Is women’s football ready for take-off?

England’s World Cup success has awakened interest in women’s football. So how does the sport make sure this is the watershed it has been waiting for? Grant Woodward reports.

The Lionesses' performances at the World Cup have awakened interest in women's football. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

IN some ways it was an all too familiar scenario. Within touching distance of a place in a major final, England’s footballers exited stage left in truly gut-wrenching circumstances. A freakish own goal in the dying seconds of their semi-final clash ensured that the 2015 World Cup can now be filed alongside Italia 90 and Euro 96 in the list of agonising near misses.

The difference, of course, was that this time it was England’s women who had been so tantalisingly close to glory. But for a nation starved of seeing the Three Lions progress beyond the quarter finals of a major men’s tournament in two decades, the Lionesses’ performances were a breath of fresh air that turned the likes of Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Laura Bassett into near household names.

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An estimated 2.4 million people stayed up to watch their semi-final against Japan – a greater number than watched some live Premier League games last season. It suggests there is a genuine appetite to watch a sport that, in some quarters at least, has long been derided. So is this finally the watershed moment that women’s football in this country has been waiting for?

Lucy Ward, a stalwart of the game who played for Leeds United, Doncaster Rovers Belles and Leeds Carnegie, thinks it could well be. The 41-year-old was a co-commentator for the BBC during the tournament in Canada and senses a change in attitudes.

“I’ve said it for years but I really do think it’s different this time,” she says. “People enjoyed seeing the pride they had playing for England and the fact that it wasn’t about the money but the sheer love of the game. That really shone through in the games. It was a bit like the Olympics in some ways.
“A key thing to say as well is that these girls commit their lives to playing football and inspiring the next generation of girls. This group is the reason we will go on to win the World Cup in however many years’ time.

“What’s important now is that they make sure that they use themselves to promote the game based on how well they did and that they commit to the cause.”

Ward well remembers the sexism she encountered as a girl growing up with a passion for football. Turning up for the hotel’s football sessions while on holiday only to be told they weren’t for her. Forcing her way into her local boys’ team because there wasn’t a girls’ equivalent. Being told she was just going through a tomboy phase and would soon grow out of it.

Understandably, she took a not inconsiderable amount of personal satisfaction from the way in which the World Cup fired the public’s imagination and kicked down a few barriers along the way.

“I guess people like me were pioneers for women’s football and paved the way for these girls,” she reflects. “This now is for everybody who has come up against those hurdles. Watching the semi-final, part of me thought ‘God, I wish that was me’. But also we are proud of the history of it. The reason why there are five-year-old girls walking around wearing Lucy Bronze or Steph Houghton shirts is because of players like me.”

Now that the Lionesses’ World Cup adventure is over, the question is how to keep the momentum going.

Money pumped into the women’s game by the Football Association has allowed the best players to give up their day jobs and turn professional, which has been credited as playing a big part in the success in Canada, where England eventually earned bronze medals after beating Germany in the third and fourth place play-off.

The launch of the Women’s Super League a few years ago has also upped standards, while the fact it runs from April to October has allowed the league to steal some of the spotlight from the men.

Former England captain Faye White has said that women’s football should now be marketed to a new, family-based audience. “Improving the match-day experience must be a priority if we are to attract new fans and keep them – giving people that “wow” factor and getting them close to their heroes.

“It would be a huge step if the ladies’ branches of clubs such as mine, Arsenal, can attract sponsorship in their own right and become more sustainable individually. The benefits for the league’s professionalism would be immeasurable.”
In the longer term, it is also about making sure that those girls and women who have watched the World Cup and been inspired to give it a go themselves have the opportunity to pull on a pair of boots.

Among those tasked with this job is Eva Egginton. Going by the rather grand title of Girls, Women’s and Inclusion Football Development Officer at Sheffield and Hallamshire County FA, the first in the country to create such a position, her role is to find ways of getting more girls into the game.

“I do think what has happened at the World Cup will give the women’s game a really big push,” she says. “There are good signs that people are starting to buy into the idea that women’s football is a sport in its own right.

“That difference between the men’s and women’s games even influences the way that you market it to girls. For instance, if a club advertises training sessions for a new team, girls are more likely to think that means they have to be competent and know all the rules right away.

“If you call it a soccer school then it sends the message that you don’t have to be good at it, we’ll help you with that – just come along and have fun.”

Egginton says one encouraging sign is that the larger clubs are expanding their number of girls and ladies teams, while smaller clubs are also showing a willingness to encourage female players.

But if the battle is being won with the football clubs, it is not always so easy with the parents.

“We’ve done surveys of seven to 11-year-olds who are interested in football but aren’t playing in teams,” she says. “We’re looking at whether that’s partly because parents are encouraging them to play typically female sports such as netball and hockey rather than playing football.

“We’re trying to remove the barrier of parents who say football is not a girls’ game rather than giving their daughters a chance to have a go at it. We want to open the floodgates.”

In the here and now, Lucy Ward is clear that the opportunity to sell women’s football to the British public must be seized with both hands.

“It’s important that we use the England girls in sponsorship deals, TV adverts and get people to come and watch the games,” she says. “That’s the tipping point from now on.

“The FA is doing well with the launch of the Women’s Super League and we need to keep the sport in the public eye. In America you’re a good player regardless of whether you’re male or female, but we’ve been too bogged down by the stereotypical view of football in this country. It’s time that changed.”

For women’s football, there’s a sense that it’s now or never.