By Debi Withers
We are living in historic times for women’s football in England. The semi-professional FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) is now in its fourth season with media interest and fan-bases growing all the time. The FA is currently in year 2 of a ‘game-changing’ five-year plan that claims to use the organisation’s extensive ‘resources and knowledge’ to take women’s football to the next level. Priorities lie in expanding the FA WSL (realised through the creation of FA WSL 2 in 2014), increasing commercial viability, growing fan-bases and grassroots participation and developing an elite performance unit at St. George’s Park.
One surprising omission from the FA’s plans is no mention of facilitating the movement of women footballers from semi-professionalism to professionalism. While the FA WSL is described as a semi-professional league, a number of clubs do now train full-time within it. These include Notts County, Chelsea, Manchester City and of course Liverpool, who won the FAWSL in 2013 in style, benefitting, no doubt, from their full-time status. A number of teams in the FA WSL, such as Birmingham City Ladies FC and our very own Bristol Academy remain semi-professional.
I was lucky enough to speak to Bristol Academy’s Jas Matthews and Tash Harding about their lives as semi-professional women’s footballers. I was keen to find out about their working conditions and how they perceive the FA’s plans to develop the women’s game. How does the rhetoric of development and ‘strategic priorities’ affect their lives in practice?
From watching Bristol Academy Ladies play it is easy to forget they are not full-time footballers. On the pitch they are fully professional, matches are entertaining and exciting, the players are skilful, focused and dedicated. This professionalism extends to their off-pitch performances too, as after the games – win, draw or lose – they are always willing to sign autographs and talk to fans, giving their time and energy to the younger girls in particular who look up to the players as role-models. They perform the whole identity of the semi-professional women’s footballer in other words, although there is nothing semi about it – it is fully professional, if not fully recognised as such.
This off-field professionalism is particularly valued by the FA who are keen to promote ‘our elite female athletes as role models.’ FA WSL footballers perform a complex form of ‘emotional labour’ because there is the expectation they will inspire emerging (female) footballing generations with exemplary sporting and social performances. Kelly Simmons, FA Director of the National Game and Women’s Football, recently acknowledged as much when she said that women footballers are ‘really aware of their responsibilities as ambassadors for the game.’ Yet it is these kind of responsibilities that can be challenging after difficult games or losses, as Tash told me: ‘when one of the kids wants your autograph and I think I really can’t be bothered but we will. But if the fans and the kids weren’t here then we wouldn’t be anywhere, we really do appreciate the people that back us and follow us.’ Having supportive teammates on and off the pitch helps Bristol Academy players sustain this role, Jas revealed. ‘We help each other a lot. Obviously you sometimes get tired days and stuff but we make sure we get round each other.’
Work conditions for women footballers
It is very much the norm for elite women footballers to have at least one, sometimes two part-time jobs to supplement their income so they can continue to play football competitively. This would not be so galling if comparable levels of the men’s game were not so well endowed financially. Even players in Blue Square Bet Premier League, the highest men’s non-league division, earn on average £28,000 a year, although this is not without precariousness, insecurity or stress, as this article makes very clear.
Casey Stoney’s often quoted admission that she spent her teenage years washing the Arsenal men’s team dirty shorts in order to support her football career is a stark image of the gender inequality within English football. Admittedly this was nearly fifteen years ago, and things are changing—albeit at a glacially slow place. Most notably, members of the England women’s football team attained centralised contracts worth £20,000 a year in 2013—a £4,000 pay rise from their previous, ‘embarrassing’ wage. Yet it is important to remember that this kind of financial support is by no means planned for all levels of the women’s game. Many FA WSL players do not have access to these kinds of contracts.
Despite these obvious examples of economic and vocational inequalities, the comparison between men and women’s football is often made. As Tash told me with understandable frustration: ‘we always get compared to men. People always say “women’s football and men’s is never going to be the same” but we can’t be compared to men’s football.’
The question then begs to be asked: why aren’t women footballers working as full-time professionals? Why is it, in 2014, nearly forty–five years after watershed legal acts relating to economic gender equality in the UK were passed, that talented women footballers are still working several other jobs to support their footballing careers, even within the very elite tiers of the women’s game? Why are gifted women working long hours in the day-time in a supermarket, or as a PE teacher, a teaching assistant or studying full-time for a degree in order to support their footballing careers? Why do they have to balance these jobs between all the actual work of being a footballer in the evening (2-2.5 hours training, plus physio-therapy sessions) as well as playing matches on weekends or week day evenings? Jas gives an insight into the amounts of hours she has been working in the 2014 FA WSL season:
Jas: So I work in the supermarket Aldi. Lately I’ve only been doing 3 days a week which is fine, 25 hours a week but two weeks ago I’ve been doing forty hours a week which was pretty hard core. I was doing 7-8 hours a day, starting at 7, finishing at 3pm/ 4pm then go home, maybe have a nap if I’ve got time, eat, then train, then finish at 9.30/ 10 then go home and then do the same again. Get up at 6 o’clock. Its kinda hard because we have to try and eat the right things with the time we’ve got in between which is sometimes quite hard because say I finish work at 5, then I have physio 6/ 6.30, its quite hard to get a main meal in then, and then obviously train after.
