different just as say Women’s and Men’s tennis are. I just prefer Women’s football to Men’s as a spectator and fan.
No, it is the organisation, strategy and rhetoric which I wish to compare. As I have outlined in Part 2, when the WSL was launched it was difference, centred on a family/fan-oriented experience, which was emphasised. In these circumstances, any comparison with the men’s game was absurd because it was not of like with like – low-alcohol beer and tequila. And anyone who attended both a WSL and a Premier League game could very easily testify to this.
This was reflected organisationally. Of the 11 teams who formed the WSL at the start (2011) only 1 – Arsenal – had any sort of close ties to the Men’s Club (see Note 6); all the other sides were at most semi-detached. The 2014 strategy – which was predicated on getting big Men’s Clubs involved – required a complete change. Indeed at some point (2018?), it was made a requirement that WSL clubs should be a part of the men’s club (see Note 7).
The results of this change in terms of inequality have been outlined previously. Here the point is the WSL and the Premier League can now be very directly compared (see Note 8). Of course, the Women’s game is still massively underfunded overall and the amount that Manchester City or Chelsea spend on their Women’s sides is a drop in the ocean of their monstrous and unlimited resources. But the WSL does now reflect the Premier League in organisational and financial terms with all that follows from that. Which was what the FA wanted.
Definitely Not the WSL – Tiers 3-4
As my conclusions will be sombre (spoiler alert!) it is worth taking a moment to stress that the original WSL spirit is easily available to anyone who wants to experience it in levels 3/4 (and arguably Tier 2) of the Women’s Game. Fan and family-friendly, small and intimate grounds (see Note 8), players enjoying themselves, comparatively equal and therefore competitive leagues. Even better I do not think (see below) the FA is going to be able to wreck this! So just go to some games and support these terrific clubs.
It does not require much of a crystal ball to see the immediate future of the WSL. Over the next couple of seasons the 12 clubs (and the FA can expand if necessary) will become entirely composed of the Women’s adjuncts of Premier League clubs (with maybe 1 or 2 richer Championship Clubs). Next season Leicester will gain promotion to the WSL. The ‘best league in the world’ will be even closer to the FA’s vision.
Interestingly it does not look at this point as if this is going to extend beyond the WSL. The Women’s Championship (Tier 2) has a numberof teams who are related to non-league clubs or to no men’s club at all. Perhaps this will change but my feeling is that if Premier League Clubs look at the top of the WSL (Chelsea, Manchester City and United, Arsenal) they may feel it is not worth trying to compete.
So the Women’s game will mirror the Men’s game in organisational and strategic terms; there will be a top level (WSL/Premiership) and then everything below. The rhetoric will be that of ‘the best league in the world’. The total transformation of the original 2011 WSL will be complete.
The only threat to this model is that of a general collapse of football finance in which case it would be interesting to see what value the big clubs really attached to their women’s sides; this however is highly improbable.
What I hope I have at least partially demonstrated is how the power of money has acted and acts as a transformational agent in a particular woman’s sport. I do not disagree that this has had a beneficial effect for a few hundred players at the top of the game, nor that the quality on the pitch has improved for the top sides. But from a fan’s perspective, or at least this fan’s, the values and practices which made the WSL so attractive in it’s original incarnation no longer exist.