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What the men’s game can learn from women’s football

SUPER LEAGUE: Eni Aluko is one of the stars of women's football

IT’S BEEN quite a week for Manchester United.

Despite winning away at Liverpool on the opening day of the season, they succumbed to a surprising defeat against Reading less than one week later, losing 2-0.

To make it worse for Casey Stoney’s team they were playing against 10 players for the last 30 minutes, but still couldn’t turn it around.

I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United?

The Manchester United I'm referring to have this year been admitted to the Women’s Championship, ending a 13-year period when the Reds didn’t have a female team at all.

Such is the resurgence of the women’s game in this country that a club of the size of Manchester United felt compelled to re-join the party, despite the people who run things at Old Trafford for many years believing – wrongly – that only senior men’s football mattered.

The now professional Women’s Super League (which includes Yeovil and Bristol City) has been going for seven years. Its stratospheric rise was only slightly dented last year when it became a winter sport again, having previously been played during the summer.

Still, there were 45,000 people at last year’s FA Cup Final.

This week, the FA announced it was bidding to host the Women’s European Championships in 2021 – with Wembley staging the final and other matches held at Meadow Lane, the home of Notts County, Peterborough’s Abax stadium and Rotherham’s New York stadium.

And why not? England’s Lionesses are ranked fourth in the world, got to the semi-final of the World Cup in 2015 and are on the verge of qualifying for next year’s tournament in France. That surely makes us a strong candidate?
Some of our best players now ply their trade abroad, enriching their footballing education. It’s something no male players in the England team currently do. Eniola Aluko and Lianne Sanderson (Juventus), Toni Duggan (a Kick It Out ambassador, Barcelona) and Isobel Christiansen (Lyon) compete in some of Europe’s top leagues. Meanwhile, Rachel Daly and Jodie Taylor (Houston and Seattle respectively) play in America, which has a strong domestic league.

In 2017, the FA’s “Gameplan for Growth” set out to double the number of women and girls playing football by the end of 2020.

Women in Football recently highlighted survey findings which revealed how more girls in the UK are being encouraged into football thanks to a positive shift in attitude among parents.

It’s also becoming more common to see women in:
• boardrooms - from Carolyn Radford at Mansfield (chief executive) to Karren Brady at West Ham (vice chair)
• press boxes - from Jacqui Oatley (ITV) to Martha Kelner (The Guardian) and Vicki Sparks (Match Of The Day)
• TV Studios – Alex Scott (Sky via BBC), Sue Smith (BBC) and Eniola Aluko (ITV)
• officiating – Sian Massey-Ellis , Lucy Oliver and others.
• watching – it's been claimed that more women watch football in a week than watch Eastenders.

So we’re moving in the right direction – though you will note how few women of colour are among the examples I've given – but we’re not there yet.

Carolyn Radford herself talks about the sport being “full of dinosaurs”, and Jason Cundy’s frankly moronic comments about female commentators highlight this. And Lucy and Sian are excellent officials but we’re still waiting for our first female ref in the Premier League.

There’s no danger as yet of women troubling men in terms of earning. A Manchester Evening News report suggests that the top women will get £35,000 a year, which is roughly what Alexis Sanchez allegedly takes home every day.

But could this be the season the women’s game in this country reaches a higher level? And are there things the men’s game can learn from women’s football?

Fans who watch the WSL talk about not only the high standard of football but of seeing a greater respect for the officials from the players – and the players themselves being approachable for selfies and autographs. It’s a nice contrast to some elements of the men’s game.

Another aspect is that being openly gay is certainly no barrier to success in the women’s game. Some of the highest profile and celebrated names – including Hope Powell (15 years as England manager; an OBE and a CBE), Casey Stoney (winner of 10 trophies won and an International Player of the Year award) – are “out”.

I hope this season sees a big step forward for gender equality in the game we love.

Quick quiz question for you to finish: who was the last player before Harry Kane to captain England in a World Cup semi-final?

If you say Terry Butcher – instead of Steph Houghton – then you haven’t been paying attention.

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