Is forcing clubs to invest the only way to ensure equal opportunities?

by Dean Mears (26/1/23)

Above: Referee Neil Hair talks to Chelsea head coach Emma Hayes amidst the farcical situation at Kingsmeadow on Sunday. Photo: Mirror.

Lunchtime on Sunday 22nd January, and what the world saw highlighted a shocking lack of investment in the top flight of the women’s club game in England.

Chelsea, one of the biggest spending clubs in the world, were due to host Liverpool, another of Europe’s biggest names, in a major fixture in the WSL season, to be shown live on the BBC.

The United Kingdom is currently experiencing a spell of severely cold weather, with temperatures dropping as low as minus six degrees, and frozen pitches across the country had already led to many matches, in both the men’s and women’s games being postponed.

At Kingsmeadow, where Chelsea’s women play their home fixtures, there is no undersoil heating, meaning the pitch is vulnerable to freezing temperatures. The FA had provided Chelsea with a pitch cover and industrial heaters in an attempt to ensure the game was on.

Referee Neil Hair had, according to Emma Hayes, said that the pitch was unplayable after his 9:30am pitch inspection, but FA officials, who were not present at Kingsmeadow, were desperate for their prime TV slot pick to go ahead, and they took the decision at around 10:00 am, that the game would be on.

The pitch covers remained in place until 11:30am and the players were afforded a short opportunity to warm up on the pitch, during which time Liverpool sent an email to FA to question the decision and raise awareness of the potential dangers of the pitch.

Kick-off duly came at 12:30pm, and it was apparent very quickly that the pitch was still frozen, especially on the far touchline near the dugouts, where Liverpool manager Matt Beard was voicing his concerns.

Above: The frozen scene at Kingsmeadow on Sunday during the six minutes that was played. Photo: Give Me Sport.

With a little over six minutes on the clock, referee Hair spoke with both team captains and called the game off, much to the frustration of the supporters inside the stadium, including a large Liverpool contingent who had been provided with free travel to the fixture by their club.

Hayes tried to appease the crowd, offering “free hot dogs next week”, but the situation only helped to highlight the vast steps that the women’s game needs to take, and unless clubs are forced into providing investment, these deficiencies are likely to remain. 

Currently, in the men’s professional football league, you must play on a grass pitch, it means clubs in the National League [the fifth tier of the sport] who use all-weather surfaces to keep their games on and avoid cancellations, must rip up their artificial pitches and re-lay them upon promotion to the Football League.

For clubs, like Sutton United, who recently gained promotion into the Football League, it means a large percentage of their income from promotion goes on this outlay.

Clubs wanting to gain promotion to the Premier League must play in all-seater stadia, following rules set in place following the Hillsborough stadium disaster in 1989.

These are examples of forced investment, that set a minimum standard for entry into the top leagues, so why should the women’s game be any different?

Above: Hot air blowers are used to try and thaw out the Kingsmeadow pitch on Sunday. Photo: The Pride of London.

We will start to see it in the latter rounds of the UEFA Women’s Champions League, where fixtures will need to held at club’s main stadiums so that the match officials have access to VAR, something they wouldn’t be able to do if they played at either Meadow Park (in Arsenal’s case) or Kingsmeadow.

Giving our women’s teams the best facilities and access to professional standard medical treatments and playing in suitable stadiums will only improve the quality of the games and the players, which is something we all want.

So, all clubs in the WSL would need to have facilities that reach certain standards, both at the stadiums they play and at the training grounds. This will ensure that all clubs will be investing correctly in their women’s teams.

Speaking to the BBC after the cancellation, Hayes said: “We’ve got pitch covers and heaters that are designed to prevent frozen pitches. If they don’t do that job, then we have to have another solution.

“That’s not my job – that’s for the league and the clubs to sort so we never have to cancel games. I’ve said for years that cancelling games has a detrimental impact on our sport. 

“Whatever it takes, to ensure that fans travelling up and down the country aren’t having games cancelled six or seven minutes in, is something we should all work towards.”

Right now, all WSL clubs should have played 12 games, yet only West Ham United and Reading have reached that number. Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, Everton, and Aston Villa have all played 11, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool, and Leicester have played 10 with second-bottom Brighton and Hove Albion still only having played nine games.

Above: Game over. Referee Neil Hair walks off the pitch after abandoning Chelsea’s game with Liverpool. Photo: Telegraph.

Of the 12 WSL teams, only four (Manchester United, Manchester City, Reading, and Leicester City) play on pitches with undersoil heating. The rest do not, and while Chelsea is the only one of those teams to own that second stadium, the other teams still choose to play at stadiums without undersoil heating.

This could be fixed by rules being in place to ensure that certain standards are in place, as Hayes said, cancelling games has a detrimental impact on our sport, so if we can ensure all WSL clubs have resources available to mitigate that risk, the better place the women’s game will be in.

Then you’ll also find clubs in the Championship will also begin to improve facilities in an attempt to be ready for promotion, should that opportunity present itself.

While this might mean that women’s teams are a loss-making enterprise right now, the reality is that the women’s game will never grow big enough to be self-sustainable if situations like last Sunday’s debacle keep on happening.

With proper investment in key infrastructure now, sponsors and audiences will grow because “the product” will be vastly improved by things like the risk of having a game called off after six minutes simply not being there.

This is Dean Mears’ debut article for Impetus. To see his biography and those of the rest of Impetus’ team of contributors, click here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: