Introducing our brand new Sports Weekend columnist Sue Smith, one of England’s most capped female footballers turned respected pundit.
When England play Germany at a sold-out Wembley this evening it will be a world away from when I made my international debut against them.
In 1997, we played in front of a couple of thousand fans at Preston North End’s Deepdale.
The women’s game has changed beyond all recognition since, for better and for worse – and while we try to develop the positives of the growing interest, it is important not to lose what makes the women’s game so special.
That night in Preston, I was a 17-year-old who had come straight into the national side after being scouted playing for Tranmere Rovers but now they realise you cannot do that. England have Under-15, 17, 19 teams and so on to allow you to progress.
We were wearing the men’s kit with massive shirts and shorts. Now it’s specific kits and sizes for the women.
As things start to change, though, it’s important we try to protect the things that are best about women’s football.Sue Smith
We had a manager, a goalkeeping coach and a physio, and that was it, whereas by the end of my time we had nutritionists, sports scientists, psychologists and the rest. There were probably more staff than players!
When I first started, I was paying to play for Tranmere, then I went semi-pro at Leeds United. I was part of the first England squad to receive central contracts, so I pretty much became a full-time footballer, although I was still doing bits of media work and coaching.
In the last 12 months, things have picked up even more because of the World Cup and the huge viewing figures that drew. An audience of 11.7m watched the semi-final defeat to the USA.
It shows there’s an appetite which the Women’s Super League has tried to build on. The Manchester derby was played at the Etihad Stadium, and Anfield is hosting the Merseyside derby.
The girls are becoming household names as a result. I go to talk at lots of school assemblies and the like and until recently if you asked the pupils who their favourite players were, they’d say, “The blonde girl” or whatever, but now they know all the names. The younger generation don’t really see a difference between the England’s men and women’s games in that respect.
Phil Neville’s profile has been a factor, too. When he was first appointed as England manager there was quite a lot of criticism, with some saying it should be a female or at least someone who knew the women’s game and how its players think.
I remember speaking to Sue Campbell, who was involved in the selection process, and she said he really stood out in the interview as someone who could take the team to the next level.
The girls really like him. They like how energetic he is and that he gets them as people, not just players.
He’s not soft, either, as he’s shown when he’s not picked established players who aren’t performing.
The fact people know him isn’t doing the women’s game any harm. Even when I’m working on Sky, the other pundits are always asking how Phil’s getting on. Then they want to know how the England women’s team is doing.
But with increased profile comes greater criticism.
The tone of the media has changed since the last World Cup. I’ve read quite a few articles with people saying things aren’t good enough, whereas before it was always very supportive stuff.
The players and the manager don’t want criticism but just have to accept it and get on with it.
It’s been a change for me too as a pundit. In my case, it felt like the turning point was the previous World Cup, in Canada in 2015. I remember covering an England game and being told I had to be more critical. When I first started working in the media, it was all about pushing the game as much as we could, but now the thinking is if we want to be accepted, we have to be critical.
Covering men’s football has just highlighted to me how you have to approach it and it might have changed my way of thinking a bit.
You can’t just shelter people from criticism if you want to be credible and the players just have to have broad shoulders.
If I’m saying everything’s amazing, people are going to ask what you’re talking about, and you get enough of that as it is when you’re a female pundit. I can say more or less the same thing as one of my male colleagues, but if I make a mistake, in some people’s eyes it’s because I’m a woman.
As things start to change, though, it’s important we try to protect the things that are best about women’s football.
The matches are a real family occasion, with young kids, parents and grandparents there.
I covered a women’s game between West Ham and Spurs recently and the two sets of fans were sat next to each other. As we were walking to the touchline, there were two male fans from either side shouting at each other but no swearing, no threatening to knock each other out. If you’d had kids sat near them you wouldn’t have been worried.
I read an article recently which argued that for the women’s game to progress, things would inevitably go down the route of the men’s game in that respect, but I hope not. I don’t want any fighting, racism, homophobic chanting or anything like that.
Another great thing about tonight’s game is you can experience Wembley at a reasonable price. I’m not sure what it will be like there, but at most of the games it’s easy to meet your favourite players and get autographs and photographs.
The distance between the players and the fans has gone too far in the men’s game – even at League One and Two level.
A lot of the tickets for Saturday have been given away for free to schools and the like, and youi just hope people turn up.
There’s an app called FA Player where you can watch every single game for free, which is brilliant, but I actually think it would be better if you had to pay a small amount for it. You value things more when you have to pay for them, but, of course, you don’t want to over-price them.
Since the World Cup the performances and the results have dropped, which has fed into the criticism. Some players have been rested, which made sense because the World Cup came on the back of quite a tough league season, but with a sold-out Wembley, it’s an opportunity to put on a show and make people want to come back. England have the capability, but it will not be easy against a top side like Germany.
The important thing is to put on a good show, so we can keep pushing ahead with the progress the women’s game is making.