This weekend women’s football in England will celebrate the first designated Women’s Football Weekend across the country.
With games being played at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Anfied, the Madejski Stadium, and the AMEX among others, it’s another big weekend for a sport that is now ever-present in the public eye.
But it’s been a long road to get here. Twenty-three teams are now housed between the top two divisions, but it was just eight back in 2011 when the FA Women’s Super League kicked off as a one-tier championship, with the debut season even pushed back a year after an initial plan to launch in 2010.
From Feasibility Study to Legacy
Sally Horrox, formerly of The FA, was a key figure in the creation of the new Women’s Super League a decade ago this month when plans were first made public for a new licensed league, the first in football, and she recalls how a six-week feasibility study turned into a legacy that has seen the league go strength to strength, but with several major bumps along the way.
“I was working on the 2008–2012 FA strategy,” recalled Horrox. “It was the whole game, not just the women’s. We started on that in 2007 and out of that came the opportunity. We were losing all our players to the USA, it was a defensive move in the first place to be honest. It became clear we should investigate the opportunity for professional and commercial development of the women’s game.
“We were keen to give opportunities for the women to stay and play in this country. Brian Barwick, the CEO, appointed me so it’s a long time ago! The original brief was a six-week brief to look at whether it was feasible, start at the top of the game because we had our top English players playing on shoddy pitches, poor facilities et cetera.”
Horrox presented the pros and cons to the FA board, looking at how visibility could be increased, how the league could change perceptions, and even in the long-term generate commercial revenue, something that was almost impossible at the time.
“They said it was good and six weeks turned into six years,” she laughed. “We were all out gunning to launch it in 2010 but it got pushed back because of Setanta [sports TV channel that closed down in 2009]. We wanted to get it on TV and Setanta would have taken it as part of their FA deal but they went bust, so teams were applying and we had to have a big summit meeting; the clubs came in and we told them we’d have to put it back a year.”
With the previous Women’s Premier League containing 12 teams, the new FA WSL would be capped between 8 to 10 sides, a conscious decision Horrox admits to increase the “competitive balance,” despite the FA receiving 19 bids from clubs for licenses.
“We had some very long conversations with Hope Powell at the time. We mapped all the players, all the players abroad, the youth and talent coming through, and we looked at where we thought we could get fans into games and we came down on the side of a tight, closed, controlled environment.
“We’d seen what was going on in the States. They’d had a league go bust so we didn’t want to go crazy. We had to get it right so we could open it up later on when we went to a second division.”
The FA targeted qualified coaches, youth development, facilities, commercial and marketing as well as performance on the pitch as requirements for a license, criteria that Horrox says hasn’t differed too much to the present date.
With an upheaval obvious and a move to a summer league mooted, Horrox admits she and her team had plenty of work to do to get the existing clubs on side as the clock ticked toward the first Women’s Super League.
“It was tough,” she said. “I remember going on the road. We spent about a year on the road and we’d see the 10 northern clubs, 10 midlands clubs, and 10 southern clubs. We had to persuade them, and I remember having a big meeting with Steve Shipway at Birmingham City and we just had to persuade them it was the right thing for the game. Not everybody was on board initially.
“Not everybody was happy. We had some really tense meetings and some fights along the way. Arsenal were the leading light and I spent a lot of time with Vic Akers because I knew if he was in favor of it a lot of other people would be. I was up at London Colney with him and he took a lot of persuading, but in the end, he was a fantastic advocate for it.”
Horrox added, “He wanted to wait and grow the game organically but we knew we had to do something there and then to move the game on. The biggest issue was the shift to the summer season, that was what the clubs were dead set against, but we had to do it to create TV coverage and make it different. We wanted people to see it as summer football, as something different, for kids, for families. It was a bit of a risk but I think it was right at the time, but the clubs were against that because they couldn’t get facilities.
“We got a lot of good will for making the effort to talk to teams, to listen to them. For example, we didn’t have minimum financial standards, which there is now, that would have killed it off straightaway. We were flexible on facilities, we had to be a bit more realistic.”
While the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and others began to take women’s football more seriously the longer the FA WSL went on, Manchester City and Manchester United were still conspicuous by their absences.
