A Season of Firsts for Women in Football

Ellie Tomlin 26 May 2021

Image courtesy of Ellie Tomlin, taken at a Rovers Ladies’ match at their ground in Bamber Bridge

Sunday 9 May saw the culmination of a tense Women’s Super League (WSL) title race. Chelsea’s 5-0 rout of Reading, sealed the title and pipped Manchester City to the price by a mere 2 points. With the powerhouses of Australian’s Sam Kerr and England’s Frank Kirby who have 37 goals between them, it’s no surprise that Chelsea are now back-to-back champions of the league. With Manchester City two points behind on 57 points, Arsenal in third with 48 points, just beating Manchester United who have 47 points, it seems clear just how exciting the WSL has become since its creation in 2010. The women’s championship has been equally enthralling this year with highflyers Leicester’s promotion already confirmed, but then only 4 points separate Durham in 2nd and Sheffield United in 4th.

But, away from the pitch, the 20-21 season has seen huge strides being made in both leagues and also for women in football in general. There have been many occasions this year that have been historic for women in the game, in spite of the pandemic and loss of income for clubs.

With the league title confirmed, Chelsea’s and head coach Emma Hayes’ attention turned towards a potential, historic quadruple. Unfortunately, it was not to be for Chelsea last Sunday in Sweden as the Spanish side Barcelona came away with an incredible 4-0 victory to rob them of that dream, for this season. However, despite the result, Emma Hayes made history. Hayes, already Chelsea’s most successful manager overtaking José Mourinho by one trophy, became the first female coach to reach a champion’s league final in 12 years. With half of the teams in the WSL led by females, this statistic will hopefully be irrelevant in the future. In comparison, the United States only currently have 1 female coach within their 11 teams in the National Women’s super league.

It hasn’t just been players and managers making history this year. Referee, Rebecca Welch, became the first female to referee a men’s match in the English Football league. Let that sink in! It has taken until now for a woman to referee the whole of a men’s game. Welch stepped out on the 5th April at Harrogate Town as they hosted Port Vale in a League 2 clash. Whilst this was an incredible achievement for Welch and women in the sport in general, it didn’t come without its fair share of dislike from fans within the league. It’s time that people realise that the referee’s gender does not affect their performance or their ability to carry out their job on the pitch. Hopefully, next season will see more female referees in the English Football League, perhaps in bigger stadiums with the fans present.

Since the world cup in 2019, the popularity of Women’s football has skyrocketed. So much so that there is a lot more exposure of the game both here and abroad that allows for taboos within the sport to be broken. More recently, a podcast named ‘we play strong’ has been released featuring the host Rocky Hehakaija, Shanice van de Sanden and Nadia Nadim with guests including Lucy Bronze and Pernille Harder and is the first UEFA women’s football podcast. With such a big platform, this podcast has really given players a voice to talk about the struggles that women face in football and in sport more widely particularly through periods, pay and lack of training and facilities.

In England, the game is about to get more exciting. A new landmark deal has been signed with the FA, Sky Sports and the BBC with a vision to broadcast more live women’s games than ever before. This multi-million-pound agreement will see Sky Sports broadcasting a minimum of 35 games and the BBC showing 22 live games per season, with a minimum of 18 matches on BBC 1&BBC 2. The contract will run until the summer of 2024 and is the first time that rights to the WSL games have been sold separately to the men’s game. And the best bit? Clubs will receive the revenue generated and money will also be distributed to the Championship to help clubs develop their teams and training facilities further. Whilst more details are to be released soon, this is an incredible contract starting next season and is something to get excited about- more people and particularly young girls will get to watch more women’s football than ever before. Games not shown on these platforms will continue to be streamed live on the FA Player (a free player, just an account is needed).

So, as we close the curtain on another football season and wave goodbye to legends including Fara Williams- England’s most capped player- the future of women in football is very much still to play for. With the Women’s European Championship around the corner taking place in 2022, it will be interesting to see how much media attention is attracted and how many bums on seats there are at games when fans are allowed back into stadiums.