The popularity of domestic women’s football in England has been growing year after year. Two BBC journalists want to make sure the resources to help people learn about, understand, and appreciate the game grow with it.
This interview has been edited down for clarity and length.
Chris Slegg: It just occurred to me this year that there isn’t one — that as far as I can work out, there’s never been one, certainly in [England]. As a young boy, I had the [formerly Rothmans, now Sky Sports] Men’s Football Yearbook…and it just struck me that there’s not a women’s one.
And it just felt like the perfect time to do it. I mean, in this country, the…evolution of women’s football has gathered pace, certainly over the last three-four-five years, with England doing so well at the World Cup in Canada and then heading towards the Euros this year.
With the season being reset here as well — we’ve had these summer seasons of women’s football since 2011, and then the FA announced that it was going to go back to a winter program [for this season], so I thought: ‘We could be there from the start with this women’s football yearbook. We could be there from the very start of the new beginning.’
Although, just within the last week the FA have said they’re going to start again next year — that they’re going to rip up where things have got to now and teams are going to have to apply to be part of the WSL 1 again. So there’s going to be another new beginning next year.
I know this is used a lot — ‘mixed reaction’ — but I really think it is almost 50/50 on some of the clubs and the players and the fans thinking that this is going to be another positive change, but a lot of clubs thinking ‘Well, where does this leave us? I’m not sure this is good.’
…With my football fan’s head on, I think there’s been too many changes. And that’s part of why I wanted to bring this book together, because even as a football journalist who has followed women’s football since the turn of the century, my knowledge, until I started putting this book together, of outside the top division was extremely limited. And so [writing this book was] to almost learn as I went, do the research myself and find out more about how things worked.
But the way I see things panning out is that we’re going to have the top division of women’s football becoming very similar to the top division of men’s football: the very same clubs, with the very same names.
And I think personally part of the fascination is that we have these different names right now [in women’s football] — I’m fascinated by the idea that Yoevil and Oxford are two of the biggest clubs in the women’s game, and Durham and Sheffield FC. Obviously, in the men’s game, Sheffield is a non-league team, Durham is a university effectively, and Oxford and Yoevil are well down the football pyramid. So I like the idea that women’s football has its own identity here, and I think we’re in danger of losing that with this next round of changes that the FA are going to bring in next year.
Perhaps the FA don’t quite know where they’re going with this, and I don’t necessarily blame them for that. Now I sense that this latest plan, as I mentioned earlier, is really to get the very biggest clubs to pretty much bankroll the women’s clubs — and that’s what we’re seeing with Manchester City, that’s what we’re seeing with Chelsea. Tottenham have done great things with their ladies’ team over the last few seasons…I’m sure they’ll apply for a license, I’m sure they’ll have a very good chance at being one of these new WSL 1 clubs.
And yes, can you imagine if Manchester United did have a women’s team — They’d be parachuted straight into the top division. We saw a couple of years ago Doncaster Rovers Belles have done amazing things for women’s football — they’re one of our oldest clubs, one of the most successful clubs — and they lost out on a WSL 1 license to Manchester City.
I can’t imagine that teams like Yeovil and Oxford are going to be able to keep their place in the very top echelons of women’s football if you get all the huge men’s Premier League clubs scrambling for these licenses. But as a business model, if you’ve got those clubs into that top division, [having an application process] probably is the most sensible way to grow women’s football as quickly as possible.
I guess the reason it hasn’t occurred to anyone before is because women’s football doesn’t have that huge following that men’s football does [in England]. But I’ve just sensed this mood that people are becoming more fascinated by the women’s game.
And the FA has done many great things. Playing the Women’s FA Cup Final at Wembley was a really good idea. There were families going along there, crowds of 35,000. When I started covering Women’s FA Cup Finals back in the early 2000s, they would be paid at league grounds like Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park and the first one I went to I think there were only 5,000 or 6,000 people there – which was actually pretty good at the time, but things have really come on leaps and bounds in the last five years.
