Last Sunday, we ventured on a journey down memory lane and attended the Albion’s women FA Cup tie against Tottenham. It was odd being thrust back into the Withdean limelight - and there appears to be a whole South Stand missing - but the result was great, and the quality of football was there for all to see. Oh, and as the women’s league isn't bound by the bizarre licensing restrictions that were mainly set through the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol) Act 1985, and since minimally amended by the Public Order Act 1986, the Licensing Act 2003, and other bits of outmoded and outdated legislation, meaning we could but a pint from the Sportsman and drink it in full view of the hallowed Withers turf.
We arrived at Withers with trepidation - the previous meeting between the Sea-gals and Tottenham this season had seen the latter romp home 4-2 (and we’d only grabbed two after the north Londoners were 4-0 up). But this time it was different with Albion leading on three separate occasions before the final whistle. The Albion were as satisfying to watch on Sunday as they had been at the new Withers on Saturday. As we saw from these Facebook comments last month, the women’s Albion team tends not to be taken seriously by the wider Albionite family - it’s all too easy for (mainly) football supporting men to pour scorn over the Albion’s female contingent but it all has to be understood in the context of the 125+ year history of the game in this country.
There were massive inroads for female football progress across England in the early part of the 20th century, unsurprisingly in the north west England heartlands of industry and football. But in 1921, and on doctor’s recommendations that football was considered ‘quite unsuitable’ for women, the Football Association implemented a ban on the game in their affiliated stadia. It meant that the women’s game was effectively frozen out by the organising body in this country for almost 50 years - it was eventually lifted in 1970 but even then they were hardly supportive until the 1990s. It meant that the women’s game between 1921 and 1970 was abandoned by the FA (it meant f**k all back then too) and from 1970-93 it was basically ignored by them. Remarkably, this led to rugby league and other sports throughout the 20th century being more supportive of women’s football than the FOOTBALL Association, in part due to allowing female teams to play football in their sporting venues.
So how has the FA made up for its past indiscretions? Well, in October 2012, the FA launched their ‘Game Changer’ document designed to boost the women’s game includes £3.5m worth of funding over a five year period. A summer-based Women’s Super League (WSL) has been the pinnacle of the women’s game in this country since 2011, with eight teams competing for the top prize with no fears of relegation. Under the five-year plan, this was due to be extended to two leagues of 20 teams (10 in each) to incorporate promotion and relegation, as per this BBC article. The FA’s promise is to give all WSL 1 teams £70k and WSL 2 teams £30k (per season) - figures that are well below the Harveys takings at an average Falmer piss up every other week, but it is a start.
But to be a part of the newfangled WSL, clubs had to apply to be accepted as a member by the FA - a bit like the early days of men’s football (remember now, Arsenal only exist in the top flight after they bought their way to the top in the early 1920s) or franchise based organisation of professional women’s football that has been (almost) successful in the States. As far as we understand, Albion women applied to become part of the WSL in March 2013 but it was ultimately an unsuccessful bid. This ridiculously hideous, glossy December 2012 brochure published by the FA encouraged women’s teams to apply to become part of this brand new era of women’s football. Yet it seems when Albion applied, the FA reverted to their 1921 type: they ignored us.
Of course, the timing of the new WSL can be seen through cynical eyes - it's very interesting how the FA's Game Changer document was published only a couple of months after Team GB beat Brazil in the London 2012 Olympics. During that London 2012 group stage, there were 70k in attendance (a British record, the women’s soccer final at Atlanta ’96 still holds that prize) with a further 4m tuning in at home. OK, those who watched were in part swept along by a British Olympic euphoric wind. But, as it took place at the home of the FA in Wembley, those in the FA’s marketing department will have seen just how marketable a game they could have on their hands over the next 50 years. Something certainly worth investing a paltry £3.5m in (remember how Wembley Stadium itself cost at least £798m).
The FA WSL website still only lists last year’s eight competing and unrelegatable teams so it’s about time they caught up. Maybe it’s about time the FA caught up too. Luckily, the BBC as a public service broadcaster has to include news and information from the women’s game so their article is the only source where you can find out exactly who’s competing in this summer’s WSL. Oh, and it turns out that there will still only be eight teams competing in WSL 1 (funnily enough Manchester City have bought themselves into it and made some stunning summer – well, winter – signings in Toni Duggan, Jill Scott, Steph Houghton, Karen Bardsley and Betsy Hassett). How we didn’t even make WSL 2 when there are teams like Oxford, Reading and Yeovil in it, we shall never know.
It all means that the Albion side - the biggest club in Sussex - continue to feature in the Premier League South, and continue to play this winter. They currently find themselves sitting in fifth and have a glut of home games at the Withers over the next few weeks so get down one Sunday and support the super Sea-gals. Even better than that, Falmer season ticket holders and youngsters can get in for free, with full price admission at only £2. It’s well worth that just to have a sniff around the old field of dreams, even if the bar bill at the Sportsman makes it cost a little bit more. To be fair to the Albion, their online promotion of the women’s team is to be applauded but, when the FA have set such a terrifyingly poor precedent, that can’t be hard. Keep an eye on the official Albion website for details.