April 13, 2021 marks the tenth anniversary of what is now known as the Barclays FA Women’s Super League. An idea born in 2009, the league has proven to be a game-changer for the women’s game during its ten-year lifespan so far.
It has provided success for the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, plus the recent rebirths of Manchester United and West Ham. It has said goodbye to historic names such as Doncaster Rovers Belles and Sunderland, but seen the start and the end of careers of legends across several eras of the women’s game in England.
It has provided a decade of thrills, incredible moments and formed the basis for a new generation of football fans, both male and female, across stadiums throughout the country, including the Etihad, Stamford Bridge, Anfield, Villa Park, Emirates, Tottenham Stadium and, most recently, Old Trafford.
It has changed remarkably over the course of its ten years. and those who were involved in the origins of the FA WSL reminisce and recall what life was like at the very beginning.
THE BIDDING PROCESS
“When we found out, it was champagne day really”
Six of the eight available spots went to clubs already established in the top tier – Arsenal, Birmingham City, Bristol Academy, Chelsea, Doncaster Rovers Belles and Everton – with two still up for grabs from clubs such as Barnet, Colchester, Lincoln, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sunderland, while Leeds Carnegie pulled out after their funding was cut.
Clubs had to match the £70,000 given to them by the FA and provide an array of information in their bids about how they would both fund and grow their women’s teams.
Sally Horrox (FA WSL Project Lead): “We published an application process and what we were trying do was attract sustainable clubs, clubs that were committed, well prepared and properly financed. We’d seen what happened in the USA, their league had folded a couple of times and all their money largely went on players, so we wanted to get the foundations right.
“The licence had four areas really, the leadership and management teams was one area. The second area was the marketing and commercial side, were they committed to putting staff in to promote their brand and get fans to games? The third area was facilities, we tried to map the country out to an extent, we wanted to see their catchment areas, their first choice ground, alternative ground, training grounds, we wanted a spread of teams and not everyone to be on each other’s doorsteps.
“The final area was the talent and performance, medical staff, qualified coaches, the players, making sure these girls were going to be properly looked after and be prepared to pay their players. They were the cornerstones for us to decide if they were doing it properly and off the back of that, they were awarded licences.
“I remember on the deadline, I was at reception at Wembley, people turning up in cars and vans, some clubs brought cameras because they’d filmed it and one by one they delivered their bids.”
As winners of the northern league, Liverpool were already set for promotion before the restructure, but won a licence through the bidding process to become the first of two new teams welcomed to the league.
Robbie Johnson (Liverpool manager): “Colin Charlton was one of the main drivers behind our bid. He was the father of one of our players, but also had his own business in Liverpool. He did a lot of the bid work, he was the one who told me we were going to apply for the FA WSL.”
Cheryl Foster (Liverpool forward): “I was a welfare officer at the club at the time, so I was on the committee to hear everything that was going on with all the FA WSL bids. As soon as we heard about it, the club as a whole really wanted to be involved in it and what was going to come from it for us going into that kind of set-up. Thankfully, we hit all the criteria. I remember the paperwork being incredible. Colin had a huge involvement, he was the force behind making sure we were one of the lucky eight.”
Colin Charlton (Liverpool General Manager and Secretary): “There had been loads of meetings with the FA over the years. One of our biggest problems in the bid was finding a suitable ground, because believe it or not outside of Anfield and Goodison Park there aren’t that many grounds around the Liverpool area. We had to project crowd numbers and explain how we were going to boost attendances.”
“We weren’t formally owned by the club at that stage, but we were supported by them. We had no problem matching the £70,000 from the FA, I can’t remember the exact figure the club supported us by, but it was in excess of that. The women’s set up at Liverpool had always been quite advanced, we had a good grassroots club with kids from around six years old up. We trained at the academy back in those days, we trained on the indoor pitch, but as we went more professional we had to move elsewhere because there wasn’t the capacity outside of the two evening sessions we had there originally.
“Myself and a guy called Eric ran things. Unfortunately, he got motor neurone disease and died shortly after, he found out only a few months before we started doing the bid, so I ended up doing a lot of the bid on my own. I was used to writing bids, I ran an IT company in Liverpool and we were constantly bidding for work! Fortunately, it was successful.”
The eighth and final spot was awarded to Lincoln, which came as somewhat of a surprise after some bigger names were turned away in favour of the side from Lincolnshire, who soon became one of the strongest sides in the league both on and off the pitch.
Rod Wilson (Lincoln City manager): “Leeds had some bad luck because they had their support withdrawn and that opened the door for one more team. I think if their bid had gone through it would have been down to us or Doncaster Belles to be honest.”
Fiona Green (Head of Lincoln City’s bid): “I tried to follow the format that countries follow when they’re bidding to FIFA to host a World Cup or the IOC to host the Olympics. You had to show financial and business management acumen. You had to have a clear commercial and marketing plan, access to facilities and of course the team itself and how you would develop players. It’s not rocket science, it was the kind of things you would expect to go into a bid.
“Fans don’t like it but clubs are businesses, they have to run like businesses, so we had to talk a lot about sponsorship, our financial plan etc. We were being selected out of regions, we knew they wanted geographic distribution. We might have been up against Forest had they bid, but they didn’t, I think they were too many levels down at the time. I think we were in a two-horse race with Belles before Leeds pulled out.”
Wilson: “Ray Trew supported us quite well. We had some money, but I always pushed for more. Ray backed us and he got Fiona on board and paid her to work for us. I wrote a business plan using my business background which Fiona made more professional looking and we had the plan to try and go full-time.”
