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By Matthew Handley
Writing on women’s football can be somewhat tricky as a male sports writer; not because I’m worried about dropping a Keys-and-Gray-esque clanger, but because the coverage the game receives can so often be overwhelmingly positive and encouraging to the point of becoming patronising, ignoring what is, in the FA WSL (Women’s Super League), one of the most exciting emerging sports leagues in Britain.
The WSL began its second season last weekend, with the clash between last year’s first and third placed sides in Arsenal and Everton respectively, with the champions edging out a thrilling contest 3-2. Before the game, Everton’s players were fully aware of the challenges ahead, both in terms of facing the Gunners, and in the season as a whole; captain Jody Handley admitted; ‘It’s a tough game; we are the underdogs, so anything we can get out of the game is a bonus for us’. Whilst ultimately they will have been disappointed to have started with a loss, for Everton this season, the aim is to gain consistency throughout the campaign and cultivate the belief that they’ll be champions; ‘Technically we’re blessed, we just need to get that determination to go into games expecting to win every game,’ says striker Natasha Dowie. Dowie is an interesting case, as she chose to play for Everton over Arsenal when approached by both clubs in 2007 (a choice which forced her to commute from the capital for training!); ‘Arsenal are a great team, but as a player I just decided I wanted to be at a club where winning was an achievement… I don’t want to be at a club where we just win everything. It’s definitely about building and Everton have got that’.
This dedication to producing something positive, absent in the money-driven men’s game, seems to be genuinely shared by all of the players I speak to; this spirit isn’t limited to aiding the team’s development, but extends to boosting the women’s game as a whole. Handley suggests that ‘when you play a “minority sport” so to speak, you do feel passionate about promoting it’. Dowie proudly embraces the obligation to give back ‘I think the great thing about women’s football is that there’s not a lot of money involved in it, so a lot of it is purely through enjoyment and passion for the game, so it’s a great thing, and hopefully in years to come they’ll get rewarded from that’. But how do you go about achieving that? ‘Since the WSL has launched we’ve had a lot more people at the games, the media has been greater, I think everything’s really positive; even festivals like today’s would never have happened in the past’. The festival to which Dowie refers is the FA Girls Football Festival, a travelling roadshow giving kids the chance to find out about football and meet some of England’s best players.
It’s the sense of accessibility produced by these events which are the first step in boosting the profile of the women’s game. Fara Williams, arguably England’s best and most well-known player knows this; ‘The women do it differently to the men, we try and interact more with the public and moreso with the kids, trying to engage people. Numbers at the games have been increasing’. Things are improving, but there’s still work to be done; as I talk to Fara a little girl approaches us and bolshily asks ‘Do you play for Everton?’. Williams nods and politely signs the child’s autograph. That the girl wanted the autograph is fantastic; now it’s about making sure she knows who it belongs to.
Positivity surrounds all coverage of women’s football. But it’s not misplaced; it’s well-earned and realistic. “Everything’s going in the right direction; it’s slow but progressive” says Dowie. “We’re not going to be unrealistic and think that we’re going to be like the men’s game in the next few years, because that’s not going to be achievable.” But with the continued growth of the WSL, the successes of the England national team, and this year’s opening of St George’s Park, the FA’s new ‘home of football’ which will give the Ladies team access to first-class facilities, that slow progress is increasingly translating into recognisable moves forward. Parity with the men’s game is still a long way off; but the fact that, as Handley points out, when attending a WSL match “you might meet a player and get their autograph which you wouldn’t get in the men’s game, and you get it for a third of the price”, the league is fashioning its own distinct identity as a cheap, accessible and untainted alternative to men’s football.