There was plenty to rave about following Women’s Football Weekend, with the abundance of intriguing narratives only rivalled by the level of talent on display across the WSL and Women’s Championship.
Manchester United generated plenty of the headlines, after they rallied to come from two goals behind to draw the Manchester Derby. The Red Devils currently sit atop the Women’s Super League and remain undefeated this season, a feat made more impressive by the fact they’ve only been re-established for a little over two years.
Indeed, the Glazer family disbanded United’s women’s team upon assuming control of the club back in 2005, stating it ‘didn’t align with their core business model’. They agreed to start it up again in 2018, but were heavily criticised for their approach — most recently by Megan Rapinoe, who branded United “disgraceful”.
“I kind of love what Rapinoe said. We shouldn’t have any revisionist history over how the women’s game has been treated in the past,” says Theo Lloyd-Hughes, co-host of women’s football podcast Relatively Football. “The Glazers bought Manchester United and immediately shut down the women’s team — that needs to be held to the fire.”
Since reforming, however, the team has gone from strength to strength. A huge part of that success is down to the manager, Casey Stoney, who’s been involved in United’s new project since its inception. Stoney was resolute in her response to Rapinoe’s comments and has been widely lauded for what she’s been able to achieve such a short space of time.
“It’s so impressive how Stoney has built such a deep squad and strong dressing room culture,” Lloyd-Hughes continues. “Also bringing through young players, which I think doesn’t get enough press: the players she’s recruited and worked with have developed into some of the best in the league.
“Players like Jackie Groenen, who was previously at Chelsea but has since become one of the best number eights in the WSL. Or Katie Zelem, who was actually at United as a youth player before they closed down the women’s team and ended up playing for Juventus, she’s had a homecoming and is thriving back in Manchester.”
Stoney’s ability to consistently get the best from her players has been exemplified through her team’s stellar performances. Her in-game substitutions and tactical tweaks at key moments have galvanised the side and led to big wins, not least over fellow title contenders Arsenal.
“United’s first win against a top three side, where they beat Arsenal 1-0, was a big moment,” freelance women’s football reporter Sophie Penney tells GiveMeSport. “Their high press stopped Arsenal playing out from the back, they had a very fast counter attack and kept [Vivianne] Miedema isolated when she played higher up the field.”
Stoney comes from a playing background herself so she knows what it takes, having earned 130 caps for the Lionesses and represented Great Britain at the London 2012 Olympic Games. A defender by trade, Stoney’s United side have typically been a sound defensive unit throughout her tenure.
“As a former defender, it’s no surprise Stoney has been able to set her team up to be solid, they just needed firepower at the other end, and they’ve certainly got that now,” says Richard Laverty, Sheffield United Women’s Media Officer. “Even if they don’t win the league, no-one will criticise them for it. It will still be a huge achievement if they finish in the top three.”
Whether United can go all the way this season and win the WSL remains to be seen, but there’s little doubt they’ve benefited massively from the league’s influx of American talent last summer, signing that aforementioned firepower in the form of U.S. internationals Tobin Heath and Christen Press.
“United were solid at the back and in the middle last season, but perhaps lacked a bit up front, and you saw that difference in the second half of the Manchester Derby,” VAVEL’s Deputy Editor of women’s football, Alex Ibaceta, explains. “Not a lot of players can pull out a strike like Heath did.”
“There were over a million views of Heath’s goal last weekend on the FA’s WSL Twitter page soon after she scored,” Laverty adds. “The official U.S. Women’s National Team account even tweeted it out too.”
The media interest stimulated by Heath and Press has arguably been as significant to United as the players’ performances on the pitch. The club’s official Instagram account recently surpassed one million followers and United have leveraged their global brand appeal, attracting new support and reaching a wider audience to great effect.
Penney agrees: “You only have to look at the shirt sales for Press and Heath, which outsold all of the United men’s shirts for the first three days after their signings. The experience they bring up front has really helped the team, too. Heath’s goals in particular have been brilliant strikes, and awe-inspiringly powerful. Bringing in such quality just shows how high United’s sights are set.”
But while United continue to set the bar for how a women’s football team should be run in 2020, Liverpool can be held up as a dire example of exactly what not to do. Liverpool Women were underfunded to the point of relegation last season, and Lloyd-Hughes believes this instead should have been the firm focus of Rapinoe’s indignation.
“It’s important what Rapinoe said, but maybe her words should be directed at teams like Liverpool instead, who deserve that criticism in 2020. Looking at how Liverpool got relegated last year: the state of the facilities, the manner in which the club dropped down a division, the tongue-in-cheek of what the men’s team spent on their title-winning fireworks display and celebrations. It’s egregious.”
Lloyd-Hughes’ point about facilities is a topical one, with Liverpool unveiling a new multi-million pound AXA training centre this week — a complex their women’s side will bafflingly not have access to.
“It really sucks,” says Ibaceta. “There’s no other way to put it. It’s disrespectful to the women’s game that such a big club is not even paying attention to one of its own teams. They’ve spent millions on this training facility, what’s a few more million to include your women’s team in that?”
Liverpool have had to regroup following relegation and now find themselves in the midst of their own title race, in the Women’s Championship. “It seems to have sparked a fire in the players,” Ibaceta continues. “They want to prove to the club that they are worth investing in and show the country that they’re well capable of playing in the WSL.”
While Liverpool have their sights set on getting promoted at the first time of asking, Lloyd-Hughes thinks the Championship deserves more credit for its diversity in professionalism and sheer entertainment value.
“I think it’s one of the only leagues you can go and watch week in, week out where one team is going to be fully professional and another one is going to be part timers. It’s fascinating to see the mix of resources, of old and new teams, some teams with Premier League backing, some with non-league backing, or clubs like Durham, who’re fully independent — and they’re currently top of the league!”
Laverty’s club Sheffield United are also in contention for the Championship title. “I think what has thrown in an extra curveball this season has been the improvement of the sides below the top four,” he says.
“Lewes drawing with ourselves, and Liverpool and Blackburn doing the same at the weekend. Charlton have also drawn with Durham, and London City have thrashed Leicester, so it’s massively open. Nobody could predict right now who’s going up.”
Liverpool now sit in third, three points behind leaders Durham, and will be hoping they can swiftly bounce back to the WSL. Even if they are promoted, though, it’s hard to imagine they’ll come close to competing for a Champions League spot in the years to come, simply given the current setup and lack of support.
With Manchester United blazing a new path for women’s football in England, perhaps it’s time Liverpool’s owners, FSG, took note and picked up the torch.