This year sees the WSL (FA Women’s Super League) celebrate its tenth anniversary and whilst tradition dictates that tin should be given as a ten-year anniversary gift, symbolising strength and durability, a decade of persistence by the WSL has been duly rewarded with the biggest ever broadcast deal for the women’s game in England. It is a long time coming for a sport that has been in existence for over 120 years, but even those who have been in and around the game as recently as the last twenty years may not have been able to imagine the days of mainstream coverage of women’s top flight football. And whilst this new deal marks a pivotal moment in the game, everyone associated with the sport will be hoping it isn’t all just a flash in the pan. However, if last night’s opening fixture of the 2021/22 season between Manchester United and Reading was anything to go by, organisers will have nothing to worry about, after an entertaining, exciting and high-quality encounter between last season’s fourth- and seventh-placed finishers respectively.
Indeed, the first half-hour of last night’s match especially showcased the women’s game in all of its glory. From back to front, both teams were brimming with quality in what turned out to be a tight contest and it is clear that the women’s game has developed significantly, both technically and tactically. The emphasis on building from the back and the surety of the defenders was in full display, whilst there was a noticeable patience and composure to the build-up play that are all clear signs of the growth of the game in recent decades.
One of the strengths of the women’s game has always been a lack of histrionics and gamesmanship, and this too was showcased in the opening clash, with a game that saw plenty of meaty challenges but none of the playacting. It will be interesting to see whether any of this changes as the women’s game becomes more commercialised, but there was certainly no evidence of it last night. Even when Reading central defender Deanna Cooper took a thunderbolt of a strike flush in the face that drove to her the ground, she got up and continued without a murmur and no signs of the physios even entering the field.
Whilst comparisons will inevitably be made with the men’s game, the only thing notably lacking last night was the absence of technology, with two contentious issues that could have had an effect on the result. The first came at 1-0, when Reading’s Brooke Chaplen’s shot rebounded off the underside of the crossbar and looked very close to having crossed the goal-line. The speed at which it happened made an on-field decision virtually impossible, but it would have been an instantaneous determination by goal-line technology and could very well have seen the sides levelled up early in the second half. Just as the players brushed aside the tough tackles and challenges, however, there was no fuss or dispute from the Reading contingent, no crowding of the referee or berating of the lineswoman. Instead, the game continued, but Reading soon found themselves once again on the wrong end of a questionable verdict as there was a tight offside call in the build-up to the Reds’ second goal. Whilst fans of the Premier League have pulled their hair out with VAR in the last couple of seasons, its absence last night may have been telling on the result and highlights the ongoing discrepancies at the structural level in the men’s and women’s games.
It has to be said though that the officials themselves did a sterling job, allowing the match to flow in a way that reflected well on the women’s game and that encouraged a strong, competitive and fair contest. Indeed, whilst much of the spotlight will have been on the two well-worked United goals from Hanson and Batlle and Toone’s decisive role in each, for me it was the centre-backs in the shape of Reading’s Gemma Evans and United’s Maria Thorisdottir who epitomised the quality on show, with excellent one v one defending and some well-timed, robust challenges. Blundell at right back too, put in an impressive performance. The tempo and precision did wane in the final quarter of the match, with Reading especially looking slightly leggy, but overall this opening match was a hugely positive reflection of, and impressive advert for, the women’s game in the first showing of this new supercharged season. Long may it continue.
Jade is one of FBR’s talented writers and reviewers and here takes a different slant on our Top Ten Football Books series of articles.
With the Women’s Super League (WSL) celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, women’s football in England has made major leaps in the last decade, and with news of a major broadcasting deal from next season, it looks set to take its biggest step yet. The added visibility and promotion of the game will surely catapult the league into even greater significance – and so too its players, a lot of whom are still not particularly household names, despite their successes. And hopefully this will be a catalyst for the publishing world too in terms of commissioning and publishing more books from the women’s game and, in particular, female footballers’ autobiographies, which traditionally have tended to be few and far between. With that in mind, I’ve put together a list of ten autobiographies of female footballers who have shaped the WSL that I would love to read (there are many, many more I could have added), although whether these impressive women have time to put pen to paper is another matter.