Green: “I’m from Lincoln. Ray owned Lincoln, but he also owned a sports business and he hired me previously as a consultant to support this business and as a result of that work, when he bought Lincoln he hired me again to lead the FA WSL bid for him. I do genuinely believe it was the quality of the overall bid and the way we addressed each of the points. We had letters of support from our local MP, but the way we approached it as a business, I got anecdotal feedback from people at the time who were impressed with what we did on the business side.”
Megan Harris (Lincoln midfielder and captain): “I was quite involved with Fiona and Rod. I was a teacher at the time and not long before I spoke to Rod because I’d been offered a job in London to go and teach down there, but Rod told me how Lincoln were going to go full-time and run as professionally as we could.
“He told me he wanted me to be a part of it because I’d been at Lincoln since day one and they had a role for me which meant I could play and do some office work too, so because of that I ended up quite involved in the bid, I was in on all the FA meetings. We were the dark horses, we weren’t a big name, we’d never been in the top division.”
Wilson: “When we found out we’d been successful it was champagne day really! It was bittersweet in some ways because I knew our squad would have to change. I think we’d come second in the league below about four times and we knew some of those players wouldn’t make it with us, but I enjoyed the process of driving up and down the country trying to build a squad from scratch really!”
Harris: “I remember Fiona rang me and we met up at a café in Lincoln with Sally and she told us this was actually happening. Rod and I had all the ambition and emotion attached to it, but we couldn’t have put a bid together like Fiona did. Sally told us some teams had done it on a few pieces of A4 paper and Fiona had created this big book, I still have my copy, it was impressive.”
Horrox: “I remember going to Sincil Bank, having lunch with Rod and meeting Fiona, they did it right. That was the beauty of an open process, it gave everyone an opportunity to show what they had. Fiona did a really good job, it was commercially savvy and I think they could see the longer-term potential. What they presented was of a really high quality and they did enough to clear the bar and take that eighth spot.”
“Whatever happens, it could be the best two years of our lives”
With the eight sides in place, attentions turned to whether or not the league was going to work. The six existing managers set to work on adapting to the new era of the women’s game, and most were optimistic about the FA’s plan for a new league.
Laura Harvey (Arsenal manager): “The premise of it and the idea of it was good. Having teams who had the capability to pay players, teams who could provide a professional environment, everyone in the game agreed it was a positive. For us, we were already there, we were in the place we were trying to push other teams to. For us, it was how do we develop so we can stay ahead of these teams and raise our own standards again?”
David Parker (Birmingham City manager): “I just remember the whole change behind it, it was an initial two-year project. We’d been given licences for two years and our mantra was get the old Birmingham City back. There wasn’t an expectation of winning cups or getting to the Champions League. We didn’t have a single youth international in the centre of excellence and a lot of players left.
“The club had lost its culture, it had lost the Birmingham is Birmingham feeling and that was our objective. Me and Marcus [Bignot] said ‘whatever happens, it could be the best two years of our lives’. We decided to just enjoy it because we never knew if the FA WSL was going to be financially sustainable.”
Matt Beard (Chelsea manager): “It was a good change for us. The year before the money had been pulled and everyone knows the story with John Terry coming in and helping out. Me and Shaun Gore did the bid together, it was exciting, we got accepted and obviously we ended up being the first-ever game.”
Andy Spence (Everton assistant manager): “We had the ambition to be part of a new era which had been talked about for a long time. The FA wanted to make the game more professional and we were on board with that. It was definitely exciting, there was an element of ‘where will it go?’ There were a million and one questions, me, Mo and Keith [Marley] were very committed, we had players committed who wanted to be part of that journey too and the club as a whole were very much behind it. I remember sitting in Mo’s house working on the application a few days before it had to be finished. I reckon it was a good 36-hour period without zero sleep, lots of caffeine and a few sugary sweets to keep us going!”
Mark Sampson (Bristol Academy manager): “The bidding process was a big task for the whole football club. The club didn’t have the privilege of support from a men’s club so there was a small number of people doing a huge amount of work to produce a business and football plan to give the club a chance of securing a place in the division. There were literally four of us doing everything from putting a team together, to securing the funds needed to run at FA WSL level and all of us doing it alongside full-time jobs.”
John Buckley (Doncaster Rovers Belles manager): “It was exciting, but difficult for us. I enjoyed it and I loved the coaching side of it, the step up of everything, especially given how limited we were. I feel really proud of the girls in the England team.
“The Millie Bright’s and Beth England’s, the players we had then who were 14, 15, 16. They got a chance with us because we had very little money to go out and bring in big players from elsewhere. We put on events to try and raise just a few thousand here and there, it doesn’t seem like much now but it made a big difference back in those days. The £70,000 was a fortune for us, we had nothing to spend on players, I had a budget where we could give three or four players £50 per a week and the kids a little bit less, so we had to find that money.
“I know some people put money in, I put some of my own money in, it was a difficult task. We had one backer who gave us £35-40k, which in the women’s game back then was huge. The company started sending donations from clients who were buying from them, so we’d get £1,000 here, £2,000 there.”
“They weren’t contracted back then so you could just stick a seven-day notice in for a player”
With a new league, new teams and a new format, everyone went about their recruitment in different ways, with eye-catching results. After losing several key players to the US, Arsenal and Chelsea went out and bought some of the best young English talent, Birmingham set about recruiting some familiar faces and Everton won the race for a star of the future.
Meanwhile, newcomers Lincoln set about attracting big names after going full-time and caused a stir by signing the England national team captain, but Liverpool found recruitment a much more difficult process.
