England beat the Netherlands 2-1 on Sunday evening to move into the final of the 2009 European Women’s Football Championships in Finland, where they will play Germany on Sunday night. Perhaps predictably (and exactly as they did when the under-21 team made similar progress during the summer), the English press have reacted hysterically to the news. Perhaps the most hysterical reaction came from The Guardian’s Richard Williams, who concluded – largely on the basis of one tactical revelation made in the aftermath of their semi-final match against the Dutch – that their manager, Hope Powell, would be as good a choice as any to succeed Fabio Capello as the manager of the England men’s team.
Of course, Williams writes for a newspaper and therefore has an obligation to make statements that will encourage people to read the journal that employ him, but his claim does require some further examination. Powell has a UEFA Pro Licence, so there is no reason – if the qualification is worth anything – why she wouldn’t be able to cope with a managerial position within the men’s game, even if the position of England manager is beyond her for now. There may, however, be pressures placed upon her based not only upon her gender but also upon the colour of her skin, and it is worth bearing in mind that the goodwill engendered by the results of the last week might well dry up after a few bad results at any level.
It is scarcely worth even considering what some people might come up with by way of abuse should she take a job within the men’s game and, as things stand, Powell is at high a level as there is within the women’s game. She has been in the position for eleven years and also oversees every level of the youth system from the under-15s up. During her period in charge of the team, the number of women playing the game has increased to unprecedented levels. The question of why she would actually want to give all of this up for the pressure cooker of even the lower levels of the English men’s game – beyond the likelihood of higher wages – isn’t one that is easy to answer.
A large part of the continuing problems that women’s football in England face is a comparative one when faced with the men’s game. Men’s football, to put it simply, hogs the schedule. On Saturday afternoons, the almost everybody plays but the schedule has also leaked into Sundays as well, when the FA Women’s Premier League plays its matches. The teams of the WPL largely play their matches at non-league grounds (Bristol Rovers LFC, for example, play their home matches at Mangotsfield, while Arsenal LFC play at Boreham Wood FC and Chelsea LFC play their home matches at Imber Court, the home of Metropolitan Police FC). They may well carry the names of big clubs, but there is little question that they are treated as second class citizens.
There are other problems asides from issues of status that women’s teams have to deal with. When clubs are dependent on other clubs for financial support and are not amongst their highest priorities is that they are subject to the whims of the parent club. When Charlton Athletic men’s team were relegated in 2007, the club pulled the funding from Charlton Athletic LFC. The club was rescued three months later – after considerable negative publicity – by the club, and running of it was passed Charlton Community Trust, which co-ordinates the club’s work in the community. They were still relegated in the 2007/08 season before being promoted back into the WPL. It was a close shave for the club, and an example of the shaky grounds upon which women’s football in England still seems to be based.
The people in the best position to help promote the women’s game in England are the media but, perhaps unsurprisingly, they give scant resources to the game. The BBC are covering the final of the European Championships live on Thursday night, but it feels like a case of ever decreasing circles. The press aren’t that interested because the interest isn’t there, so they don’t cover it and interest in women’s football doesn’t grow. The BBC does what it can. It covered the FA Women’s Cup Final until this year, before the match was whisked off to ITV1 as part of the FA’s deal with the commercial channel. Whether this is to the benefit of the development of the women’s game in this country is again debatable.
Women’s football can expand it’s coverage and fan base if the media treats the game well and the game can develop at a club level which doesn’t leave it subject to the whims of the professional clubs. After all, the big men’s clubs are unlikely to ever allow the women’s game to overshadow the men’s game in England and they hold the whip hand at present. It may be too far down the line for women’s football to rebuild the completely independent identity that it had, and it may be that being allied to the men’s game gives them access to resources and facilities that it may otherwise take them decades to build. Success for the England team in the European Championships may bring the women’s game in this country a critical boost, but this comes with dangers attached.
It may seem an alien concept to those that prostrate themselves at the money-obsessed altar of the Premier League, but it is just possible that Hope Powell doesn’t want to be part of a circus in which there is a good chance she will be chewed up and spat out in a few months or a couple of years. One would hope that she will choose to stay in women’s football because they couldn’t have a better and more hard-working ambassador for the game in this country, and that the FA, should someone or other should make her an offer that she feels that she can’t refuse, they top it. Given the history of the way that the FA has treated the women’s game in England, there are no guarantees that this will happen.