From over a decade ago, the only mention of women’s football I would hear would be the FA Cup final, played somewhere like Nottingham Forest’s City Ground and Arsenal would win the cup. This was the only domestic football that got any kind of media attention and Kelly Smith one of few players whose name you would recognise.
Women’s football suffered from a lack of depth of quality teams at this point. Interest certainly wasn’t going to grow when there was mostly only one team in it, Arsenal, winning the Premier League trophy seven consecutive years from 2004-2010 and won the newly-made Women’s Super League to replace the Premier League winning the first two of those as well.
The fact that it took them seven years to win it again this year is a sign that there is competition in the women’s game like never before. Chelsea and Manchester City are usually the main challengers for domestic cups along with Arsenal now while Lyon have emerged as the dominant power across the whole of Europe.
With previous international tournaments, England have had no expectations on them and with a lack of excitement around the possibility of winning during these times, a lot of people never paid attention to it.
It is ironic that women’s football in the USA is popular given that the men’s version in USA, while growing a fan base and new clubs being created, has always been pushed to the side for more American sports. They were the trendsetters for big crowds, crowds which have begun to expand year on year in the English Women’s game. The last few Women’s FA Cup finals have been held at Wembley to big crowds and general attendance among the domestic game is on the rise.
The first real push towards mainstream media attention on the England team was the 2015 World Cup. Led by Mark Sampson, after a disappointing end to a positive reign for Hope Powell, England reached the semi-finals, losing to an unlucky last minute own-goal but securing the bronze medal position.
That success helped to build momentum for the women’s game in England and led to increased
expectations at Euro 2017. The fact that England, it could be argued, underperformed in that tournament (at least in the match they were eliminated in) and were scrutinised much like the men’s team have been shows a growing connection with fans for the women’s team as well as the men’s.
At the Euros in particular, a lot of the England Women had a profile, people knew who they were and what to expect. Most of the names would be recognisable to even a casual follower of women’s football. You know of people like Steph Houghton, England’s captain, Lucy Bronze, regarded as one of the best players in the world and Fran Kirby referred to as the ‘mini-Messi.’ The fact you can point to these players and understand how key they are to the team much like you would with Harry Kane and you watch them and are disappointed when they play a good game shows how far the game has come.
Top names in women’s football are becoming recognisable and that is reflected in new sponsorship deals where they are used to represent a product because of their fame. There is more money going around to improve training facilities and the number of backroom staff at clubs.
Equal pay for equal work works in the real world but football and sport in general is more like an entertainment industry. The women’s game isn’t as popular as the men’s game so it isn’t easy to suggest that the England men and women should be paid the same for matches and as for the clubs, it is about the money they have available to them up top rather than how many people come through the gates. The fact that footballers at top clubs can make it their full-time profession was something that seemed like a pipe dream just a decade ago.
The only worry for the growth of the women’s game is the amount of teams, top teams, managed by men. When questions arise of will a woman work as a manager in the men’s game, I would always point to the fact that not enough of them work in the women’s game as it is.
Of course, if you have the right person for the job, it doesn’t matter. Mark Sampson, despite the controversy surrounding him, had more success with England than Hope Powell did with a World Cup semi-final and entering the Euros with strong expectation. Eyebrows were raised when Phil Neville, who hadn’t managed anywhere, was given the England job so it will be up to him to show that the appointment is the right one, that he is right to be there instead of a woman. It got off to a good start as England won the SheBelieves cup for the first time.
There will still be the trolls who think that women’s football isn’t ‘real football,’ these are usually the same people who say nothing when male players roll around on the floor in agony over nothing. The women’s game appears to be more sportsman-like but there is still the aggression you’d associate with men’s football.
There’s only so much you can do to compare the male and female side of football, men’s football has had hundreds of years to be ingrained in our culture and for styles of play to adapt and evolve while women’s football revolution began fairly recently. There are still probably not enough top teams in the women’s game but that will grow over time.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds for TV deals, player wages and the quality of players across all the teams in the women’s game and see how an entire nation might be enticed and drawn into an international tournament, feeling hope and despair much like the England Men’s team.