Harvey: “There was the opportunity at the time to sign players from Leeds. It was sad for them, but you could go and get players who could be good for other teams. We looked at our group and we had a lot of players in their 30s. We’d lost Kelly [Smith], Alex [Scott] and Kaz [Carney] and automatically we had to replace them. We probably went Jordan [Nobbs] for Kaz, Steph [Houghton] for Alex and Ellen [White] for Kelly, those three filled that void. I’d coached Jordan with the youth national teams, but Vic [Akers] was a big, big part of going out and getting Ellen and Steph.”
Parker: “We wanted to bring the old Birmingham back. Kaz Carney, Laura Bassett, Chelsea Weston etc. I think it was just Kez [Kerys Harrop] left from the initial group, and youngsters like Izzy Christiansen. We wanted to bring the old aura back. The second bit was get the best young players we could. They were young, hungry, they wanted to learn, and the last bit was to pick up the best talent around the east and west midlands area.
“Steph Curtis was travelling and Marie [Hourihan] and Jade [Moore] had to travel, but we had a lot of local girls. We went after the odd hidden gem. Jodie Taylor was one of those, we signed her from the beginning, but she only came in at the end because she was playing in Australia. We had Heather Scheuber too, what a player she was. We gave one-year contracts and a one-year option in the club’s favour, it was a get out of jail card just in case the league folded after one year.”
Rachel Williams (Birmingham striker): “I actually bumped into Marcus at an FA Cup game. I was at the Belles at the time and he was telling he was looking to build a team at Birmingham. He’d been at Arsenal working under Harvs and he told me he wanted me to be a part of it. It just started as a chat really, I didn’t know who else he was bringing in, but he started to bring in players I’d played with at England and we ended up with a really good team. We knew we were the underdog but we didn’t act like it, we knew if we pushed forward we could be a bit of a force.”
Wilson: “Me and Glen [Harris] would drive up and down the country speaking to players. We tried to get Ellen White, we met Jordan Nobbs and her dad, we met with Lucy Bronze, it wasn’t just about the ones we did get. Once we got Sophie Bradley from Leeds that filtered down to us getting another five or six, like Sue [Smith] and Jess [Clarke]. I approached Casey [Stoney] and met her quite early. She told us she was interested, but it dragged on a bit and it looked like it wouldn’t happen.
“Me and my wife went to the Cyprus Cup to watch England and by complete coincidence we were staying in the same hotel as the team, we didn’t know until I saw Sue! We got a knock on the room door and it was Casey, she’d heard we were going full-time and asked if we could still do the deal. I spent an hour and a half on the phone to try and get enough money, but we couldn’t really afford her, so me and Glen gave up part of our wages so we could do the deal.”
Harris: “Those players coming in was brilliant, it was what I’d always wanted. My primary school teacher always asked me what I wanted to do and I always said footballer, and at the time it was a ridiculous answer because it wasn’t possible. I didn’t know if I was good enough or not, I believed in myself, but it was a big shock to suddenly be training with Bradders, Casey, Sue and Jess.”
Beard: “I lost Casey to Lincoln, so I needed a centre-back and I’d watched Gemma [Bonner] play for Leeds. They weren’t contracted back then so you could just stick a seven-day notice in for a player. Helen Ward had a fantastic goal record, she wasn’t really playing week in, week out for Arsenal, that was a good move for us. We’d just missed the Champions League by one point the season before, so we knew if we could improve the squad we could be competitive.
“We did a lot of local recruitment more than anything, but Gemma just travelled down every Thursday, she didn’t train on Tuesdays because it was a six-hour round trip for her. Hayley [Moorwood] fell into our laps somewhat. Her husband was a professional rugby player for New Zealand and he came over to play for Harlequins, so we got a lead on her and Hayley was a great player for us.”
Spence: “Mo would probably never say it, but I’m sure she had an influence in us bringing in Lucy. She developed players, what you see is what you get with Mo, she was an outstanding developer of players. Lucy had probably seen the likes of Jill Scott, Fara Williams, Tash Dowie etc make similar moves and go on and play for England, we had that kind of pull at the time.”
Rachel Brown-Finnis (Everton goalkeeper): “It was an amazing collective feat, but I’m not sure any other manager could have done what Mo did. She was creative with what she could offer because we couldn’t house people, that just didn’t exist. It was how could we rival Arsenal with what we had? Mo got a partnership going with Liverpool John Moore’s University, so players could get housed over there and that’s how I got relocated. Every year it was about little marginal gains to ensure you could offer something, I don’t think most players even got paid because a lot of us played for England and had our central contracts. Fara used to come up from London and stay over for the weekend. There were a lot of non-ideal situations but that was the reality at the time.”
Johnson: “When I first took over in 2008, there were 47 players on the book and that had to change. We let 19 go in the first year and 17 the second year before the FA WSL started. I took the job based on part-development and part results, I decided we were going to play proper football, but we had a younger team and we put a lot into the development and tried to change the mentality. We had some bumps with recruitment.
“We played Glasgow City in a friendly and got whiff a few players wanted to come down. We got Megan Sneddon, Sue Lappin and Ruesha Littlejohn and we played Belles in the FA Cup and battered them 5-0. That was going to be our team, but Meg pulled and out and she was going to be our main midfielder. That was the first brick in the wall loosened.
“We looked at Gemma Bonner, she came to Ireland with us and to Spain to play Atletico Madrid in some friendlies. She decided last-minute to go to Chelsea after Casey had gone to Lincoln. Sue stayed with us for a while but she got transferred in her day job to London and ended up at Chelsea. She said sorry to me but I told her I wouldn’t and couldn’t stop her going, but of the team we were trying to build, we lost a couple very early on.”
