The unprofessionals

What's next for women's football? Steve Menary reports

As more money pours into the Premier League through television, where this cash should end up – apart from players’ pockets – is a topical subject. One area barely receiving a mention is women’s football. Five years ago, then FA chief executive Adam Crozier decided the top flight of the women’s game should go professional. This idea was swiftly exposed as financially unviable and rapidly died, but women’s football certainly hasn’t.

In April, Arsenal will become the first British side to play in the UEFA Women’s Cup final, with the Emirates Stadium a potential venue for the home leg against Umea of Sweden. The 5-2 semi-final win over Danish side Brondby was reward for Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein’s strategy. Instead of recklessly embracing professionalism, manager Vic Akers and half a dozen players are employed in other capacities. They have been champions for the past three seasons.

“Even without [professionalism] the game has moved forward,” says Anita Assante, England centre-back and personal assistant to Arsène Wenger’s development manager. “It needs to be a progression that happens to all the teams, not just one. Everyone needs to take that step forward together.”

For clubs such as Arsenal – and Charlton – the women’s team is an important part of developing the game but even Akers’ side only attract 1,500 to big games and average premier league crowds are 300-400. So a full-time league remains unrealistic and, although an FA working party is looking at how the women’s game works, introducing one is not part of their plans.

That one team to leap into professionalism were Mohamed Fayed’s Fulham, whose squad of full-timers ran off with the 2003 title. As the dream of professionalism vanished, support withered; this season, Fulham lost their first 13 matches and relegation to one of two regional conferences looks certain.

With no signs of women’s teams being able to pay their way, other men’s clubs severed links with them, but Watford reversed the trend by providing marketing and helping secure sponsorship. This is paying off, with former England midfielder Sian Williams on the verge of leading the Hornets’ ladies into the premier league in her first season of management. But what if the men’s side are relegated from the Premiership, as looks likely?

Southampton’s experience may be a guide. “When all that stuff was going on with Mr Lowe and relegation, the women were the first to go,” says former Southampton Saints’ manager Sue Lopez. “Now they are 10,000 people short at St Mary’s, you’d think they’d want the women fans.”

Southampton was once a hotbed of the women’s game: when the women’s FA Cup was launched in 1971, eight of the first 11 trophies returned to the city and Saints club president Ted Bates and manager Lawrie McMenemy were enthusiastic patrons. In 1978, 5,500 saw England’s women beat Belgium 3‑0 at The Dell.

Saints did reach the fourth round of this year’s FA Cup, but many players have defected to promotion-chasing Portsmouth and relegation from the southern conference into a regional league is likely. Disillusioned, Lopez – author of a book on the women’s game, Women on the Ball – left Saints and works for the Hampshire FA, which now runs the centre of excellence instead of the club.

Many men’s clubs do run centres of excellence, but only, according to Watford’s Williams, because the FA stump up most of the funds. There are exceptions, such as Dein and Bill Kenwright at Everton, but regard for the women’s game is perhaps best evident by a glance at the premier league table. Some clubs have played half as many games as others, partly due to bad weather but mostly because they are often second or third in line for an available pitch.

Arsenal have played the fewest games due to UEFA Cup success and a contract with Boreham Wood FC means games are not shifted or cancelled, but owning a decent ground is beyond most women’s teams. Perhaps if more of that TV money was shared out more equitably and FA support was also forthcoming, then this might be a reasonable aspiration for clubs.

From WSC 24o February 2007. What was happening this month