Manchester United reveal FA women's model flaws
Photo: James Boyce, CC BY 2.0
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has five wins in as many matches. His team scored 16 goals in those games while shipping only three. This article has nothing to do with that. Apologies if you clicked on a link without realising this discussion centres on a Manchester United squad who blow those numbers away: Casey Stoney's women's team.
The Red Devils top the table in the FA Women's Championship. The club spent heavily to recruit stars and former academy players for their debut campaign. If Financial Fair Play existed in the WSL, United would surely be in violation. However, the FA wants clubs to invest in women's teams to catch up to the rest of UEFA.
In their first 11 games, Stoney's group won nine and drew one. They scored 52 goals while conceding four. I think that qualifies as blowing away. Unfortunately, Tottenham Hotspur, Charlton Athletic and Durham don't.
The Addicks and Wildcats are third and fourth respectively. Each has scored slightly more than half United's tally while surrendering more than twice as many. Despite that, the pair can both overtake the league leaders with one result. Spurs claim 26 strikes and 15 shipped but can pull level if United lose a second time and they draw despite their goal difference standing at less than a quarter of their quarry's. The FA Championship is top-heavy in the extreme. The drop-off from Durham to Leicester City in fifth is nine points.
A similar drop-off exists between the top two tiers in English women's football and the lower leagues. In part, the competition is so tight at the top in the Championship because only two promotion places are on offer. Despite that, finishing first or second is only the first step in the process. Clubs must also bid for licenses annually and be approved by the FA. Resources and infrastructure matter much as they do in the Non-league men's game. The spending requirements put off many clubs who see the women's game as a money pit, killing their ambition, installing a glass ceiling a little higher than the old one.
United have little worry regarding glass ceilings. If they secure promotion, only Liverpool's Prenton Park [16,587] will hold more people than Leigh Sports Village's 12,000. The club is fully-funded and professional. The Glazers have enough money to fill several pits.
It's clubs like Durham, the only side to take three points from United, who must worry. The Wildcats are the sole team in the top two tiers not affiliated with a men's club and therefore not subsidised in any fashion.
Last season, Sunderland declined to apply for a WSL license due to the costs. With the club for sale and the men floundering, the seventh-place-from-10 Black Cats elected to drop down and remain part-time.
While the FA policy aims to establish a strong top-flight to rival Europe, it won't serve the game's growth if the gap between haves and have-nots is too great. The strongest structures are built on solid foundations. Those assembled from the highest tier are like Manchester United's opponents, easily blown away. That's why the term is 'top'-pled. When the giants sign the all the best players and the minnows don't finance academies, fewer women gain the opportunity to develop their games. The talent pool shrinks rather than growing and independent Durham and the Barnet-affiliated London Bees could be priced out of the competition [like Sunderland] while they can still play most sides off the park.
There's sufficient talent that despite their statistical dominance, United must still work to maintain their position. They can distance themselves from Charlton on their Sunday morning visit to Bayliss Avenue for a 09:00 AM kickoff. If you're going to Wembley to see the men take on Tottenham, maybe book a hotel and take the train down on Saturday evening so you can compare for yourself.
If the season's second half plays out like the first, United will join the WSL next season. The club will be fighting City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea on two fronts. Talk about your comparisons. I used to wonder what would happen if United allowed their two first-team managers to exchange squads for a time. The thought was inspired by Stoney's success. If the men's team was open-minded, I thought, they might enjoy their football for a while and even win some matches. I always put the notion away when I considered Jose Mourinho's potential effect on the women's momentum. I'm not a sadist. With Solskjaer now Stoney's counterpart, though, any such transition might be seamless and certainly interesting.
Before the FA banned women's football from its grounds in 1921, the game was as popular as the men's. One match is documented as drawing over 50,000 spectators. The FA didn't lift its ban for another 50 years. It then spent nearly that much time again ignoring the women's game. It's time to pay the debt owed. Rather than ensuring the best women can compete as professionals, it should be the FA's mission to ensure all women have the opportunity to compete and do so in the same stadiums as the men before comparable crowds, as it once was.