Foster: “I’d been at the club a long, long time, we’d been a bit of a yo-yo club, always up and down, so it was nice to go in there, no relegation, and know the club was backing us. We didn’t have too many new players and that was probably the downside because we didn’t have the quality of the Arsenal’s etc. It would have been a step up we were planning anyway because we’d won the northern league the year before, but it was still a big change.”
Sampson: “Bristol was a club with a small budget and no connection to a men’s club, so the club always had to find creative ways to be competitive. We’d just finished last place in the old Women’s Premier League – barely winning a game all season, but there were some young players in that team the likes of Alex Windell, Grace McCatty, Loren Dykes, Jazz Matthews, Ellie Curson who we felt if we could add some quality around them could really help the team at a higher level. It proved correct, all of them were part of the team that reached two FA Women’s Cup Finals and qualified twice for the UEFA Women’s Champions League over the next three seasons.
“Most of our players were semi-professional, some on a match by match rate of as low as £50, so it was a real challenge to build a competitive squad. We knew we were last on the list of potential destinations for players! For every 100 players we approached, 99 didn’t even return our call! We tried to build a strong spine to our team and managed to convince Siobhan Chamberlain, Corinne Yorston, Jess Fishlock and Ann-Marie Heatherson to join with part-time football contracts, but also finding them work in the local area to supplement their football income.
“They were incredible on and off the pitch and set the culture for the whole club. We also managed to convince Anouk Hoogendijk, a young Dutch international to join us, we managed to convince a sponsor to support her salary and she really opened our eyes to the potential of the European market which in the coming years we would make great use of.”
Buckley: “We relied a lot on young players at that time, we didn’t have much of a budget at all. We were always fighting against the money but occasionally we’d get a partnership or a sponsorship which meant we could do something. We managed to bring in some players from abroad who had trials with us, but we couldn’t put them in housing. We brought in Aine O’Gorman, Kylla Sjoman and Maria Karlsson, who were all really good players and played a big part in that first team, but they were all staying in a local hotel together, that’s just how it was back then.”
“I understood why they went to a summer league, but over the course of time it never really worked”
With the FA WSL originally set to start in 2010, the new era got delayed a year due the global recession affecting Setanta Sports, leaving all eight clubs with a tricky period before the league finally kicked off in April 2011.
With an array of international stars in their squads and Champions League football, Arsenal and Everton found it easier than most to deal with the sudden gap in the schedule.
Harvey: “With the team we had, a lot of them were internationals, there wasn’t a lot of players who weren’t playing. We relied upon that a lot, but we were preparing for the Champions League too, so it was how could we make sure we were ready for those games, but not peak too early because we knew the FA WSL was starting soon. We played a lot of friendlies. I remember playing Barnet and a few local teams. I’d only been in the job a year, so it gave me some time to define some things. We needed to hit the ground running because we felt at Arsenal that one of the drivers of the FA WSL was for a more competitive league. You deem that as people don’t want you to win anymore.”
Spence: “Ask the players and staff and they’ll say it was the longest pre-season ever! We were fortunate to have Champions League to look at and a lot of our players were internationals too. We tried to look at it positively, it gave us a lot of time off the pitch to look at how we could move forward and move towards professionalism. All the support was there for players, the gap was a weird one because we almost had two or three mini pre-seasons, we had internal games, some friendlies, and other teams probably found it even more difficult because while we had Champions League, our players knew each other too because we didn’t change the squad too much.”
Parker: “It was painful. The whole league system below us was up and running. We played local sides, but it became tedious, we were training from September and the season didn’t start until April, it was just training after training. You could drop players into your reserve team, I remember Lincoln did that a lot.”
Beard: “Some players went on loan to lower leagues where they could carry on playing. We just trained and played friendlies where we could. Kylie Davies and Sophie Perry went to Brighton because they were local to that area, it was just a weird time. I understood why they went to a summer league, but over the course of time it never really worked. It was right at the time, they had to do something different to try and grow the game and when you look back the FA deserve a lot of credit.”
Sampson: “We had to work training around the players education or full-time jobs and often would only train twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday nights. Some of the players like Jemma Rose were travelling nearly three hours to get to training. I remember one game getting back from Chelsea who were full of full-time internationals after a Thursday night game gone 1am and Jazz Matthews having to start an eight-hour shift at Costco at 4am – then playing another game two days later!”
Wilson: “We played loads of friendlies, we played some games against men’s teams. I’d done my A licence in Northern Ireland, so we went there and played the national team, I think we won 6-1. We went to Majorca and played local teams there. It was difficult, it became a spring and autumn league because of the World Cup, but I don’t think that format had a chance because it was never really a summer league. For marketing, it was really hard to keep your fans when you had big breaks.”
It was tough for the players, too, most of whom were working or studying outside of football as the sport still got to grips moving to a semi-professional basis.
Claire Rafferty (Chelsea defender): “I was at university. I used to drive down from Loughborough every weekend. Me and Dani Buet used to drive down every single week, back and forth. The good thing was Loughborough was the player development centre, so we could train there and were quite lucky, but at that time I was studying for my economics degree.”
Williams: “I was a plasterer. I ran a business, a normal day for me then was work until about 7am to 3pm, grab something to eat, get changed and then drive to Birmingham for 8pm training. We trained at the university, the pitch had an athletics track around it and Marcus was big on off the ball work, winning the ball back in seven seconds. If we ever enjoyed ourselves a little too much he’d have us running around the athletics track!”
Brown-Finnis: “I was working for Everton in the Community, and I had done since 2006. I handed my notice in just before the Olympics in 2012 to try and get in the Team GB squad. Training and working every day and night wasn’t great for my knee, I’d had four knee operations.
