The women’s football season will kick off after a controversial and dramatic summer which saw a nationwide restructure, the birth of new clubs, and some shock relegations. As always, managers have come and gone, but ahead of match day number one, we break down the structure of the leagues, lay out the teams to watch, and let you know the stand-out players.
So, it’s structured the same as the men’s leagues – right?
Not quite. For starters, only those in the WSL (Women’s Super League) are full-time professionals. Those in the Championship are semi-professional, with players often balancing ‘normal’ jobs on top of their playing careers.
Secondly, winning the Championship doesn’t automatically gain you promotion to the WSL. You’ve got to fulfil certain criteria to get in with the upper echelon.
This includes playing staff delivering a minimum of 16 hours of daytime contact per week (plus matches) and a detailed marketing plan to help generate further support and interest to the game, all whilst ensuring that an ‘elite performance environment’ is in place.
It’s a fancy way of saying the club needs to provide access to all the stuff a men’s side would have, such as a physio, dietitian, dedicated training facilities, performance analysts, and so on. Each club also has to have a separate bank account to its men’s side and must prove to the FA that it has generated enough funding and sponsorship to sustain itself for the following season.
This is also how relegation is decided, with any team failing to comply with these regulations facing the drop, even if they don’t finish in the bottom two. Sunderland Ladies fell victim to this earlier this month, after it was confirmed that they would be playing in the FA Women’s National League for the 18-19 Season.
They’ll be joined by Doncaster Rovers Belles – the most successful side in women’s football – despite the Yorkshire side running away with the WSL2 title last year. It would be like Wolves being relegated even though they won the Championship.
Who’s worth watching?
One of the best things about these leagues is that on their day, anyone can be beaten. We saw City flounder last season, whilst Yeovil Town proved tough opponents despite failing to register a win all season.
Liverpool – Women’s Super League
After the departure of Scott Rodgers at the end of last term, the Reds wasted no time in hiring ex-Donny Belles manager Neil Redfearn as his replacement. The 53-year-old has pillaged his former side, addressing the Reds’ defensive frailties with the the likes of Rhiannon Roberts, Leandra Little, and Sophie Bradley-Auckland, whilst Jasmine Matthews makes the journey north from Bristol City.
Goalkeeper Anke Pruess has also joined the Merseysiders, having impressed during her time at Sunderland. Arguably the biggest coup of the summer, however, has been the signing of Courtney Sweetman-Cook from Everton. The Leicester-born striker scored nine goals last term, but it’s her movement on the pitch that’s really impressive. If she’s not scoring goals, she’s causing havoc in the backline, creating space for fellow attackers to breeze through. Liverpool now have arguably one of the strongest sides in the league with plenty of depth, and could be set for their first title challenge since they last lifted the trophy in 2014.
Reading – Women’s Super League
Reading were a bogey team for many sides last season, recording victories against Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester City, whilst Chelsea also dropped points against the Royals. Their direct attacking style makes them very hard to defend against, whilst they have the perfect mixture of fresh blood and old guard.
In midfield, the Royals have young guns Charlie Estcourt, Remi Allen, and Jade Moore at their disposal, who have all represented their countries at international level. They’re joined in the centre of the park by World Cup bronze medal-winning Fara Williams, whilst Rachel Furness also helps to steady the youthful ship.
Reading may have created the perfect storm here, and although they might not have enough to mount a title charge, they could certainly have an effect on where the trophy finishes up.
Manchester United – Women’s Championship
I wasn’t going to get through this preview without mentioning the newly-formed Manchester United Women’s side. The Red Devils finally took the plunge to announce a female team this summer, with the squad headed up by former Liverpool skipper (controversial!) Casey Stoney. Scotsman Willie Kirk left his position as head coach of Bristol City to join Stoney’s coaching staff – and what a team they’ve put together.
Casey herself said “we’ve gone young, we’ve gone exciting, we’ve gone entertaining.” United’s brand power has made all the difference, with WSL players choosing to drop down a league simply to play for the Manchester giants. Household names such as Siobhan Chamberlain, Alex Greenwood, Amy Palmer, Millie Turner, and Ella Toone all signed deals this summer. This season is likely to be full of growing pains for Stoney’s side, but it’s a journey that you can’t afford to miss.
Millwall Lionesses – Women’s Championship
Last season, Millwall Lionesses faced the unthinkable – going out of business. Despite an extremely successful campaign which (at the time) saw them unbeaten in the league, the club needed to raise £10,000 to stay afloat. Through the support of players and fans alike, the London side managed to raise £16,000 in just a matter of days, but the uncertainty surrounding the club affected the squad, with the team eventually finishing in third.
This term, they’ll want to prove that that money has gone to good use. Attacker Rianna Dean led from the front last year, scoring 10 goals in 23 appearances, whilst strike partner Charlotte Devlin followed close behind with nine.
How it’ll finish
This one’s really hard. Last season, Manchester City’s grip on domestic dominance slipped and it doesn’t look like changing any time soon. In their place, Emma Hayes’ Chelsea stepped up and cashed in on some much-deserved silverware.
As it stands, the Blues are likely to retain the WSL title, but Liverpool won’t be far behind in second. City won’t be easy to beat, but with recruitment elsewhere in the league they could be forced to drop more points than they’re used to, so I’ll put them in third.