“I’ve said for years, the minute we start talking about performances and results rather than anything else, then I’ll know we’ve won. But we’re not there yet. We don’t talk about performances, we talk about the story, which is great, there are loads of stories to tell and that’s fantastic, but we want to talk about the talent on the pitch.”
— Manchester United manager Casey Stoney before her side walked out in front of more than 30,000 fans to face their city rivals for the first time in the FA Women’s Super League at the Etihad Stadium
When a further 24,000 watched Chelsea versus Tottenham Hotspur 24 hours later, all the talk since has once again been about “tipping points” and “watershed moments,” just like it was four years ago, two years ago, and likely how it will be again after Tokyo next summer and certainly after Euro 2021, hosted here in England.
But at what stage do we start focusing on the product on the pitch? The FA Women’s Super League has been running for eight-and-a-half years now, surely long enough to start praising what happens on the pitch more regularly than talking about how it continues to grow off of it?
The attendances witnessed at both the Etihad and Stamford Bridge were superb and shattered the previous records that didn’t even stretch to five figures, but the bigger talking point will be sustaining it, relatively, when both teams return to their regular City Academy and Kingsmeadow venues in more than a month’s time.
Such was the focus on the main two games of the weekend that everything else largely became white noise, but there were some key themes across all six games on the opening weekend that went a long way to proving just why we should now be focusing more on the quality in those 90 minutes in between the headlines and stories.
The guests at the main parties were Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, respectively, two newly-promoted sides making the big step-up to the FA WSL for the first time, and both facing two teams who have won the FA WSL three out of the last four seasons between them.
Manchester City and Chelsea have more resources, better players, and are more established at this level — Tottenham was playing their first game as a full-time outfit and Manchester United is still in the process of building a squad that didn’t exist just over 12 months ago.
Both newcomers lost, 0–1, and both will feel like they could have got something against more experienced and more illustrious opposition. Many criticized the push toward a completely full-time FA WSL, but after progress last season, this weekend showed this really will be the most closely contested and hardest-to-predict league there has been since its inception in 2011, and that’s down to the extra commitment of the clubs in question and their ability to offer their players full-time careers in football.
When Doncaster Rovers Belles gained promotion back to the FA WSL in 2016, they were only in a financial position to offer certain players full-time football. What followed was a season in which they failed to win until the final day of the season and were relegated with four games still to go of the season.
Everton and Bristol City have made more resilient attempts at sustaining a spot in the FA WSL, but Yeovil Town also found the step-up from part-time football difficult, though it’s easy to admit both Manchester United and Tottenham have more resources and access to better facilities than any of their predecessors.
Beyond the two games played on the biggest stages, the other four games have barely had a mention over the weekend, but none were won by more than a one-goal margin, with two further 1–0s (Reading vs. Liverpool; Everton vs. Birmingham City), a 2–1 (Arsenal vs. West Ham United), and a hard-fought 0–0 between Bristol City and Brighton & Hove Albion.
There has never been a closer or more competitive opening day of the FA WSL season. While it’s easy to point and say none of last season’s top three looked convincing — Arsenal could easily have dropped points against West Ham — we must also credit the work done by Manchester United, Tottenham, and, indeed, the Hammers who also came in from the cold 12 months ago.
Liverpool and Reading played out an entertaining 1–0 to the Royals and have always enjoyed close encounters, while even the 0–0 between Bristol and Brighton brought about an interesting tactical affair between a highly rated coach in her second season in the league and one who knows everything there is to know about the women’s game.
There was little to no talk of Reading’s excellent away win at Vicky Jepson’s side or about Everton’s second league away win in two years. There was no talk of how impressive Léa Le Garrec, a relative unknown in England, was on her debut for Brighton, or how Martha Thomas slotted straight into the West Ham team after arriving from the French second division.
There was little talk of how superb the goalkeeping was over the first weekend, bar some eye-catching saves in the two big games, mainly from Ellie Roebuck and Becky Spencer. The likes of Anke Preuss, Hannah Hampton, Sophie Baggaley, and Megan Walsh were little more than an afterthought for their performances, and there’s something deep within which is uncomfortable with that.
What we do know after the first weekend is that we don’t actually know anything at all. For the first time we can safely say we don’t really have a clue who is going to win the league, we don’t know who will miss out on the Champions League, and we certainly don’t know which team out of a pot of maybe five or six will see themselves relegated at the end of the season.
With such an exciting season ahead, maybe it’s time to start looking at just what a good product has been created week in, week out, and that perhaps the tipping point for that came well before the weekend just gone.