“I remember we’d had the 2007 World Cup and then been to the final of the Euro’s in 2009, so back then it was probably peak time for women’s football. As an England player, any break was probably appreciated! I do remember having a holiday which I hadn’t had for ages, so it wasn’t too much of a problem, but I can imagine for those not involved in internationals it was tough. It was still semi-professional, the structure of people’s days was very different to what it would be now, and we’d just got our central contracts with England too.”
Harris: “I was living in Loughborough too and teaching in Leicester, so I would come back twice a week to train at 9pm or 10pm, it was tough. Not many girls in the end could commit to being full-time even though it was going to be a full-time programme because everyone had jobs and it was never going to be a massive financial gain for everyone.”
Foster: “We had an extended period of being off. It was a big gap, I think the club largely looked at recruitment because we were a new team to the league. There were lots of friendlies, I think pre-season started for us around November, so we weren’t too bad, but some clubs went back earlier than us. We were training at the academy as many times as we could really. It would be two or three times a week, on top of that we had spin sessions or weight sessions, obviously it’s gone up ten-fold since then. I’m a teacher now and I have a student in our sixth form who plays for Liverpool and it feels like she’s there a lot more than I was.”
Helen Alderson (Doncaster Rovers Belles goalkeeper): “I naturally stayed at Sunderland for as long as possible because the leagues below were carrying on, so I played about three-quarters of the season. A lot of players went on loan, some went abroad, but for me it wasn’t too bad, some players were just stuck in the longest pre-season known to mankind, it probably wasn’t ideal for them.
“We trained at a local college two nights a week, I used to drive down twice a week after I’d finished at university. I got local strength and conditioning training because I was part of the England youth set up, any England player got access to that, so that was good for me. I probably lived on the worst football diet in the world though, driving down after university on a peperami and a cheesestring! It was dead exciting though, it was just as social media was taking off. We had Facebook pages, we had a little competition to see who could get the most likes, that was all new back then.”
Grace McCatty (Bristol Academy defender): “We were at the local academy college and many of us, including myself, had come through that. We trained twice a week in the first team, a lot of the extra stuff came via the college programme or if you were at university somewhere, in terms of the strength and conditioning side of things. It was probably a much-needed change at the time. It equalled the playing field a little bit because Arsenal had dominated for so long and the FA knew they had to do something a little bit different to level the playing field. We used to get 50 fans on a good day in the old league, the FA WSL just gave everything a breath of fresh air.
“The break was strange, from what I remember it was frustrating but there was also quite a bit of hype around the new league and that kind of built up because there was actually such a long build-up due to the delay. I was doing my placement year at university and I was thinking about going abroad, then when the new league got announced I decided to stay and got a job at the college.”
GETTING THE BALL ROLLING
“I was a property developer too, so I could probably manage to build one posh house at a time around training”
As the season grew ever closer, both managers and players were still adapting to life in the new era. With everyone still largely part-time and working other jobs outside of football, teams were juggling ambitions to train and play more often, while ensuring the demands weren’t too much on their playing and coaching staff, all while trying to find the best available facilities for training and matches.
Harvey: “We trained twice a week, three times maybe occasionally, but a lot of our players were paid salaries that you would deem full-time. I was full-time at the club, but my biggest financial revenue was through the academy at the time.”
Parker: “We trained two days a week, plus matchday. If we didn’t have a match we’d be three times a week with a Sunday session. We trained from 8pm to 10pm on a Tuesday and Thursday. People like Marie and Jade weren’t getting home until after midnight. We used the university and we had a great relationship with them. We had an unbelievable grass pitch, top draw, we had gym access, all the best facilities. Towards the end of the season. we added a third day for recovery where we could, that started after the mid-season break for the World Cup. We were trying to get up with Arsenal’s model.”
Beard: “I was an estate agent back then, I worked as a branch manager around our training.”
Rafferty: “He used to turn up in his estate agent car! Beardy’s never changed, he’s got a little older, but apart from that. What he did and what he still does well is getting the best out of what he’s got. We brought in Gemma, Carly Telford, Kate Longhurst, players who were good young players at the time.”
Beard: “We only trained Tuesday and Thursday on the outdoor 3G pitch at Cobham. I had Simon O’Neill as my assistant, the biggest change for us was players and staff going on contracts. We had certain requirements given to us, every manager was given two years to get their A licence, it was for the better and obviously now we are where we are.”
Rafferty: “I remember Casey leaving and when she went to Lincoln we’d already lost three big players to the USA. We weren’t really any different financially, we still trained twice a week. Training intensified a little bit, Beardy tried to set standards and ask for more from the club, but we struggled as a team for a while, it took some time before it turned around. We trained from 8pm onwards, I think at the time we only got paid travel expenses, it changed progressively, but I do remember Beardy really fighting to try and change that.
“We probably weren’t doing ourselves justice on the pitch though, when Beardy’s going and asking for more, we weren’t getting him the results over the season.”
Wilson: “We wanted more, but we got about eight players full-time. We would train every morning and did a lot of strength and conditioning, we had a guy who brought in ideas that was even new to the England players, stuff that’s common now but was breaking boundaries at the time. Two days a week we had a night session for the part-time girls to come and train.
“I put a lot of time into it. I was probably doing about 40/50 hours a week, but I was a property developer too, so I could probably manage to build one posh house at a time around training! Football is an obsession for managers, my wife has been a football widow since the day she met me. I was still playing five-a-side twice a week until I was mid-50s!”