Alex Scott may be most familiar to a younger generation as an affable and engaging TV presenter on The One Show, a vibrant dancer on Strictly and a consummate pundit on Match of the Day and Sky Sports, but just three years ago she was still plying her trade as one of, if not the best, full-backs of her generation. In many ways, she was the start of the tradition of the modern full-back we see today in the likes of Lucy Bronze and Demi Stokes, and she was a serial winner, with over twenty trophies to her name – a record that trumps the majority of the male pundits she works alongside. Within this haul, she was an integral part of Arsenal’s 2006/07 sextuplet-winning side that scooped the UEFA Women’s Cup Women’s Premier League, FA Women’s Cup, FA Women’s League Cup, FA Women’s Community Shield and London Women’s Cup (a record that is only surpassed by Linfield’s seven trophy hauls) – scoring the winning goal that secured Arsenal their first and only European victories. Alex is also fourth in the list of all-time most capped players for England and has appeared at four Euros and three World Cups as well as the 2012 Olympics. Off the pitch, since retiring, Alex has made a smooth transition into presenting and punditry and has frankly and inspiringly spoken about mental health, and as of 2021/22 she will become the first female presenter of Football Focus. It is undeniable that Alex Scott has been, and continues to be, a real trailblazer.
For many, Kelly Smith is the greatest English female footballer of all time, but Karen Carney isn’t far behind. A genuine two-footed winger, a player of immense technical skill and artistry, she was in many ways ahead of the times. As well as being part of the most successful Arsenal team ever, she scooped the FA Cup with both Chelsea and her childhood team Birmingham City, where she was also inducted into the Hall of Fame. She was named FA Young Player of the Year in both 2005 and 2006 and was the WSL’s top goal-scorer in 2014. As well as competing in the WSL, Karen spent two seasons playing in the American Women’s Professional Soccer, whilst on the international stage, an impressive 144 England caps sees her sitting third in terms of most capped players. Indeed, she represented England at four European Championships and four World Cups, as well as being part of the victorious SheBelieves Cup triumph in 2019. Since retiring the same year, Karen has moved into the world of punditry and commentary where her football nous is clear to see, but, without doubt, it was on the pitch that she showcased her generational talent.
When asked to name the most capped England player of all time, you’d be forgiven for thinking Peter Shilton holds that accolade, but you’d be wrong. Shilton’s 125 caps pale by comparison to the 172 caps of the record holder – one Fara Williams. In an England career spanning some two decades, Fara also sits fourth in terms of top goal-scorers for the Lionesses. Add to that outings at the 2012 Olympics, some 200 plus senior club appearances, Young Player of the Year in 2002, FA Players’ Player of the Year in 2009 and FA International Player of the Year in 2007 and 2009, and Fara Williams is more than deserving of recognition. What makes her journey all the more impressive, though, is her well-noted off-field challenges, including being homeless. Having recently announced her retirement from international football, Fara’s stepping back really signifies the end of an era, but one that will last long in the memory and deserves recognition.
If there is one name synonymous with women’s football in England, and perhaps even globally, it is Lucy Bronze. For almost a decade, Lucy Bronze has stepped up to the plate, epitomising the pinnacle of the women’s game not only domestically but internationally. Indeed, she has over twenty individual honours to her name, including being twice recipient of the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year, England Player of the Year and BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year, and being named in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup All-Star Squad, IFFHS UEFA Woman Team of the Decade and IFFHS World’s Woman Team of the Decade. Even scooping the UEFA Women’s Player of the Year Award in 2019 was bettered by her award of FIFA’s Women’s World Player of the Year in 2020, following the likes of such icons of the women’s game as Marta and Megan Rapinoe. As well as featuring in an England shirt, Bronze has gained recognition during her time at Liverpool, Manchester City and notably Olympique Lyonnais, where she was part of a team that won nine trophies, including three consecutive Champions Leagues. And whilst Lucy still lets her football do the talking on the pitch, she has spoken openly about important subjects surrounding women’s football and continues to be for many the role model of the women’s game.
Over the last seven years, Steph Houghton has become one of the most iconic figures in English football, as the captain of the Lionesses, leading the team to their best ever World Cup finish of third in 2015 and their first SheBelieves Cup success in 2019. Having risen through the ranks at Sunderland and Leeds United, it was with Arsenal that Steph made her WSL bow, winning seven trophies in four years, before moving to Manchester City in 2014, where her record has been equally impressive, scooping one WSL title, three WSL Cup victories and three FA Cup honours. Steph is a player largely without fanfare and has that defensive quality of old of getting the job done, but what a job she has done both for club and country, not least since her husband, former Liverpool defender, Stephen Darby’s diagnosis of motor neuron disease in 2018. Steph has been pivotal to the development of women’s football in England and has led by example throughout her impressive tenure.
