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Women's Super League

Super League vs Strugglers: The ‘massive gulf’ in money in women’s football

4:00 PM MYT 26/01/2020
Carla Ward Manchester City Women split
It's an exciting time for the women's game in England, but the success at the very top should not overshadow the problems that still need addressing

Women’s football is enjoying an incredible moment in England.

Interest in the Women’s Super League is spiking, Manchester United now have a team to challenge Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, and success is translating onto the bigger stage too.

English teams are becoming a force in Europe, and the reputation of the league is allowing it to attract some of the biggest names in the world, as the recent signing of Sam Kerr showed.

But if you dig beneath the surface, below the top tier and beyond the big names, there’s still a long way to go.

When Sheffield United and Man City met in the quarter-finals of the Continental Cup last week, their preparation was polar opposite.

“I’ve been working all day,” Jade Pennock, United’s No.7, said after the game, which her team lost 4-0.

“I’ve come straight from work. I’ve only had a banana on my way here and I’m dead now.

“I’m a sports development officer so I’ve been coaching all day, just finished up and drove straight here. I work in Leeds, so I hit rush hour, which is always nice.”

Some of her team-mates didn’t arrive at the ground until an hour before kick-off, having finished work in Liverpool at 5pm.

And when they did arrive, it was to see that City, reigning champions of the competition, had shown no mercy in their line-up either.

Steph Houghton, captain of club and country, led out a team containing the likes of Ellen White, joint-top scorer at last year’s Women’s World Cup.

Jill Scott is on the brink of 150 England caps. Pauline Bremer was on the books of Lyon, the biggest club in the women’s game, less than three years ago.

“I’m not going to lie, when I saw the team sheet I did think, ‘oh, here we go’,” Carla Ward, the Blades boss, said.

“City are an outstanding side and they’ve got so much quality and on 15 minutes I even looked at my assistant and said, ‘it’s almost enjoyable to watch’, as painful as it is, because you can see us trying to stay in the game. They’re a quality side.

“We talk about it in the women’s game, that top four compared to even the bottom end of the WSL is a massive gulf, let alone the Championship.”

Man City pinning their hosts back into their own box was a reminder of those realities of women’s football.

While the Blades are flying high in the second tier and have their eyes on promotion, the gulf to the elite remains bigger than just on-pitch results.

Had this tie have been drawn in the FA Women’s Cup, which has a dedicated weekend, things might have been much different.

And things will probably be much different for United on Sunday, when they face WSL side Birmingham in that competition, without as many part-time factors working against them.

A confident Ward bullishly admitted that she does “fancy” her team “to get at Birmingham” in a way that you can’t against City – “without them tearing you apart”, anyway.

Three of last season’s FA Cup quarter-finalists were from the second-tier, while there was even room for third-tier side Huddersfield Town in the last 16.

But even the on-pitch magic of the cup glosses over just how far there is to go yet for the women’s game.

The prize money in the Women’s FA Cup is 100 times smaller than it is in the men’s.

Of course, commercial revenue plays its part, but some clubs will be forced to make trips for away ties that aren’t even worth the funds they receive for winning. Some clubs are losing money.

It’s an issue that has been raised time and time again, with the FA making steps towards helping the clubs lower down the pyramid.

But competitions like the Continental Cup, in its current midweek format, don’t help the state of the game.

In the group stages of the Conti Cup, they finished top, beating WSL side Liverpool and pipping fellow Championship promotion contenders, Aston Villa, to first place.

Sheffield United are not a team that need to make excuses for defeats, though. 

Despite having sympathy for her players, Ward was quick to dismiss the impact of her team working all day after defeat to City, saying there could be no greater motivation and energiser than the excitement of facing one of the best teams around.

But teams like Leicester, who were battered 11-1 by Manchester United midweek back in November, can be forgiven for feeling aggrieved by the demands of the Cup and the disparities between them, in sixth place in the Championship, and the elite.

This weekend’s Women’s FA Cup action will bring lots of positives of the women’s game to light.

UK news outlets will be littered with inspiring stories of part-time clubs, their players and their staff, while there are more than a handful of ties that have the potential to produce some exciting upsets.

But it’s just as important to pay attention to the stories of teams who will be out of pocket in a bid to avoid a thrashing.