Harris: “I think there was me, Kay Hawke, Wardy [Carla Ward] initially, but she kind of dropped off because she couldn’t commit. Leandra [Little] was another one who stayed but she was still teaching, but she was super fit, and still is, so she managed. Bar those, it was a brand-new team Rod put together. You had to state on the bid document who you were going.
“We had a good core of young players too. Remi Allen, Bonnie Horwood, Lucy Staniforth, Rachel Daly, Sophie Walton, they were getting to most training sessions, we had a good group who trained full-time. Martha [Megan’s sister] was just coming through, that was really special, her and Emily who was part of the reserves and my dad being there too.”
Spence: “The contract situation was probably the biggest change for us. Mo’s priority was always the players, it was what she based her whole career on, how could we best support the players? We knew contracts were coming into play and that was quite unique at the time and I ended up taking on some of the General Manager duties at the time because it was all new so we were feeling our way in. What goes into a contract? We were all approaching these kind of things for the first time, it was all new territory.
“We had Finch Farm on the way but at that point we were still evening training, that didn’t really change, you can’t just flick a switch, but what we did do was plan ahead. Keith never gets mentioned but he was the one out buying the bottles of water of training, buying food, he still did all that as we moved towards professionalism, but we wanted to walk before we could run and look where Everton are now.”
Brown-Finnis: “It was a very detailed process. As an England player, I remember having conversations with people at the FA, they’d seen US leagues succeed and fall and they didn’t want that to happen here. The international level was improving but then we’d be coming home and playing in front of 50 people, so it was exciting on so many levels to know this new league was coming and things were moving more towards a professional set up.”
Alderson: “It was all a little bit bittersweet for me because I’d been at Sunderland and we’d failed to get a licence for the new FA WSL. I’d played for Sunderland all my life, we’d been promoted into the top division but I did my ACL and missed it, then we got the news we’d be going back down, so you think about a lot of things, but fortunately Donny came in for me and it was great to play for such a legendary club. It was great because we were so used to playing in front of a few people, then we were doing loads of media and playing in front of good crowds. It was bittersweet at first but soon became a really exciting time, but nobody really knew how it was going to go.”
“We had fireworks, balloons, we tried different things to make it an event”
After all the talk, the bidding, the training, the friendlies and the recruitment, 13 April 2011 signified an exciting new dawn for women’s football in the UK. With all games live on ESPN, Chelsea and Arsenal played out the first-ever FA WSL match on a Wednesday afternoon, with Lincoln vs Doncaster Rovers Belles following in the evening.
On the Thursday afternoon, Birmingham hosted Bristol Academy, before the opening round of games ended with an enthralling under the lights Merseyside derby between Liverpool and Everton at Skelmersdale.
Chelsea 0-1 Arsenal (Gilly Flaherty ‘33)
13/04/2011 – Imperial Fields – 5:30pm – Referee: Alexandra Ihringova
Chelsea: Carly Telford – Sophie Perry, Kylie Davies ©, Gemma Bonner, Claire Rafferty (Emma Plewa ’89) – Dani Buet, Hayley Moorwood, Leanne Champ, Danielle Bird – Ashlee Hincks (Rebecca Jane ’75), Helen Ward (Lara Fay ’68)
Arsenal: Emma Byrne – Steph Houghton, Ciara Grant, Faye White ©, Gilly Flaherty (Jordan Nobbs ’89) – Niamh Fahey, Katie Chapman – Ellen White, Kim Little (Lauren Bruton ’90), Rachel Yankey – Jen Beattie (Danielle Carter ’60)
Harvey: “We’d waited for so long. The Champions League definitely helped us hit the ground running, but we had no idea what to expect from our opponents, many teams had recruited heavily. We were super excited, but we had no idea what to expect. Information on other clubs was so limited, completely limited, literally nothing. Unless we could get to a game they were playing or they happened to be the game on TV, you could get some decent information.
“I remember we were playing Rayo Vallecano in the Champions League and I asked if I could go to Madrid and watch and the club were like ‘what?’ We had nothing on them, that’s what you had to do, it just wasn’t common back then. My dad was a coach at the time so sometimes I’d ask him to go and watch a game too!
“It became an event; the game was an event. Flags were flying, we’d never had that before, just the little things. We did that thing where we had to do a guard of honour for the opponents – that was weird. When you won, you did a guard of honour for the team that lost, there were lots of little things to try and make it an event and I think the WPS was doing that a lot at the time.
“I remember being in meetings and people talking about making it a spectacle, getting people to watch. I was super old school in saying it was the players and the product on the pitch that people wanted to see and they were like ‘no, no, we’re going to do this’ and I hated all that stuff, I’ll be honest.
“We were the team everyone wanted to watch, a lot of the media stuff was around us. I was probably more protective of the players than I needed to be, but I just wanted them to concentrate on playing football. I got into a few arguments with people saying ‘no, we won’t do this, it’s game day’ and some of the players were just like ‘chill out’.”
Beard: “I’ll never forget that day. I didn’t live far from Tooting and Mitcham, I remember driving into the ground and there were queues and queues of people trying to get into the game. I remember the kerfuffle with the pitch, it wasn’t deemed good enough so we had to put a lot of sand on it, I don’t know if that made it better or worse. But it was amazing to be the first game, the first game on TV with ESPN.”
“We pushed Arsenal quite hard. The build-up was unbelievable. I don’t actually remember a lot about the game, I don’t remember there being a lot in it, I just remember Gilly scoring off a set play, we got beat off a set play and that was about that really.”
Rafferty: “It was all very exciting and new. My most vivid memory is there being things like a fun zone and things for fans and kids to do around the stadium. It was like an entertainment event, an occasion, not just a football match with ten people there. I remember thinking ‘wow, this is a big deal actually’.
