FAWSL transfer window and big decisions ahead for women’s football

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The WSL is deep into winter hibernation now, with players on a hiatus from training until the spring. The transfer window is open and though a couple of high profile moves have been completed, it has yet to really get going as managers arrange their squads for next season. Typically, Chelsea have made the biggest splash by procuring England international attacking midfielder Kaz Carney from Birmingham City.

In Gemma Davison, Kaz Carney, Fran Kirby, Eni Aluko and Jo So-Yun, the defending champions have an embarrassment of riches to play behind or wide of the centre forward. One wonders if one of those top quality players may depart in light of Carney’s arrival. The wage cap in the WSL (a limited number of players can be paid more than the cap of £20k per annum) makes the prospect of quality spreading out slightly more likely.

Official news has been pretty quiet on the transfer front at Arsenal Ladies. As expected, goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain has departed for Liverpool Ladies. Siobhan is a top quality England international and, for my money, the best English goalkeeper. She came to Arsenal in 2013 and was unable to dislodge the long serving Emma Byrne. Chamberlain spent the second half of last season on loan at Notts County, with Pies keeper Carly Telford suffering from a shoulder injury obtained at the World Cup.

However, Chamberlain was cup tied for Notts’ run to the Continental Cup final, where they were well beaten by Arsenal. As a result, Telford was rushed back into action for the cup and Chamberlain again struggled for games. With Libby Stout having joined Boston Breakers from Liverpool, Chamberlain will be installed as their number 1. The writing was on the wall for Siobhan’s Arsenal career when Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal was signed from FC Twente in the summer.

van Veenendaal has since won the number 1 shirt, whilst Emma Byrne has signed a new contract despite losing her place, probably with a view to taking on a coaching role. Current goalkeeper coach Jason Brown currently splits his time between the Ladies team and the U-18s, so Byrne, a qualified coach, is a welcome presence on the training ground. The Gunners have announced the signing of her young compatriot Katie McCabe, an attacker from Shelbourne FC. McCabe is a left footed wide player and very likely considered a replacement for the departed Chioma Ubogagu and a potential heir for Rachel Yankey. As I understand it, Arsenal have a few more irons in the fire for the transfer window, including a high profile reinforcement in midfield. Watch this space.

Whilst Arsenal and their competitors make plans for the 2016 season, it ought to be a time of deep reflection for the administrators of the women’s game too. A number of bungled, high profile incidents marred women’s football in England during 2015. It has been a time of great progression on the pitch, with clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea rapidly professionalising, a challenge that Arsenal, the most decorated women’s team in English football, are beginning to respond to. The success of the Lionesses and their bronze medal winning efforts at the World Cup has also shone a welcome spotlight on women’s football.

England captain Steph Houghton, midfielder Fara Williams and leading broadcaster Jacqui Oatley were all recognised in the New Year honours list, illustrating the increasing profile of women’s football. Yet the clubs seem to be professionalising and evolving at a quicker rate than its governing bodies. The Continental Cup in particular was beset with administrative basic gaffes. Manchester City were initially disqualified from the tournament for fielding an ineligible player- a notice they were served some three and a half weeks after the offence was supposed to have taken place. Consequently, the quarter-final tie between Arsenal and Manchester City had to be postponed at 48 hours’ notice.

Manchester City’s appeal against the decision was upheld, with the F.A. forced into an embarrassing climbdown over their paperwork. The match was hastily rearranged at short notice. Inconveniently for City, it was set for three days prior to a potential title decider on the final weekend of the WSL season. The final itself proved to be one of the most poorly arranged events I have attended. At the end of the match, the organisers forgot to award Notts County their runners-up medals! Understandably, the Pies’ players took visible umbrage, shaking their heads and remonstrating as they left the pitch to the sound of cheap fireworks, with Arsenal already cavorting with the trophy.

Only one side of Rotherham’s New York stadium was open to spectators for the final- normal and sensible practice when it is clear that a ground is going to be little more than half full. Arsenal were presented the trophy with their backs to the crowd so that they could face the TV cameras and the press box. Nobody that paid admission to the ground got so much as a glimpse of the trophy, with Continental’s obstructive advertising hoardings obfuscating the already distant panorama. Having travelled from London to Rotherham for the game myself, it was difficult not to be a little peeved. Equally, the players did not take the initiative to come to the supporters’ with the trophy either.

The latter point neatly encapsulates a commercial dilemma with which the women’s game currently grapples. There does not seem to be an easy way to simultaneously accommodate widespread television coverage and encourage larger attendances. The F.A. have circulated a number of questionnaires to supporters regarding preferred kickoff times during the autumn. Games selected for coverage on BT Sport have been moved to Sunday evenings, because this is the only slot in the schedule where women’s football is not left to compete with televised Premier League fixtures.

However, this is a very inconvenient kickoff time for those watching the game live- especially as women’s football both targets and attracts a largely family audience. In particular, it prides itself on inspiring young girls to play. Saturday matches are next to impossible for WSL clubs, most of whom use local non-league grounds. Increased television coverage is very desirable for the women’s game in convincing people to go to the stadiums in the first place. Yet it’s next to impossible to find a television slot that is not decidedly undesirable for match goers. It is a conundrum that lacks a simple solution.

The F.A. have taken some action to try and make the Continental Cup (essentially, equivalent to the League Cup) a little more exciting. This season, they introduced WSL1 teams into the mix. In its nascent years, the tournament was only open to WSL clubs, which led to a lot of repeat fixtures and a distinct lack of variety. However, the experiment has failed somewhat. Donny Belles’ 3-2 win over Sunderland was the only exception in an otherwise clean sweep of victories for WSL teams against opponents from the division below. The gulf not only represents a division, but effectively sees professionals taking on amateurs. In the vast majority of cases, WSL reserve sides were able to comfortably cruise to victory.

Aside from the Manchester City debacle, there were further examples of poor administration from the FA, culminating in possibly the most pointless fixture ever played. Due to scheduling difficulties, Watford Ladies and London Bees were forced to play one another in Arsenal’s group over three weeks after the conclusion of the group phase. In fact, three of the four quarter-finals had already been played by this time and the two Hertfordshire sides effectively played off to decide who would finish bottom of the group. Exciting!

This year, the tournament will revert to a straight knockout format. Whilst this won’t amend the quality gap between WSL and WSL1 teams when they play against one another, an elimination format might inspire the lower division side. Group stages protect the bigger sides by removing the collateral damage of an upset in a one off game. That said, much as it is in the Champions League, sometimes the minnows appreciate the revenue of a fixed number of guaranteed home matches against opposition that are likely to draw in the crowds.

But strictly on the football side, it seems like a fair move and at least evidences that the FA retain some interest in the development of the women’s game. Because as it stands, the clubs are leaving the authorities behind, certainly in the top flight, when it comes to the professionalisation of women’s football. The WSL itself has been well thought out and administered sensibly for the most part since its inception in 2011. But some of the organisational bungling that has occurred in its associated tournaments make it difficult to believe that the Football Association really cares about furthering the women’s game as much as it says it does.

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