While the outcome – Arsenal winning the league, City a cup double and Chelsea struggling after a squad shift – was fairly predictable, the first fully professional Women’s Super League season has seen domestic women’s football take a huge leap forward.
For the first time in Europe the whole of a women’s top tier has played football full-time. It is a leveller. Naturally there are still clubs able to outspend others but, with the gap between those who were training full-time and those who were part-time or amateur becoming increasingly embarrassing, a bottom line being introduced has driven up the standard across the board. It has also challenged clubs who had been happy to allow their women’s sides to pootle along out of sight and out of mind, and with little investment, to decide how serious and committed they are to their female players and the women’s game.
The mid-season announcement of the £10m Barclays sponsorship deal was the pinnacle of a mountain of deals that have sensed an opportunity in women’s football.
Arsenal’s revival after the arrival of Joe Montemurro in the preceding November ensured they were no longer outsiders and an emphatic 5-0 opening day defeat of Liverpool presented their title credentials in style. A staggering 42 goals in their next 10 games followed. But then an extraordinary injury crisis threatened to derail their campaign. In their 2-0 loss to their title rivals Manchester City, 17-year-old Paige Bailey-Gayle, who made her debut two games beforehand against Everton, started. The Scotland international Emma Mitchell was the only senior squad member fit enough for the bench. She was joined by three teenagers.
Although their league campaign stuttered, they remained in control, sacrificing cup competitions and relying heavily on the versatility of the squad to power them to a first league title in seven years. The Gunners would be incredibly unlucky to suffer a repeat of the crisis that saw them reduced 10 overstretched senior players. Ensuring they have a squad that can cope, though, should lightning strike twice, and with the added burden/luxury of Champions League football, will be vital to building on their return to the top.
Manchester City were two minutes from an unbeaten season, before Mitchell struck in their bragging-rights-only final game against Arsenal. They won the Continental League Cup and FA Cup, after finishing the preceding season empty-handed, but five league draws gave the Gunners the advantage. The biggest concern for Nick Cushing will be deciding whether Georgia Stanway and Lauren Hemp can shoulder the 19 league goals that were provided by outgoing FWA player of the year Nikita Parris, or whether he needs to look for reinforcements up top. A serious Champions League charge will also no doubt be on his mind following a fairly flaccid exit in the round of 32 to the Spanish champions Atlético Madrid.
Emma Hayes placed the blame on herself, and becoming a mother, for Chelsea’s dismal start that saw their title aspirations over by Christmas. However, after picking up a league and FA Cup double last May, a layer of experience departed. Katie Chapman retired, Claire Rafferty, Becky Spencer and Gilly Flaherty moved to West Ham, and Eni Aluko departed for Juventus. These were not all first-team starters but their collective experience must have been missed. A chastening league campaign was tempered by a Champions League run which ended in valiant defeat by the champions Lyon in the semi-final.
The top three struggled to maintain fights on multiple fronts; finding the right squad size and balance without upsetting existing dynamics will be key come September.
Looking to break their stranglehold are Birmingham who, despite a change of manager mid-season, finished only two points behind Chelsea and seven behind City.
Reading, Bristol City, West Ham and Liverpool, who were separated by five points, are fighting for the best-of-the-rest faux title. Everton and Brighton have had the safety net of a struggling Yeovil below them, which helped the former get to grips with their new manager, Willie Kirk, and the latter survive a first season in the top flight.
Both have a job to do in the summer if they want to avoid relegation. With the arrival of well-resourced and well-run Manchester United and a Tottenham team who will hopefully be increasingly backed after their phenomenal promotion on a shoestring under Karen Hills, they will not have a security blanket.
Lee Burch took over as Yeovil manager at a time when they had not won a WSL game and made them much more robust. They did the double over Everton and took a point off of Brighton but a 10-point deduction for going into administration saw them finish on -3 points. It was right the club were handed a WSL license, having worked hard to win promotion and created an environment that would sustain them with some of the best and most consistent attendances in the league. But the financial burden of professionalism has been too much. Hopefully the side find a more comfortable footing in the Championship.
Attendances may have stagnated just shy of the 1,000 mark on average but there have been concerted efforts to address the issue. The FA has provided each WSL club with marketing assistance for one home game to help upskill and inspire club staff. It produced a 25% gate increase for those games. The 10 biggest matches of the season, plus the Arsenal v Brighton title decider as a late addition, were targeted for increased marketing. A bonus system has been introduced for clubs that increased their gate numbers based on percentage growth. And, there has been a drive to limit free tickets on the grounds that they devalue the product.
After a haphazard few seasons it finally feels as if there is some sort of coherent strategy to the league’s progression and next season will hopefully reflect that further.
• The England forward Nikita Parris confirmed that “after five years the moment has come, to call time on my career as a Manchester City Women’s player”. She released the statement across her social media platforms. The 25-year-old FWA player of the year and WSL all-time top scorer helped City to a domestic cup double.
• The management of the Millwall Lionesses have announced a split with the club and a relaunch as an independent side called London City Lionesses. Millwall Community Trust will take on the running of a new Millwall Lionesses. It is unclear which league either side will compete in.
• Rachel Yankey has turned down the chance to continue as manager of Championship side London Bees. The former England international took charge in February after the departure of Luke Swindlehurst.
• England have been knocked out of the Under-17 European Championship. A 2-0 defeat of the Netherlands was not enough for them progress ahead of their opponents, who had a goal difference superior by three. Germany progress to play Portugal as group winners while the Netherlands take on Spain.
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