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Women's Football News
As the year draws to a close, Patrick Higgins - surely women's football's 'Superfan' - reflects on the past twelve months and his hopes for 2014:
Any period of twelve months in any mass participation activity will include change but looking back at 2013 in women's football, it feels closer to being a defining year, at least in this country. The regime change in leadership of the national teams, the selection of ten clubs to expand the Women's Super League and the rolling out of the changes described in the FA's 'Game Changer' document have given the year a 'beginning of an era' feel. The landscape of the sport has changed forever and, as always, there have been winners and losers as the evolutionary process gathers pace.
A major catalyst for change was the dismal showing of the England senior team at the UEFA European Championships in Sweden in July. The dismissal of Head Coach Hope Powell was announced just as the England Under-19 team was starting a highly creditable campaign in their own version of the competition held in Wales and leading to a runners-up spot, revealing that the mid to long term supply of senior international candidates is healthy. The Under-17s failed to qualify for their World Cup, losing out on penalties but gaining valuable experience in a home based UEFA European Championship.
Brent Hills was rewarded for a flawless interim managership with the post of Head of Elite Women's Performance in December but the big prize went to Mark Sampson whose immediate task is to ensure qualification for the 2015 FIFA World Cup in Canada. Sampson had overseen one of the success stories of 2013 as manager of Bristol Academy WFC, whose second place finish in the FA WSL and FA Women's Cup Final appearance bore witness to an ability to get a group of players performing to their maximum.
Liverpool defeated Bristol Academy in a title deciding showdown on the final day of the WSL season but arguably the decisive moment was Gemma Bonner's 89th minute thunderbolt which settled their first meeting on August 10th. That 4-3 away win gave Liverpool the margin of comfort and meant that Academy needed a win on the final day. There is little doubt that Liverpool deserved the title for their excellent recruitment and the skill of manager Matt Beard in finding a settled team shape which brought out the best in so many players.
The Liverpool triumph came after nine years of domestic league domination by Arsenal. Under new manager Shelley Kerr, the Gunners lifted both domestic cups but were consigned to third place in the WSL due in part to a points deduction imposed for an administrative error. The subsequent exodus of players from the club might be seen as the end of an era. Certainly it would seem that Arsenal are no longer the brand leaders in terms of investment and training schedules, or at least their ground breaking approach to the sport has been taken a step further by rivals.
The expansion of the WSL was always going to be a controversial process. In fact 33 clubs, including the eight founder members, applied for WSL 1 or 2 franchises with a maximum of 20 to be chosen. In the end, 18 were successful and 15 were not. Clearly, the successful applicants were those who were deemed best able to offer what the governing body wanted. Many neutrals felt dismayed at the timing of the announcement of Doncaster Rovers Belles' placement in WSL 2 for 2014, one game into their 2013 WSL1 campaign.
The next expansion date is currently set at 2018 so those wishing to join the elite have plenty of time to prepare their proposals.
Of course 98% of adult women footballers operate in around 1,000 clubs outside the newly constituted elite structure. WSL bound Sunderland and Aston Villa took the honours in the Women's Premier League National Division and League Cup respectively. Reading FC Women and Sheffield FC won the WPL Southern and Northern Divisions and Oxford United, Stoke City, Chesham United and South Durham & Cestria won their Combination leagues. One notable and regrettable casualty during 2013 was Colchester United who were unable to complete their season after an exemplary record of developing and promoting local talent over recent years.
Recent announcements from the FA have clarified their vision of the new landscape. The major change is the removal of the FA Women's Premier League from 2014 in favour of a Championship which combines the current WPL with the Combination leagues. All available information seems to indicate a considerable reduction in FA funding for the WPL clubs going forward. The change in league name is to ensure that there is a 'clear tier structure within the women's football pyramid', the Championship being deemed the 'third and fourth tier' of the women's game, according to the FA statement.
Particularly unfortunate amongst many victims in this process is one club which has gone from being members of the highest league in 2010-11 to being designated 'third tier' in 2014 without having suffered relegation on the field!
On a personal note, I completed ten years as a fan of the game and saw 96 matches in 2013. My match of the year was Denham United 5 Norwich City 4 in the South East Combination on the opening day of the 'traditional' season on August 18th. A brilliant rollercoaster of a match on Denham's return to Combination level football, reflecting all that is best in the women's game.
I hope the future will be bright for all levels of the game with the FA commitment to a 'thriving winter pyramid' being properly honoured and their ambitious plans for elite development bearing fruit for English talent.
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