In 2019, women’s football was finally getting some long-deserved recognition.
- The Lionesses had reached the semi-finals of the FIFA World Cup – with a record 11.7 million viewers in the UK.
- Barclays were announced as a partner of The FA Women's Super League, thought to be the biggest-ever investment in UK women’s sport by a brand.
- The England team were getting ready to head to the Tokyo, 2020 Olympic Games.
- Then COVID-19 hit, bringing everything to a standstill.
The top two tiers of women’s football, the Championship and the Super League, are still in play, with team doctors and testing in place – but anything below that is classed as grassroots, so aren’t able to play.
Managers and players have told ITV News Tyne Tees that they’re worried the women’s game will fall back under the shadow of the men’s once again.
Steph Fairless manages Middlesbrough Women, she says her team are frustrated at being unable to play in the Tier they are in.
Steph and her players are also concerned by the suggestion that the lower league's FA Cup games in the women's leagues may be decided by the toss of a coin. She said:
“Because we’re so close to being elite, and we’ve had many players move up to those teams it’s difficult to see them still going to their games.
“Funding is a massive thing in the women’s game. We could win our league but not get promoted if we don’t have funding in place, which makes things like this even more difficult. We’re funded by people coming to our games, sponsorship – and due to COVID that’s obviously drifted off”
In 2017, the FA put together a ‘game plan for growth’ to boost women’s football, aiming to double participation, and double fans.
In the five years since:
Nearly 3.5m women and girls now play football in the UK, up from 2.4 million.
There are over 12,000 registered teams – that’s DOUBLE the amount registered in 2017.
Average attendance for a Women's Super League game has risen by 127% from 1,128 to over 3,000.
Now, with COVID halting games and training, players AND fans are just hoping this progress isn’t put on pause.
There are also concerns that the surge of young girls getting into football before the pandemic are now missing out on their chance to get involved, with sports at a grassroots level also on pause.
Chris Potter coaches Blyth Town Under 12’s, he says he’s worried some players could lose interest:
''Girls football is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, the uptake at a junior level is more than for the boys at the moment – there’s far more teams now than there was five years ago.
“There are concerns over COVID, the longer they go without playing, and seeing games, they might lose interest or find other things to do. Not being able to see all the tournaments and the Olympics that were planned could have a dent, the women’s World Cup really encouraged lots of girls into the sport and I hope that’s not lost.”
Even at the elite level, players are pushing the FA for more support and better solutions. Lucy Bronze is an England player who spent her youth career at Sunderland Academy and Blyth Town. The now named 'FIFA Player of the Year', is staying optimistic. She believes the love of the sport will make it through the pandemic:
“I think it would always go that men’s football gets more attention than the women’s game – but personally I’m on a lot of boards with FIFA Pro and the FA. I know it’s something people higher up are definitely aware of and I think people over the past 5/10 years have been aware and supported for women’s football, so they know how much harder hit it would be by a pandemic and know what needs to happen to keep it supported.
“[if you can’t play] There’s always something you can do, you just have to be more creative. Keep working hard, keep watching any women’s football you can on TV, and enjoy the things that are possible still. Play with your siblings, the dog, the wall… There’s so much good stuff coming when we get out the other side of this pandemic, we just have to keep going.