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Women's Football News
Patrick Higgins gives us his opinions on the year about to end...........
2011 has been a comparatively high profile year for women's football. Whilst that is a slightly dubious statement, given that there is very little coverage of any women's sport outside the specialist press, there were positive trends during the year just finishing.
The Women's World Cup was a huge success, despite the hosts' early exit. Large crowds, popular and deserved winners and an excellent last four with flair players and attacking intent all round made a positive impression on people unfamiliar with the women's game, as well as long time fans.
In this country the WSL made its delayed debut with a mission to engage an target audience of 9-15 year old girls and service the needs of the England team through providing a more competitive League environment.
Whilst personally being the very opposite of the stated target group for the WSL, I actually enjoyed much of what went on from April 12 to September 25. A number of clubs went out of their way to create a special atmosphere at the games each match, not just when the TV cameras, pop wannabes and FA dignitaries were there on the opening and final day.
Birmingham City were the success story of the WSL, despite their lack of trophies, breaking into the established order, providing a vibrant and enjoyable match day experience at Stratford and featuring the outstanding player in the country in 2011, Rachel Williams.
Bristol Academy also made great strides on and off the field and took advantage of an FA Cup Final appearance to bring European football to their home town. The enthusiastic 1500 plus crowd at Ashton Gate was heavily tilted towards the target audience that the FA wanted . The blue faced Smurf Army will hope for more big days out in 2012.
Arsenal won both WSL competitions to maintain their dominant position in the game, but were challenged strongly by Birmingham City. Everton and Lincoln City overcame poor starts to at least offer a credible challenge for the top half. Academy were a mix of good and bad in the League and the other three teams will hope to learn from their failure in 2011.
With innovation comes problems. The crazy schedule of the WSL, with two overly intense league periods divided by a two month gap was harmful to players and fan interest alike. How many of the 2,510 who attended the opening game in April were still engaged at the end of August? Around 100
were present at the final home League match at the same ground.
ESPN covered the League very well and have been making positive noises about increasing live coverage in 2012. Perhaps the real challenge will be to sustain the WSL into year 3 and beyond, a problem the American WPS has struggled to solve.
Away from the high profile stuff, an entire Pyramid of clubs continue to exist, from the purely social to serious, highly talented and organised teams whose players make great financial and time sacrifices to train, play and compete for the love of the game. The continuing financial squeeze has virtually every club relying even more on sponsorship from friends, family and local businesses in order to play on Sundays. No clubs get sufficient money from gate receipts or the FA in order to prosper and help from the men's side of the game is rare, compared to many countries on mainland Europe. An increasing number lower down the Pyramid have had to give up the unequal struggle as this season has unfolded.
The Premier League has benefited in term of competitive edge from the removal of the giants of the game to their summer refuge. Whilst some may wish for all women's football to run a summer schedule, it is nice, at least in a mild and dryish winter, to have the traditional season providing close and competitive Leagues to enjoy. All three WPL leagues are poised for an exciting conclusion in early 2012, despite the bizarre fixture schedule which led to one team completing their League season before Christmas and possibly having to wait nearly three months find out if they have been promoted or not!
The best bit about watching far too many games this year is when you spot a young player coming straight from junior football at age 16 and looking at home in top level senior football. In two successive WPL games in December, I was lucky enough to see players who, if they continue to develop, will surely become stars of future international teams.
With Team GB at the Olympics, Euro 2013 qualifying matches throughout the year and WSL 2 kicking off in April, as well as the traditional domestic and European Cup competitions in the early months, 2012 already looks likely to build on the successes of 2011.
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