I think the exposure that the BBC, that Channel 4, that ITV, that Sky Sports and BT Sports are giving to women’s sport now has improved immeasurably since the London Olympics.
For most of my career as a sports journalist there’s been a debate: ‘why aren’t you showing more women’s sport? Why are the newspapers not covering it more?’ And the answer’s been, ‘well, no one wants it.’ And the counterargument has been ‘but unless you show them it, how do you know if they want it?’
And I think when we got to London 2012, there was this change.
The women’s Olympic final, I think it was sold out at Wembley; certainly more than 80,000 were there, and that was a record crowd for an Olympic women’s football match. And suddenly broadcasters and newspapers realized that people want to see other sports. They don’t just want men’s Premier League football; people want to see more women’s sports.
And since then, there’s been an explosion. What BT Sport are doing showing live games, what the BBC are doing this season with games on the website and on the Red Button, the commentary on their Five Live Extra station — it’s improved leaps and bounds.
I thought it was a shame that the BBC didn’t get the rights to show the  Euros but actually…I think Channel 4 getting those rights did a good thing for women’s football. They said, look, it’s not just the BBC that are interested in this; all media organizations want a piece of this. So I think it’s a really good sign.
Jacqui [Oatley, who wrote the forward to the book] was the obvious choice. She loves football at all levels, and every genre of football; her knowledge is just immense in every area. And, obviously, she has seen the evolution of not just women’s sport and women’s football how [being a woman in the media] has evolved.
She says some really interesting things in the foreword. I feel like things have come on so much, but she mentions how her young daughter had been at a kind of youth club or sports center earlier that day and the coach, not maliciously but just out of a force of habit, said: ‘Right. Boys go kick a football around; girls go and play with the hula-hoop.’ And her daughter had said, ‘What’s all that about? Why can’t I get a chance to kick a ball around?’
And that surprises me, that in 2017 there’s still this idea that it’s the boys who kick a ball around. So there is obviously still a long way to go.
Alex Scott said ‘yeah, well, you need not just young girls to realize that it’s completely normal for girls and women to play football, but you need young boys to realize that too.’ The more exposure it gets, the more it’s on TV, the more books there are about it, then as a young lad you don’t think ‘Oh why’s she playing football?’ It’s just there; it’s just normal.
I actually watched [women’s football] in the 1990s when I was a kid. One of the best teams at the time was called Croydon. Me and my brother would watch Croydon on Channel 4, and that was just quite normal. And that series must have only lasted for maybe one season, two seasons, and then women’s football disappeared again. And I genuinely don’t remember thinking as a young boy ‘that’s weird’ or ‘that’s odd’ or ‘why are women playing football’; it was there and it was something to watch, and we watched it.
We would’ve loved to have interviewed more players but with the time and the space, we went for one player from each of the WSL 1 clubs. The clubs have really bought into this book, they’re excited by it. I think a lot of people have though, ‘yeah, why hasn’t there been a women’s football yearbook before? It’s great that there is one.’ I’m so grateful for the help and support and reception that we’ve had, from not just the WSL clubs but the WPL clubs.
And I hope in the future, if we can make this work this year, that we can extend it and cover even clubs below [WPL] as well. I hope this book can become bigger and better every year.
As I said, those men’s football yearbooks were something I’d buy every single year; they helped me get into the game as a kid. I never was a good footballer, but those books inspired me to become a football journalist. I think there’s a lot to be said that this book won’t just inspire young girls to become footballers, but might inspire them to a career in sports journalism or sports broadcasting or all the other things.
I think it’s going to be Manchester City. Yeah they lost Toni Duggan to Barcelona, a key player, but I just think they have the strongest squad, the biggest squad. …Man City have got the most money in the women’s game, I think they’re going to have the best season.
But this is football; you never know!
You can find the book now on Amazon.