“We played at Tooting and Mitcham and the pitch was shocking. I remember that, but it did suddenly feel a lot more professional. It was just like a big rebranding, but it felt like it was being taken a lot more seriously.”
Lincoln City 0-1 Doncaster Rovers Belles (Vicky Exley ‘45)
13/04/2011 – Sincil Bank – 7:45pm – Referee: Sian Massey
Lincoln City: Kay Hawke – Rachel Daly (Mel Sutcliffe ’46), Leandra Little, Sophie Bradley, Casey Stoney – Megan Harris ©, Remi Allen (Sophie Walton ’46), Lucy Staniforth – Jess Clarke, Carla Cantrell, Sue Smith
Doncaster Rovers Belles: Helen Alderson – Lyndsey Cunningham, Victoria Williams, Maria Karlsson, Kylla Sjoman – Kasia Lipka, Katie Holtham – Rebecca Hall (Millie Bright ’82), Vicky Exley ©, Precious Hamilton – Aine O’Gorman
Wilson: “We tried different things. We had fireworks, balloons, we tried different things to make it an event. I remember one game, I think against Everton, one of their England girls said in a piece when asked about the most memorable games she’d played in – and she’d played in a World Cup – that it was Lincoln away because we had fireworks!”
Harris: “I think it became more of an occasion and I think it probably built into too much of an occasion for us. We kind of froze a little bit and didn’t give a true account of who we were as a team. There was a big crowd, it was on TV, there was so much going on and I think even the more experienced players were taken aback by it, they’d never experienced it.”
Alderson: “It felt massive. They had a bit of money behind them and made some great signings. They had Sue Smith, they’d signed a lot of the Leeds players, it felt a bit of a David vs Goliath as well as a local derby. It was under the lights, it’s a game I will always remember, I remember it quite clearly. It was so good to win, it was one of those games we had to play out of our skin to win and we did that.”
Wilson: “I was a bit nervous, I think the players were very nervous. We expected to win and we lost 1-0. I made two subs at half-time because I wasn’t happy with the performance and we dominated from then on, but we couldn’t score. That was my worry all the way through pre-season. We’d recruited well and played good football, but I didn’t have that Ellen White figure I wanted to finish things off. In the second half of the season we got Jodie Taylor and that changed everything for us.”
Alderson: “I can still picture Vicky’s goal now. I remember it being a very frantic game. Sue Smith hit the bar, there were goalmouth scrambles and Precious Hamilton missed a sitter for us which would have made it more comfortable. Vicky was 36 I think and probably one of the best players I ever played with.”
Buckley: “Vicky was outstanding. When a lot of players had left, she’d stayed. She was a real lion for us. She helped us with that whole process! We had some good players, players who were committed and would dig in and I think that’s what got us through that night. You could tell everyone was giving it a little bit extra.”
Harris: “I captained the team that night, it was an amazing feeling. I look back now with disappointment because we lost, but it was a massive moment. I’m proud to look back now and think I was a part of it, for my home town. I tell my kids I used to play, but they don’t believe me.”
Birmingham City 4-0 Bristol Academy (Rachel Williams 7 & 27, Karen Carney 37 & 70)
14/04/2011 – Knights Lane – 7:45pm – Referee: Paul Forrester
Birmingham City: Marie Hourihan – Chelsea Weston, Laura Bassett ©, Sally-Anne Stanton, Kerys Harrop – Jo Potter, Jade Moore, Karen Carney – Dunia Susi (Stefanie Curtis ’76), Rachel Williams (Izzy Christiansen ’72), Emily Westwood
Bristol Academy: Siobhan Chamberlain – Alex Culvin, Emma Jones, Grace McCatty, Corinne Yorston © – Helen Bleazard, Michelle Green, Anouk Hoogendijk (Katie Daley ’53), Loren Dykes (Annie Heatherson ’55) – Lillie Fenlon-Billson, Jess Fishlock (Jasmine Matthews ’74)
Parker: “It was a huge event, just the TV cameras alone made it stand out. We’d gone down to Wembley a few weeks before to do the ESPN launch, photos, videos, it was out of the blue for all of us. We realised this was going somewhere, that was the first time we looked at it and said ‘holy crap’, this is serious, they’re doing it properly, not just repackaging and rebranding.
“The excitement in the ground was great. I think so many players were wound up because they’d had to wait a year for it. Just getting ready in the changing room, you could feel the excitement. We had a good crowd in, going from one man and his dog to a few hundred, it was a big change. We played some unbelievable football, we were straight out of the traps. I remember speaking to Mark and he said it was a big wake up call for them, and they had good players, they had Jess Fishlock, and we steam-rolled them.
“We had the infrastructure behind us. Ellie Maybury was our performance analyst and she’s gone onto work for the USWNT. We built a staff, a foundation, Ellie made us the fittest team in the league, we did things other clubs took five or six years to grasp. We had Francis Bunce too who now works for UEFA, we had a solid staff in place.”
Sampson: “Birmingham were a team full of England internationals and young players like Jade Moore and Jodie Taylor who went on to enjoy fantastic international careers. We lost 4-0 and it could have been twice that. To reach the FA Women’s Cup final and finish mid-table that season was an unbelievable effort from everyone involved. I remember Corinne scored a last-minute equaliser against Arsenal in a 2-2 draw in front of 1,500 fans in Bristol. The number sounds low but considering the previous season the club had lost 9-0 to Arsenal in front of less than 50 fans it was an amazing turnaround from the club.”
