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Women's Football News
By Patrick Higgins
As always, this year provided a rich tapestry of events, trends and drama in women's football. The fourth season of the FA WSL, the qualification of the national team for the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup and a friendly played at Wembley all attracted increased attention from the mainstream media and hopefully brought in new interest and support.
The senior national team completed a perfect qualification campaign for Canada 2015, were finalists in the Cyprus Cup and convincingly beat Sweden but were given a glimpse of world elite level by European Champions Germany in front of 45,000 spectators at a wet Wembley. The Under-20 team were eliminated in the World Cup group stages with a disappointing return of one draw and two defeats.
Scotland once again fell just short of qualification for a major tournament, though their defeat over two legs to the Netherlands in a play-off was less heartbreakingly narrow than previous exits. Surely Euro 2017 in Holland will be their time, perhaps also for Wales who continued their steady progress at national team level.
Liverpool won the FA WSL 1 title on a dramatic final day. Traditionalists will regret the first ever FA WSL 'on field' relegation of former powerhouse club Everton, but at least the Toffees will have two promotion places in WSL 2 to play for in 2015. Many people beyond Wearside will be delighted by the promotion of Sunderland to the top league, reward for years of excellence and a fantastic record in developing top quality players.
The expansion of the FA WSL brought franchises to new areas of the country and most of the additions justified their selection on and off the field. A most welcome development was the agreement to provide an extra FA WSL place for the many deserving FAWPL candidates in 2016 and 2017, to be decided by a play-off between the winners of the Northern and Southern divisions.
Sheffield FC dominated the FAWPL Northern Division in 2013-14 and lifted the League Cup, whilst the Southern Division saw a thrilling battle between Gillingham and Coventry City which was only decided in the Sky Blues' favour on the final day in late May. The prize of a place in the FA WSL has made 2014-15 even more competitive in both divisions.
Manchester City won the Continental Cup to break Arsenal's dominance of that competition but the Gunners lifted the FA Women's Cup to end Shelley Kerr's tenure of the club on a happy note. The sensible timing and location of the FA Cup Final in 2014 led to a welcome recovery in attendance for the showpiece event of the women's domestic calendar.
Beyond the limelight, hundreds of clubs and dozens of leagues continued to battle against winter weather, rising costs and the need to secure funds in order to survive. The FA took over the running of an expanded FAWPL with over 70 clubs coming under the new branding. Hopefully, the dialogue which secured this move will be maintained in order to improve competition formats and perhaps even allow greater financial support from the governing body in future years. Two clubs have already had to withdraw from the new set up, hopefully there will not be others in 2015. The eventual harmonisation of the playing season would help end the regrettable divide between the WSL and 'winter game'.
In my opinion, eleven years of watching and reporting has seen a notable increase in standards of play at all levels, testimony to the dedication of players, coaching staff and administrators working, in most cases, for minimal reward and love of the game. However, caution is needed as the sport moves into an era of increasing professionalism. The worst thing the women's game could do is to continue to mimic trends in the men's game with its money driven hierarchy and lack of consideration for the grass roots of the game.
My personal highlights of the year were Portsmouth's great battles against WSL opponents in the FA Women's Cup, a thrilling last gasp win for Norwich City in the South East Combination League Cup Final and Bristol Academy's triumph over Barcelona in the UEFA Women's Champions League Round of 16.
No summary of the year would be complete without mentioning the passing of Ken Brown, whose passionate enthusiasm for the women's game and those involved in it was transmitted to all who met him.
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