Tash: And then obviously when we were training a bit later, sometimes we weren’t finishing until 10.30 and trying to eat a meal at that time was quite difficult. It was quite difficult at first but we’ve adapted.
Jas: We help each other out, say I was working a long day the girls would cook me a meal so when I got home it would be ready, stuff like that.
Despite these working conditions semi-professional women footballers are expected to deliver high-quality performances when it matters—that crucial 90-minute time frame between when the referee blows the whistle to begin and end the match. This is the time when fans, managers, training staff, board members and commercial partners expect the ‘professional’ part of semi-professional women footballers to come to life, but that 90 minutes is only a very small part of the picture.
To perform consistently at high levels it is vital that players recover properly after high-intensity matches or niggling injuries. Even getting access to appropriate resources can however be a struggle for Bristol Academy players, as Tash outlines: ‘We’re still fighting against boy’s rugby, academy boy’s rugby who are 16-18, I’m 25, Jas is 21, some of the girls are 33 and we still have to fight to have an hour or two hours in the gym. I just think as a female football player you take one step forward somewhere else is always two steps back. When you are fighting one battle another battle is starting up. We are always fighting for stuff around here and to be fair Dave [Edmondson] our manager has been great, he’s fought for a lot of things for us which has helped but still again we have to book in [to use the facilities].’
The FA WSL
Like the FA’s game-changer plan, the FA WSL 2014-2018 brochure is tellingly silent about improving professional infrastructures for women footballers. The FA WSL is an integral ‘part of The FA’s commitment to create winning teams, increase participation and create a clear pathway to develop players.’ They state that the ‘future success of the league will depend on the quality and commitment of the best players, coaches and great English clubs wanting to be part of The FA WSL.’
Yet quality and commitment cannot be expected without reward or genuine pathways for development. If the FA is truly committed to creating winning teams and developing players, surely the number one priority should be creating conditions where women can train full-time and have access to the facilities they need to perform at the elite level they are capable of?
Marketing women’s football
Making women’s football commercially attractive is another key part of the strategy to develop the women’s game. As a marketing venture, the FA WSL has been pretty successful. The summer league has differentiated the women’s game from men’s, helping to create ‘a clear identity’ for women’s football. Establishing a strong commercial identity for the women’s game will, the FA believe ‘raise the game’s profile, support its objectives and generate new revenue and partnerships.’
Attaining full professional status for the league may be a by-product of commercial success, a point implied by Kelly Simmons in a recent interview: ‘we think it could be professional over the next three or four years but obviously that means there has been a lot of focus on making that happen, getting broadcast partners, commercial partners, investing in the development of those clubs to accelerate it on to professional women’s football.’ Yet without such explicit commitment to developing fully paid, full-time professionalism there is always the risk such plans will never become a priority, let alone be a sustainable reality.
We should not forget that at the heart of the ‘crowded sports marketplace’ where women’s football competes, there are real-life people pushing their bodies to the limit for our entertainment. Creating conditions where women footballers can be developed, nurtured and supported should not be dependent on whether or not the game thrives commercially.
Professionalism: the missing part of the jigsaw
Creating sustainable and secure pathways for women’s footballers to become full-time professionals is a practical solution that will radically change the game in this country. Such an infrastructure is likely to increase international success, player skills, fitness and ability, with fitter and more competitive players increasing the commercial viability of the game because the quality of women’s football will be better in the long term. When I asked Tash what, in an ideal world, would improve the conditions for women footballers in the UK, she replied immediately: ‘if I won the lottery I’d buy this club and turn it professional straight away. The girls wouldn’t have to work, they’d be training twice a day, they’d have enough money to buy their own house, nice things.’ Given the commitment and talent of these players it is hardly asking for the moon on a stick, is it?
Get behind the Vixens!
There are still plenty of games left in the FA WSL season, including a run of four home games in September/ October. Get tickets here. They are also in the Champions League, playing against Ireland’s Raheny United at Ashton Gate Thursday 16 October.
Thanks again to Tash and Jas for talking to me, and to Lowri Williams for helping to sort out the interviews. Additional thanks to Sarah Green, Em Coward and Nat Brown for sharing ideas, and to Sport Watch Bristol for creating a space where these kinds of discussions can happen.
This is my website if you want to know more about me: debi-rah.net
If you are a semi-professional women’s footballer playing in FA WSL 1/2 and this article has struck a chord or you want to talk to me about your work please get in touch! I would love to conduct further, more in-depth research on these issues and would be delighted to hear from you.