McCatty: “What was disappointing for us, and you have to credit Birmingham because they had a really good year, but the hype built up a level of expectation and a Bristol we thrived off the underdog culture. To lose 4-0 was really disappointing, but looking back at how well Birmingham did made it less sore as time went on. We let ourselves down on the day, but we learned a lot, we had young players and we learned as we went on, we created a better culture, better results and we became a good team over time, but Birmingham were a level above and they had a great attack.”
Williams: “They signed me to be the 8 or the 10 because I’d played there for Donny. Steph Curtis got injured just before the league started and we had no other forwards. I got asked to play the striker and I was like ‘oh no, I can’t do that’, I played midfield because I loved to run around like Steven Gerrard. He just told me to do everything I did but at a defence, so I gave it a go and said ‘but don’t be mad at me if I’m not very good!’ I scored twice and got an assist, the combination between me and Kaz Carney, it was just no pressure play. All they ever said was go and enjoy it and get us some goals, we didn’t really know how good we’d be.”
Parker: “Nobody expected Rach to be the centre forward. She’d played attacking midfield for Belles, but we saw her differently and it worked well for us. I don’t think people knew how good our players were and to be honest we probably didn’t know how good we’d be either. Rachel was phenomenal for us in those early years. We knew other teams wanted her, I think the environment we created was perfect for her. She had freedom to go out and use her ability and be herself.”
McCatty: “A lot of our success beyond the first game over the next few years was based on bringing in good players who weren’t household names. We knew we would have a platform move forward, you look at the league today or teams around the world, there’s some very good players who passed through the Bristol system at some point, it just took a little while for it to come together.”
Liverpool 3-3 Everton (Cheryl Foster ’61, Nicola Harding ’73, Ruesha Littlejohn ’90 – Natasha Dowie ’43 & ’90, Jill Scott ’70)
14/04/2011 – Ormskirk Stadium – 7:45pm – Referee: Gordon Johnson
Liverpool: Andrea Worrall – Vicky Jones ©, Nicola Twohig, Sam Chappell, Nicola Harding (Gemma Watson ’77) – Kelly Jones, Sue Lappin, Michelle Evans (Carmel Bennett ’82), Katie Brusell – Cheryl Foster (Jo Traynor ’85), Ruesha Littlejohn
Everton: Rachel Brown – Becky Easton (Michelle Hinnigan ’74), Fern Whelan, Lindsay Johnson, Rachel Unitt – Gwennan Harries (Lucy Bronze ’74), Fara Williams, Jill Scott, Jody Handley © (Brooke Chaplen ’82) – Natasha Dowie, Toni Duggan
Johnson: “One of the things we wanted to do was break Everton’s dominance in our area. We went down to London for the FA Awards a few months before, I won manager of the year for the northern league, we’d only lost one game and drawn one out of the 22 games, but I remember a few of the Everton players laughing and joking about how they were going to beat us, I used that as a bit of motivation in the changing room.”
Spence: “The Liverpool–Everton thing will always exist, but we all wanted each other to progress and develop and grow the sport. Obviously during the game you want to win, but we only viewed Liverpool coming up as a positive. Liverpool is a big football city and to have both major clubs in the FA WSL was a big thing really.”
Foster: “It was a derby, we’d played each other a few times, the build-up was exciting. Now you’d laugh because it happens every season, but back then going down to London to have TV shots done and things like that were brand new. We all had our headshots done for postcards made for us all to sign for fans, I gave one to my nephew and he still has it now.
“We were at Skelmersdale and the crowd was fantastic. I couldn’t tell you an exact figure but I’d say between two and three thousand. We had burger vans, merchandise stalls, small things now but things we’d never had before. It was a sense of occasion, it was an evening game and I love evening games. I always joke if there was ever a pub quiz question asking who scored Liverpool’s first FA WSL goal … that’s a nice little bit of trivia for me.”
Spence: “The expectation was on Everton, that’s a fact. We knew we were facing a Liverpool side with zero fear, some good players in their own right who had got promoted the year before. We probably felt that pressure and Liverpool played with more freedom. Skem was a brilliant pitch, it was known as Skem-ber-ley locally. I don’t think we played very well and Liverpool were probably disappointed not to win in the end.”
Brown-Finnis: “It was brilliant to have that rivalry. I’d joined Liverpool at 15 years old, they were in and out for a few years so to have them back was brilliant for us. They were the underdogs at first but raised their game when they played us. We had a great crowd, there was a real sense of occasion about it and you got a feel for what it was going to be like from that point on. There was goals, excitement, drama, hard-hitting tackles, getting in each other’s ears, and obviously it went right down to the wire.”
Johnson: “We made a sub with about ten minutes to go, bringing on Carmel Bennett. Fara Williams took a free-kick and Carmel went to try and clear it, it looped up and went to Tash Dowie who equalised, I think it was the 93rd minute. It was a tough one to take for us even if it was a good result in retrospect, but it is a beautiful world in football.”
Foster: “I’d been substituted by the end so I was watching on and it was just the collapse. We were buzzing, we thought we had three points, then they equalised. They deserved something looking back but going from the euphoria to feeling absolutely gutted, it was a great game though.”
Johnson: “It gave us some confidence, but in reality, we never had the standard of players Everton did at that time. They had Fara, Jill Scott, Rach Unitt, Tash Dowie, Rachel Brown, Lindsay Johnson, you could go on and on. We had those plans going forward, but we were a few years away.”
Foster: “Everton had so much quality, they had established England players. My Welsh teammate Gwen Harries had a hand in one of the goals, it was like a basketball match, back and forth so quickly, it was a great advert for the start of the FA WSL.”
By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty