Ten Years On: The Rise of the WSL

A decade ago, Women's football in the United Kingdom would embark on a revolutionary journey as it introduced a new division. Intended to help disseminate the game throughout the nation, it would be called the 'Women's Super League' and replace the FA Women's Premier League. From its inaugral season, which saw eight teams battle it out for domestic success, to its current 12 side format, the past ten years have been nothing short of remarkable for the division. The recent signings of Rose Lavelle and Pernille Harder to Manchester City and Chelsea respectively have thrown the spotlight onto women's football yet again and can offer serious weight to the argument over which is the best league in the world.

Despite its current state, the history of women's football in the UK hasn't always been so smooth. The misogynisitc and draconian ban placed on the game in the early 1920s has been well documented in recent years, but upon its lifting in 1971, the subsequent development of the game stuttered at the constant obstacles it needed to overcome. Logistics, attendances and backward attitudes from those at the top saw the game fail to replicate the heights of the munitionettes during the First World War. Never to be deterred, the women's game would still see a whole host of superb players and teams emerge throughout the last three decades of the twentieth century. First Doncaster Belles and then Arsenal Ladies brought women's football to new levels with the gradual evolution of national sides also taking shape across the UK.

Three Cheers for Blyth Spartans Munitionettes

Arsenal, in particular, enjoyed a prolonged period of dominance under legendary manager Vic Akers. Akers helped to steer his side to a staggering ten FA Cups between 1993-2009 alongside unrivaled dominance in the Women's Premier League. Winning 12 in the same period, including seven in-a-row from 2004-2010, Arsenal were untouchable. Forget the men's invincible season, the side featuring the likes of Rachel Yankey, Jayne Ludlow and Alex Scott would go a remarkable 108 games unbeaten (W102 D6 L0) before eventually losing 3-0 to Everton in 2009. Such dominance led to praise but also criticism as to how competitive the league really was.

The introduction of the Women's Super League in 2010 was, therefore, intended to disrupt the status quo and begin to introduce semi-professionalism across the division. Seen initially as something which could 'deter some of the prospective founding members', it aimed for each club to pay their top four players an annual salary of £20-30,000 year.[1] With a previous lack of television coverage and attendances rarely reaching above 1000 people, investment would be needed from the FA and the clubs whose names they played under. It is of little surprise then that of the eight members to play in the inaugral 2011 WSL, five could boast sides in the men's equivalent.

Described as a 'landmark in the development of the game', the first season of the WSL saw events play out relatively similar to its predecessor.[2] Arsenal once again would win the league, but in Birmingham and Everton found opponents offering a greater challenge than before. However, the following season saw Arsenal win the title unbeaten. For many, such invincibility was disappointing and the dream of a more competitive league was proving difficult to realise. The Guardian would write that the FA's hope of a 'levelling out' of the league had not been achieved but scorelines had shortened and previously 'embarrassing' scorelines were becoming a thing of the past.[3] Furthermore, attendances began to climb. Over 5000 spectators would see Arsenal face Chelsea and the successes of the Team GB side at the 2012 Olympics only helped to promote women's football in the UK like never before.

England push for GB women's team at 2020 Tokyo Olympics - Inside World  Football

Players like Steph Houghton, Kim Little and Fara Williams were by now beginning to become household names and the 2013 WSL saw the FA's vision of a competitive league begin to pay off. Arsenal's dominance was ended by perhaps the most unlikely of sources - Liverpool. Liverpool Ladies had been fortunate in the first two editions of the competition, as successive bottom-placed finishes saw them only survive due to the league's re-election system.

In response, Liverpool had welcomed serious investment into the women's team. The only club to be training full-time in 2013, they would change the face of the game. Under manager Matt Beard, the side would be bolstered by the acquistions of England internationals Fara Williams and Natasha Dowie. Further assisted by an influx of foreign talent and what Dowie described as players who are 'used to winning', the title would be won by an impressive six points.[4] Arsenal would even fail to finish in the top two, missing out to Bristol Academy by a single point. In 2017, former Arsenal player Alex Scott said that she hopes the Gunners' dominance is never repeated. Praising the newfound competitiveness in the league, Scott would claim that sides were now aiming to 'set the bar'.[5]

2014 would prove to be the pivotal year for the WSL. Included in our 'Most Important Moments in Women's Football History' list, it saw one of the greatest title races of all-time. Liverpool would defend their title on the final day after defeating Bristol 3-0 and seeing both title rivals Chelsea and Birmingham lose to Manchester City and Notts County respectively. The 2014 WSL season - had perfectly exemplified the success of the rebrand as three sides competed for the title on the final day of the season. It was a title race rarely seen in any division, but one to savour.

"An extraordinary end to the season, and that's fantastic, because those of us who love women's football know this is exactly what we wanted."

Sue Smith [6]

Manchester City Women would also enjoy a moderately successful first campaign in the WSL in 2014. The following season would see the side looking to improve on their fifth place finish. Being brought 'in-house' and integrated fully with the men's side, significant investment saw an influx of talent joining the project at Eastlands. Lucy Bronze, Toni Duggan and Steph Houghton all joined the Sky Blues and provide further professionalism to the ever-growing game. Despite missing out on the 2015 title by two points to Chelsea, the following season would see the tables turn and City emerge victorious. Attendances had also continued their upwards trend as an average of 1128 was recorded across all venues. Together with coverage on BT Sport, the game was more accessible than ever before.

FA Women's Football Awards 2016

After the 2017 'Spring Series' which once more saw City and Chelsea dominate, the WSL would welcome back a 'winter season' played from September-May. Upon its introduction, and up to 2017, the WSL had been a summer league intended to fill the void left by the men's game after its conclusion. The success of the women's game and the continued boosts in coverage and scope had meant there was no need to fear lower attendances in the winter and by bringing the league in line with other European divisions, it gave English clubs a much greater chance of progressing in the Champions League.

The popularity of foreign leagues would provide genuine competition to the WSL in terms of the players they attracted. Despite high-profile loan signings like Carli Lloyd to Man City in 2017, the increased investment to the French, Spanish and Italian top-flights saw a number of the UK's finest players leave the WSL. English internationals Lucy Bronze, Isobel Christiansen and Nikita Parris have all since joined European giants Lyon, Eni Aluko had a single season at Juventus and Toni Duggan joined the project at Barcelona before moving to Atletico Madrid.

Despite continued success in terms of growth and popularity, women's football has not always enjoyed universal acceptance and off-the-pitch scandals like the bullying and discrimination row between the then England manager Mark Sampson and Eni Aluko have left fans of the sport frustrated. The 2019 World Cup and the campaigning of star USWNT forward Megan Rapinoe has further highlighted the sexism which still exists across the wider game. Negative and sometimes repulsive comments can still be found on many tweets and posts concerning women's football. In spite of these, attendances in the WSL have demonstrated that opinions are generally shifting, albeit more slowly than many would like, towards a more progressive sporting future.

The most recent 2019-20 season (won by Chelsea) saw 38,262 fans watch Arsenal defeat Spurs at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Boosted by the introduction of 'women's football weekends', other clubs would follow suit by hosting matches at Anfield, the Etihad, Stamford Bridge and more. The coronavirus pandemic unfortunately led to the season being suspended but its return tomorrow (05/09/20) is sure to satisfy the growing number of fanbases throughout the game. 

Record Women's Super League crowd watch on as Arsenal beat Tottenham -  Mirror Online

Further positivity can be found in the international sides of the UK. England have benefited massively from the promotion of youth players and the effort given to improve the standards across the league. Beth Mead, Ellie Roebuck and Georgia Stanway have all shown promise, earning call-ups on a regular basis. A second successive semi-final appearance and the 2019 World Cup further highlighted the steps the nation has made in international football. Scotland also entered the competition for the first time with Wales only narrowly missing out on qualification but able to boast some fine players like Jess Fishlock and Sophie Ingle.

The future is bright for the WSL. The 2019-20 season also welcomed a 'landmark partnership' with Barclays to sponsor the league. The biggest ever investment in women's sport by a brand. Perhaps the most positive element of the financial boost is its drive to promote women's football at a grassroots level. Together with a 'nationwide scheme to help develop girls’ access to football at school', these are promising signs.[7] As teachers ourselves, this element is brilliant to see. Teaching in primary school it is so important to encourage the engagement and involvement of girls into football as soon as possible. 

The 2020-21 season will start with football being played behind closed doors, but eventually will see supporters welcomed back with open arms. Fanatics will look forward to seeing their favourite players and foreign superstars like the aforementioned Rose Lavelle and Pernille Harder. Alongside the new acquistions, Vivianne Meidema, Sam Kerr and Lauren James will be the players to watch in what could be one the highest quality women's leagues in the recent times. Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood's returns to the league will also help boost attendances and quality. The WSL is continuing to gain in popularity and scope - you don't want to miss it!

Notes:

[1] Tony Leighton, The Guardian, 1 November 2009
[2] David Conn, The Guardian, 7 April 2011
[3] Tony Leighton, The Guardian, 30 September 2012
[4] Anna Kessell, The Guardian, 28 September 2013
[4] Alex Scott, BBC Sport, 1 June 2017
[6] Sue Smith
[7] The FA, 20 March 2019



 

 




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