Over the coming weeks, the plaudits will be heaped upon Mark Sampson and his players for their outstanding performance in Canada. England were cast in the role of gallant losers once more – a trait that seems to characterise the nation’s sporting psyche. We’ve seen it in tennis at Wimbledon this week as Heather Watson ran Serena Williams a close second. Who wasn’t moved by the crestfallen England players in Edmonton?
Doubtless there will be a medal or two from HRH, massive media explosions and enhanced TV coverage, but the women’s game will have to be patient. We can expect grand statements from an assortment of people over the transformation of women’s football in England. But be warned, bold words are one thing, but it will take time. Commentator Jonathan Pearce’s comment that ladies football is a “different sport” was spot-on. But one thing all forms of football have in common is the fickle nature of the sport and its followers.
For English women’s football to take massive steps will need sustained success. And it also needs a great level of domestic interest. In both 1966 and 1990, English football enjoyed an upsurge following success of the national team. The domestic game has tremendous upside, but it is still at a relatively low level.
There were signs, pre-World Cup, that crowds for the Super League are on the rise. The last batch of games drew the following attendances:
Bristol Academy v Arsenal (1,045)
Sunderland v Birmingham (438)
Manchester City v Chelsea (750)
Notts County v Liverpool (2,057)
The first litmus test for the women’s game will come on Sunday July 12 when the Super League resumes (Chelsea v Bristol, Man City v Birmingham, Sunderland v Notts Co, Arsenal v Liverpool). By rights, the crowds for these games should reach new levels as the heroines of Canada come home.
If the Women’s game gets it right, it could become standard “summer fare” for football fans in the off-season. Surely there is an opportunity to offer the fans of say Chelsea and Arsenal the chance to watch football throughout the barren months of May, June and July, especially in non-World Cup, non-Euro summers? And what about the double header – a Chelsea pre-season game at Stamford Bridge which includes a ladies fixture ahead of the Premier champions? Why not leverage off the mens’ game?
After the resumption of league action, the second test will be the FA Cup final (Chelsea v Notts County) on August 1. With its sensible pricing structure (£15), this represents great value. I would imagine tickets are selling very well right now. Game of the People is already booked in.
Next up for the national team is the European Championship qualifiers. England have Belgium, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Estonia in their group. Matches start in September and public interest may never be greater. Success in this will prove that Canada wasn’t a one-off and grab more fans.
Although Mark Sampson deserves credit for his achievements, one of the elements of the game that needs to change in order for its credibility to grow is to ensure more women are involved in the dugout and behind the scenes. Just consider Africa as a comparison. It’s worth recalling that in 1974, Pele declared that an African team would win the World Cup over the next 40 years. We’re still waiting and in fact, Africa is probably further away from winning the competition than it was 25 years ago. One aspect of African football that is changing, but has long been seen as a stumbling block, is the development of African coaches and managers. For decades, coaches have been brought in from Europe and other parts of the world. In some ways, the Women’s game needs to come through that same process.
Canada 2015 will undoubtedly be seen as a turning point for the Women’s game in England. How impactful that will be is debatable, but don’t expect too much, too soon. False dawns greatly outnumber brave new eras in the history of the game!