There’s no missing Jill Scott on a football field, not because of her height, a handy 5 ft 11, but because she is literally everywhere on the pitch, and has been for so long now – fifteen years and counting for England – that it’s hard to remember a time or a team before Jill’s emergence. The archetypal box-to-box midfielder, Jill’s impressive decade in the WSL and nine trophies makes her one of the game’s most ever-present and decorated servants. Indeed, she holds the current record for most WSL appearances, whilst for England, she is one of only two players, along with Karen Carney, to have appeared at four World Cups, and second only in appearances to Fara Williams. Her longevity in the game means she has been at the heart of the changing face of women’s football in England and around the world and has witnessed first-hand the impact and success of the WSL, as well as England’s shifting fortunes. She has been there, done it and quite literally got the T-shirts – and in many cases the trophies too.
Like Jill Scott, Gilly Flaherty has been in the WSL every step of the way – in fact, she was the scorer of the very first WSL goal, for Arsenal against Chelsea on 13 April 2011, and has equal most WSL winners’ medals. With a career that started with Millwall Lionesses, Gilly was part of the Arsenal team that dominated women’s football at the end of the 2000s, and swept the board in terms of titles in 2006/07. Success also followed at Chelsea, where she added two further WSL titles and two further FA Cups, before a move to West Ham in 2018, where she continues to lead with the captain’s armband. Although her England senior career never really took off, Flaherty has been at the top of the domestic game for some fifteen years, but it’s not just on the pitch that she has made her mark, speaking out in recent years about her struggles with mental health and supporting initiatives for positive action.
Some thirty nations have now been represented in the WSL, including Bulgaria, Nigeria and New Zealand, and the latest being Greece, but one of the earliest and longest-serving international arrivals was South Korea’s Ji So Yun, who made the move to Chelsea in 2014 from Japan, where she played for J League champions INAC Kobe. A trailblazer for South Korea and a lot of later international players, Ji settled quickly to the new league, scooping Players’ Player of the Year after her first season, and PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year, and has since gone on to win 10 titles with the Blues in her seven years at the club to date. On the international stage, Ji has some 125 appearances for South Korea and is the nation’s top scorer, as well as being the youngest goal-scorer for her country. She has been labelled as one of the best midfielders in the world and the best international player in the history of the WSL. And her journey from young footballer in Seoul to WSL champion in London is the stuff of dreams.
Whilst Ji may be considered the best international player in the history of the WSL, one woman is certainly hot on her heels. Still only 24, Vivianne Miedema has set the WSL alight since arriving at the Gunners in 2017. In 2018/19, she scored a record 22 goals in a season, and is also the league’s top scorer with 60. She holds the record for the most consecutive seasons scoring at least 10 goals and at least 15 goals; the most goals in a calendar month; the most WSL hat-tricks, the most WSL hat-tricks in a season; the most goals in a game; the most goal involvements in a game and most assists in a game, and with an 18-goal haul in 20/21 there are no signs of these records lasting. Her record-breaking doesn’t stop on the domestic stage; she was the U19 UEFA Women’s championship top scorer in 2014 and twice UEFA Champions League top scorer and has the record goals at both U17 and senior level for the Netherlands. Aged just 21, she was part of Euro-winning Netherlands team, scoring two goals in the final to overcome Denmark. With a comic book series to her name, as well as featuring in Amy Raphael’s brilliant A Game of Two Halves, where Vivianne proved herself to be a powerful voice on the women’s game, Vivianne already has the book market conquered, but despite her tender age, hers is a story that will surely require more than one volume!
Having recently scooped the FWA award for the second time, following her win in 2017/18, Fran Kirby has once again hit the headlines this season, in a Championship-winning year. Despite a humbling defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League Final, Fran and her Chelsea team have recorded a season to remember, losing only one game to see off a strong challenge from runners-up Man City. On a personal note, Fran finished the season with 16 goals to be the third top scorer in the league, and finished joint first for assists, including a notable quadruple against Reading and a brace plus four assists in the final match of the season. Although she initially burst onto the senior scene at the tender age of 16, well-noted struggles with depression following the devastating loss of her mother put her football career temporarily on pause, but Fran’s resilience and talent soon catapulted her to the top of the game, with wins in the 2015 FA Cup and WSL, as well as becoming a Lionesses regular. Another testing time came in 2019 when Fran suffered pericarditis which threatened to end her career, but once more she came back in impressive style and with great fortitude for someone who is still only 27. Fran’s story has been one of incredible challenges, but ultimately incredible success and is one that defines inspiration.