A new day for women's football
Having been lucky enough to sample the delights of a number of live sporting events, it is with more than a hint of shame that my first taste of women's football came long after the likes of squash, weightlifting and even bowls. Unfortunately for the women's game, though, I am not alone in my ignorance and that is indicative of the position the sport currently occupies in the psyche of most English sports fans. The launch of the new FA Women's Super League (WSL) is designed to alter those perceptions.
The inception of the FA WSL is but a small step in the raising of the game's profile in England; only time will tell whether it will become the giant leap that its creators and participants hope for.
Behind the scenes, those involved in women's football have been working towards this elite league for many years. It has been a tumultuous journey and there have been plenty of false dawns and numerous objections. Even the final product has not been to everyone's liking, with the most notable criticism being the financial chasm that has been created between the WSL and the old FA Women's Premier League, which now serves as the second tier in English football.
The race to become one of the eight clubs in the first season of the WSL was won by Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Lincoln Ladies, Bristol Academy, Doncaster Belles and Birmingham City, who have all had a pre-season of almost 11 months to prepare for the start of the new campaign. Their successful applications were attributable to both financial clout and geographical location.
The FA was determined to get a good spread of clubs across the country, though the inclusion of both Chelsea and Arsenal from London and Everton and Liverpool from Merseyside ensures the competition retains some derby spice. But while the vicinity in which their football was played was part of the criteria, this is football after all and so money inevitably played a vital role. The WSL sides receive around £70,000 in backing from the FA but it is a figure the clubs must also match themselves.
This has allowed a club like Lincoln Ladies, boasting an interested owner willing to offer copious amounts of cash, the opportunity to compete, while a Leeds United - fourth-place finishers in both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons in the FA Women's Premier League - were overlooked. The absence of Sunderland also appears to be an opportunity missed in the football hotbed of the North East, but is the franchise nature of the league that has been the biggest cause of consternation, with the lack of promotion and relegation ensuring the Wearsiders - winners of this season's FA Women's Premier League - cannot join the top tier.
Such a dramatic change was inevitably going to attract condemnation from some parties, but the devotees outweighed the detractors and after a proposed launch collapsed last year due to the unfavourable economic climate, the WSL was finally born in 2011.
The inaugural game of the inaugural season came at the rather unglamorous location of Ryman League men's side Tooting and Mitcham FC, whose Imperial Fields will provide Chelsea Ladies with their home this term. That the first clash of the elite league was played in a stadium inhabited by a side in the seventh tier of English football shows just how far the WSL has to go to match the popularity of its male counterpart, though it also demonstrates just how massive the scope is for progress to be made.
The WSL's PR machine had been in overdrive drumming up support for the curtain-raiser and it was helped both by ESPN UK's decision to take on broadcasting rights for the competition and the fact that Arsenal were the first visitors to Imperial Fields. Undisputedly the dominant force in women's football in England over the past 25 years, the Gunners juggernaut has swept all before it in winning 33 major trophies, including the past six domestic league titles, four of the past five FA Women's Cups and the crowning glory - the Women's Champions League back in 2007.
Arsenal blame pitch
The arrival of the WSL may have been billed as the dawn of a new era, but there was to be no changing of the established order in the opening fixture as Arsenal ran out 1-0 winners thanks to a scrappy first-half goal from defender Gilly Flaherty. Having made nine summer signings after a complete squad overhaul, Matt Beard's Chelsea certainly gave an excellent account of themselves but a poor pitch prevented both sides from playing the football they were clearly capable of. The Gunners, led by coach Laura Harvey, appeared particularly frustrated as ball-players like Rachel Yankey and Kim Little were restricted by the condition of the surface.
As a newcomer to the matchday experience, I was fortunate to have an unquestionable expert next to me in the stands to offer an insight into the nuances of the game. Former Fulham and Wimbledon manager Fred Brockwell has been involved in women's football for 40 years and proudly beamed that he had overseen the development of several of the players on display on Thursday.
Though the WSL has no direct aspirations to compete with men's football - its introduction as a summer league is designed to attract more fans in the men's off-season - it is difficult not to make comparisons when the Premier League is your bread and butter. I found myself analysing the game in men's football terms, with the one-touch triangles of Harvey's Gunners seeming like an obvious replication of Arsene Wenger's philosophy. But my initial fears that male comparisons would be viewed as patronising were put to rest within minutes by veteran Fred, who described Chelsea's tough-tackling midfielder Leanne Champ as "the female Joey Barton", adding that "you wouldn't want to get in her way, she leaves everything out on the pitch".
Off the pitch, the stands were awash with face paint as a family-oriented atmosphere made a refreshing change from the aggressive aura that men's football matches tend to exude. Supporters of both sides mingled and the large contingent of children helped the evening seem more a festival of football than just a fixture.
Impressive as the opening day support was, with 2,510 in attendance, Vic Akers OBE, the legendary Arsenal Ladies boss who founded the club and guided them to 32 trophies before moving upstairs as general manager in 2009, believes the real test will be whether the WSL can maintain those levels for the rest of the season.
"As a spectacle it probably wasn't the best tonight and that's disappointing," Akers told ESPNsoccernet. "Conditions here at this ground have been difficult - the surface has been poor and it's not helped the girls' football - but we've battled through and won 1-0, it's a positive result.
"You'd like to think the support will be like this for the rest of the season but it will depend how many turn up next week. We've got to maintain this level and you do that by having a good standard on the pitch. The people who viewed the game tonight will probably think 'it's not as good as we thought' but sadly they've not seen it at its best - the ball was bobbling all over the place and it wasn't easy to make two passes.
"I was one of the people who encouraged the summer league in the first place and I'm hopeful that it will take off. With the amount of people that are here and enjoying the evening I like to think we can really go on from here."
The attendance represented Chelsea Ladies' highest ever home gate, but still comes some way short of the 21,000 who packed Lyon's Stade Gerland for the visit of Arsenal in last week's Women's Champions League semi-final first leg. Though it must seem a world away right now, that sort of captive audience is a benchmark that the ambitious pioneers of the WSL must aspire to in order to further the development of women's football in England.