City would eventually join the FA WSL when the first restructure occurred in 2014, while United wouldn’t come in until 2018, starting out in the new FA Women’s Championship, but Horrox admits she wasn’t concerned at the time by the absence of two giants.
“It was alright because Garry Cook, their CEO, called and we went to see City. They wanted to talk to us, we made ourselves available to clubs, and United at that time didn’t take up our invitation for a meeting but they said, ‘not now,’ it wasn’t for them at the time.
“City said the same but we had some brilliant meetings with them. They had a new leadership team, they’d just started building the academy stadium, and it was just too early for them — they told us they just weren’t ready yet. They said they wanted to do it right and they said, ‘We’ll be ready in a few years’ and do it in the way they wanted to do it.”
The first three seasons saw the competitive balance addressed. Arsenal still dominated the silverware but competition was close with the likes of Everton, Birmingham City, and Bristol Academy challenging the leaders.
In 2013, Liverpool’s investment led to back-to-back titles and Arsenal wouldn’t go on to win the league again until this year, after Man City did eventually enter and Chelsea too invested heavily to overthrow their dominance.
Restructure and Pro/Rel
Horrox believes the first few years “exceeded expectations” as the league moved toward another new era in 2014 with the expansion to include an FA WSL 2, with promotion and relegation opened up between the two leagues.
“I don’t want to over blow it or sound too arrogant. A lot of planning went into it originally and we all knew what we were letting themselves in for. The clubs delivered what they said they would and it was competitive.
“Bearing in mind we’d just had Arsenal, we had four or five clubs vying in the first few years. We had mixed results, we had good attendances, we were on BT Sport, we had players moving onto semiprofessional contracts.”
In 2014, more upheaval came about with the first big test for the FA as the decision to re-open licenses was good news for some and bad news for others.
With teams below the FA WSL “chomping at the bit” as Horrox describes it to get into the league, the decision came to expand to a two-tier system, but not without criticism.
“That was really controversial and we got a lot of stick for it,” Horrox recalled. “I went to UEFA to show people what we were up to and to show other countries and we got absolutely slammed: ‘It wasn’t football, it was counter-cultural, it was the wrong thing to do,’ it was really firm but we stood firm too and said it was the best chance of making it a success.
“We didn’t want teams yo-yoing. The FA were putting money in, teams were putting money in, and we wanted them to know they were safe for three years and they’d be on the TV, we-were-in-it-together kind of thing. It was more, ‘Let’s prove it can work and then we’ll expand.’ The question was would we go to 10, 12 teams or add in a whole new league, and I think the second tier was definitely the right thing to do.”
One major victim of the restructure was one of the women’s games most historic and successful clubs — Doncaster Rovers Belles. With the licensing criteria strictly applied, the Belles lost their place in the league to Manchester City, with the insinuation the Premier League giants had bought their way in.
Belles had to make do with a place in the newly created FA WSL 2, alongside the likes of Sunderland, Reading, Yeovil Town, and several more.
Horrox regrets the situation, but says the licensing was done on a “very strict application process” and facilities were becoming an increasing issue for the club.
“I was involved,” she recalled. “It went to arbitration, lawyers were involved and it got nasty, personally nasty. Honestly, it was done by the book, by the strength of application and probably the reason people have that ill will because it wasn’t football, what about legacy? What about history? I got that, I volunteered in clubs and it’s heartbreaking for people who had given up so much but it was really done on a very strict application process.”
“Belles had big facility issues and had them over the three years. There were fixtures they couldn’t meet, you could shift fixtures three times but there were five or six games and they just couldn’t adhere to the license restrictions and they were strictly applied when the restructure happened.
“The Keepmoat [Stadium] was almost a poisoned chalice, they couldn’t find a regular venue. We went to Castle Park, the rugby ground, a few times. We just tried to find them a home they could stay in where they didn’t have to cancel matches. The Keepmoat was brilliant but it cost them so much money, they couldn’t have a fixture if there was a wedding going on, it was just really difficult.
She added, “They appealed it and the decision was upheld. Maybe it was super tough because you saw who came in instead of them and people thought they’d bought their way in.”
When it’s put to Horrox that the kind of clarity offered now may have been useful at the time to help fans understand the decision, she accepts maybe it would have helped the situation.
“When things like that happen, everyone closes ranks,” she said. “Legal proceedings were involved, lawyers were involved, and everyone becomes very quiet. Maybe that’s not the best thing, maybe we should have been more open, if it happened again would it be different? I don’t know, but I know what you mean, where there’s a void, others fill it and when there’s anger and emotion, I completely get it from a fan perspective, I’d have been up in arms if it was my club and my players. I get that, completely. It got really heated and really emotional and I think people just battened down the hatches I suppose.”
On the alternate side, one of the big success stories to come out of the new FA WSL 2 was independently-funded Durham.
Striking a link with the local university, Durham have become a mainstay in the league and in the past few seasons has more than threatened to finish in the promotion spots to the FA WSL, though it hasn’t happened just yet.
“I can remember going to Manchester for a club meeting and we were with Manchester City that day and Durham the next day. Dawn [Hepple] and Lee [Sanders] came in and it was one of my highlights of the last 10 years, these two people were as passionate about women’s football as you like. They sat there and were really honest and said, ‘We’d love to do this but we don’t think anyone will take us seriously. Why would The FA give us the money? We think we can do this, we’ve got the talent, but we’re nobodies.’
“They asked if it was a waste of their time and I told them to go for it. I couldn’t guarantee them a license there and then but I was blown away by how passionate they were, how professional they were. They had so many ideas and plans and they’d gone out and found the money. They were just brilliant. We all had tears in our eyes, I left them and just told them to go for it, they did it, and look where they are now, I love it. It’s that sense of, ‘Look what you can do if you have that independence and commitment.’”
Building the Core
With the two leagues now in place, the focus was on building a core product that could become commercially viable in the coming years.
A year on from the restructure, Mark Sampson’s Lionesses brought home a bronze medal from the 2015 Women’s World Cup in what Horrox describes as a “pinnacle moment” for the league and the game itself.
“It’s a bit clichéd but it was. I was in Canada for six weeks so I didn’t see what was going on back home, but I saw what it was like when we came home.
“There was a really sense people cared about the girls. The support was great and while we haven’t cracked attendances week in, week out, there is always a bump after a moment like that.”
Attendances were slowly on the rise as Horrox came toward the end of her time with the FA in 2017. Her final task was around broadcasting. With BT Sport signed up as a principal partner from day one, Horrox wanted to improve visibility on terrestrial television and increase sponsorship opportunities with Continental and SSE already on board long-term as the sponsors of the two main cup competitions.
“Continental was the first sponsor we got,” she reflected. “It was peanuts, tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands or millions as it is now. They were brilliant, they were interested in the women’s game and they were a little bit ahead of the time. It was great, they absolutely got it.
“SSE were the next ones to basically say, ‘We’re doing this because we want every girl to have the same opportunities as boys,’ and that was a deal myself and Sally Hancock put together, we have a lot to thank them for.”
While Horrox is no longer attached to the FA, she’s still consulted on the future of the game as the sport heads toward an Olympic Games in Tokyo next year and hosting the European Championships in 2021.
“I still think the men’s clubs can do more,” she admitted. “The amount of time, money, and effort it takes to run a women’s club is big, when you throw a lot at it you can pull in the crowds. That doesn’t happen week in, week out, because that costs a lot of money and a lot of clubs are losing money.
“There’s been meetings with clubs about what’s next. How do we take it to the next step? Everyone needs to kick in and that’s where the conversations with the Premier League come in I suppose, because to really shift it up another gear I think it will take something quite significant to get thousands of people watching in stadiums every week.”
Horrox, though, knows the league is far ahead of some others where despite the strength of their clubs, the structure may be failing, while also appreciating other countries are starting to invest with the hope of surpassing the likes of England.
“It’s been really interesting taking it into Europe. France needs a lot of work doing and Germany does too.
“Spain are coming up fast, Italy are investing, so there’s a lot going on out there. We have to work hard to keep up, hopefully in another 10 years we’ll be even stronger.”