Tomorrow afternoon sees the return of the FA Womens Super League, with eight teams doing battle in the first summer league version of a tournament that the FA hopes will dramatically increase interest in the competition. A signifier of how important they consider the development of this years competition to be and the extent to which the powers that be regard social media to be the key to increasing the profile of the league in the future. As was widely reported in the media last week, players from several of the league’s eight sides will be wearing their Twitter names on their sleeves as “digital ambassadors” for their clubs and the league, but such relative diversions may even prove a distraction from what may well be a very competitive league this season.
The team to beat yet again this season will, of course, be Arsenal – this is, after all, the team that has won the last eight consecutive English championships and also became the only English team to win the UEFA Womens Champions League in 2007 when they beat the Swedish side Umeå IK over two legs in the final. Arsenal, who play their home matches at Meadow Park, the some of Boreham Wood FC, won the treble of the Womens Super League, the FA Cup and the FA WSL Continental Cup last season, and start again this season as hot favourites to retain heir title again this season. Three key new signings – Alex Scott, Gemma Davison and Kelly Smith – have returned to the UK after the collapse of the professional league there, and the only consolation that the club’s rivals can take from such news is that the talismanic Smith is injured and will miss at least the start of the season.
If Arsenal do demonstrate any weaknesses in the opening stages of the season, then the two teams that are most likely to challenge them are Birmingham City and Everton, who make up their opposition tomorrow. Arsenal ended last season three points ahead of Birmingham City in second place, and the Midlands side have strengthened with the signings of Rachel Unitt from Everton and Eniola Aluko, another player who has returned to the UK from America. Birmingham City led the WSL for much of last season before eventually being overhauled by Arsenal, whilst Everton, who finished the season in third place in the table, will feel the loss of the experience of Unitt, but have promoted Alex Greenwood and Nikita Parris from their academy team to their first team squad.
Birmingham City travel to Lincoln City tomorrow, with Lincoln having completed last season in fourth place in the table. With a defence containing England defenders Casey Stoney and Sophie Bradley, manager David Parker remains cautious on the subject of further improvement for his team this season, commenting that, ”Arsenal won all three trophies last year and they have strengthened again this year. Bristol Academy Ladies have brought in Laura Del Rio which adds another level of quality to the league.” The arrival of Spanish international Del Rio – who scored forty goals in thirty-nine games for her national side before falling out with the manager and not being picked again – is an indicator of a Bristol Academy side aiming to improve after finishing in fifth place in the table at the end of last season, but that top four looks like a difficult nut to crack.
The bottom three of last year’s table – there was no promotion or relegation to the WSL at the end of last season – contains names that familiar in both the mens and womens games. Chelsea finished in sixth place in the league table last season, but they will start this season at a new ground – they will be sharing Wheatsheaf Lane with Blue Square Bet South club Staines Town from this season – and are already through to the semi-finals of this years FA Cup, where they will play Arsenal. With the team also sharing the top class facilities available to the mens team at Cobham, they will be optimistic of being able to improve upon last seasons disappointing final league position.
Doncaster Rovers Belles, six times winners of the FA Cup and twice national champions in the early 1990s, remain a shadow of the club that dominated womens football in England for many years. They finished one place off the bottom of the table at the end of last season, and the signing of England left-winger Sue Smith had given them some confidence of improving this season but, having scored on her debut for the club in the FA Cup against Barnet, she subsequently tore her ankle ligaments and will be out for the entire season. Liverpool were promoted into the WSL for its first season, and found the going a little too difficult. They have been strengthened for their second season in the division with the arrival of two youngsters, Welsh forward Hannah Keryakoplis and England under-nineteen defender Dani Lea, as well as a little more experience in the form of New Zealand goalkeeper Aroon Clansey, who has joined the club from the Australian side Canberra United. This, however, may not quite be enough to prevent this season from being another difficult one for the club.
Although crowds remain low in comparison with the mens game, they are increasing and media coverage is expected to continue to grow this season, with television coverage continuing on ESPN. The courting of social media also indicates a renewed confidence that womens football has a significant place at the heart of the culture of the game in this country, a point that was reinforced by impressive television audiences for Englands run to the quarter-finals of last years World Cup in Germany. With the Olympic Games coming to London later in the summer – and the Great Britain team will start the womens football competition amongst the favourites to win it – the summer of 2012 might prove to be a pivotal one in the history of the womens game in England.
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