Liverpool versus Manchester United Fails to Capture the Imagination

Continental Tyres Cup logo, 2018

French novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is probably not the most well-known figure in the history of the universe and certainly not a name that pops up regularly in women’s football. In fact, this might well be the first time anyone has ever connected the person with the sport.

But apart from being a very talented writer until his death in 1890, Karr coined a few of the more popular phrases used in modern literature. One of his finest was “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

What? Might be your response. Roughly translated it means, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” and there was a strong whiff of that quote metaphorically floating through the corridors of Prenton Park on Sunday afternoon.

It should have been a momentous occasion: it was Manchester United’s first match as a fully professional women’s team, it was against the club’s historical bitter rivals Liverpool, and it was Casey Stoney’s first match as a manager.

Aside from all of that, it was quite simply one of the first games of the season too, an exciting enough proposition in and of itself for any fan who is missing the World Cup or missing the lure of domestic football.

Little under a year ago roughly 1,500 people were at Widnes to watch Everton and Liverpool kick off the new season. Not a hugely popular venue among fans for its distance from the club’s Merseyside base, and the attendance was perhaps skewed by the fact the stadium played host to both clubs at the time but it was almost double the number of fans in attendance as Liverpool and United kicked off on Sunday.

There are always scheduling issues. Liverpool now play their home games at Tranmere’s Prenton Park, closer to the city and “Back on the Wirral” as manager Neil Redfearn put it to Our Game earlier this week.

But it couldn’t change the erratic attendances most teams are getting at the moment. With Manchester United’s men’s team playing Brighton later that afternoon it simply may be that fans were elsewhere but there was little sign of the many fans who complained for years on social media about the lack of a women’s team at the club.

To their credit, Liverpool’s fans who were in attendance turned out in their colors and a small pocket of them were in fine voice throughout their match. No abuse toward the five former Liverpool players in the United lineup, just chants about their current players and a whole host of new signings.

But is that really the best we can do? Through all the fanfare and furor over United’s women’s team, the attention surrounding the arrival of Stoney’s side has captured the women’s football world over the past months but it failed to capture the imagination of those who stayed away on Sunday afternoon.

Though, then, you have to wonder is it really any surprise? The game was on BT Sport for a starter, but as you turned up to the stadium you would never have known a game was on. It’s generally the same story at most matches played at a ground not owned by the team in question.

The only board outside the ground read “Next Fixture: Mansfield Town.” No signs, no advertisements, no billboards parading the team’s respective players within miles of the stadium. If you want people to care, it starts at the top.

The official FA WSL Twitter account (with a following of roughly 72,000 people) posted the Continental Cup fixtures on August 1st (18 days ago) and one solitary tweet looking back at last year’s final in the week leading up to the opening round of games.

Is that promotion? The FA Women’s National League was much more proactive in promoting their opening round of fixtures with dedicated graphics and player picture for every single match. They even managed to get their fixtures on the Sky Sports Football App, something the Continental Cup failed to do.

Most disappointing of all was Manchester United’s lack of updates themselves after promoting their team so well with a well-polished and shiny announcement video and the creation of a dedicated Twitter account now followed by more than 30,000 people.

The coverage amounted to team news, a few pictures from the warm-up, a halftime tweet and a full-time match report. No updates, no tweet to announce Lizzie Arnot had just scored the club’s first goal as a professional club in the 83rd minute away at their big rivals Liverpool.

The late goal avoided the possibility of penalties, another adaption of the rules causing confusion around the teams. Last year, teams were awarded two points for a win on penalties and one for a loss.

This year? Who knows. Some league tables have teams on three points and their opponents on zero. Some have the two and one while some tables even have the points shared one each. As usual, there’s little clarity and a whole lot of confusion and frustration.

It’s a shame because the game itself wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great, but two teams with brand-new squads is rarely going to show up as a footballing spectacle. The intensity was good, the tackling strong, and it was clear there was an extra bit of spice given the occasion.

United’s passing, in particular, in the midfield was excellent at times while Liverpool created enough chances themselves to win the game. There were nice stories all around the ground, from the many returning United graduates in the squad to the return of players like Leah Galton to English football.

Lauren James, a 16-year-old midfielder, was excellent. Sometimes you see a player and know they’ll go far in the game. The goal itself was well-worked by Stoney’s side, who was dressed nice and casual for the occasion.

Galton and captain Alex Greenwood linked nicely down the left and the latter’s perfect ball across the box was a gift for Scotland international Arnot.

After a year-long struggle regarding the new licenses, a whole host of new teams and new players, this weekend should definitely have felt like a new start in a new era for the women’s game in England. In reality, it felt like we’d never really been away.