Women’s football in Manchester did not start five years ago, when Manchester City were awarded automatic entry to the FA Women’s Super League. It has a long and illustrious history, reaching back into the early 20th century and the famous Manchester Corinthians, an independent team of women who toured the world playing exhibition matches.
Giants of the men’s game Manchester City and Manchester United might have launched women’s teams to grand fanfare for the FA’s new elite competitions, but they had predecessors who shared their names—and who folded due to lack of support.
“United had a supporters’ team affiliated to the club for a long time,” says Dr Gary James, expert in Manchester football and honorary research fellow at De Montfort University, England. “That certainly lasted into the 2000s, and it was a successful local team. Women’s football in Manchester has a long tradition, and the Corinthians kept the sport alive locally, with people like [former City goalkeeper] Bert Trautmann acting as ambassadors for the club.”
City relaunched their women’s team as a professional side in 2012, gaining a licence for the FA Women’s Super League Division 1, and signing England internationals including Steph Houghton, Karen Bardsley and Jill Scott.
United, meanwhile, had no women’s team at all. Fans groused; observers wondered why one of the biggest names in the global game should continue to avoid investing in the female game.
Then at the start of 2018, Manchester United announced that they would have a women’s team for the beginning of the new season, revealing England legend Casey Stoney as head coach. It was an easy headline-grab for the FA—finally they had representatives from the Red Devils in their league. They knew that a United team would attract viewers—both in person, with fans attending matches, and across the world, following the competition via social media and live streaming. In a world where the women’s game is still trying to gain mainstream media attention, a United team was vital.
“It actually feels like a bit of an embarrassment that one the biggest clubs in the world, who I have passionately supported all my life, wasn’t prepared to have a women’s team for so many years since the disbanding in 2005,” says United fan Sophie Le Marchand, who plays for Leyton Orient Women in the National League South East Division 1. “I do find it astonishing that it has taken this long. It begs the question of whether or not the club actually cares at all about the women’s game, or whether they have just felt the pressure from other clubs to do the same.”
Of course, United might well have felt that pressure from the success of their neighbours.
“The evolution of City’s women’s team and the youth set-up in general has been inspirational,” admits Le Marchand. “They have really led the way and I do think United should be ashamed that they have not played a significant role in the in the rise of women’s football worldwide. I hope that the news that they are forming a women’s team marks the start of a change of attitude from the club and that moving forward they can become an important focal point for the continued rise of women’s football.”
“It was about time,” says Katie Whyatt, a journalist covering the city. “They’re a huge global brand. This is such a great patch to cover—and with a Manchester rivalry now, that’s a new element, and it’s a game-changer, especially when United get up to the Women’s Super League, which is surely only a matter of time.”
United have begun this season as a founder member of the newly-renamed FA Women’s Championship, the second tier, which is intended to be part-time, with a limited number of contact hours for players. With a squad packed full of experienced internationals captained by Lioness Alex Greenwood, it is no surprise that United are exceeding the minimum requirements already. They are full-time professionals.
As far as Le Marchand is concerned, the increasing professionalisation of women’s football is a good thing.
“This will benefit the women’s game in the long run, even if it means that there will be some casualties in the process to begin with,” she says.
United began their Championship league campaign with a 12-0 demolition of Aston Villa Ladies. On paper, that might look like an abysmal result for the Villa against a brand-new team; in reality, a team of amateurs competing against full-time pros did well to contain them to just the dozen. But for the casual fan of women’s football—or a United supporter or Villa follower glancing at the results—that nuance won’t be obvious. All they’ll see is a heavily one-sided match—the likes of which made women’s football in England so uncompetitive before, when just one or two clubs bothered investing in their teams. Once it was Arsenal Ladies conquering all; before that it was Doncaster Rovers Belles. There was a spell when Fulham set up a fully professional women’s team, and they too clocked up double-figures wins against their amateur opponents.
“It’s not a level playing field in the Premier League either,” points out Whyatt. “Look at Burnley and what they needed to deliver on their resources to reach the Europa League and compare that to Liverpool. The onus needs to be on clubs to back their women’s teams more. Rather than saying to United, ‘You’ve distorted the league,’ maybe we should say to other clubs, ‘Back your women’s team.’”
She acknowledges that this is not always viable—budgets are finite, and thus women’s teams are often staffed by hard-working people devoting all their free time and energies to the project, receiving limited or no financial reward for doing so.
And there have been multiple cases where men’s clubs have given their women’s team financial backing, and then it has been withdrawn. Sunderland Ladies were part of the top tier when they saw their funding cut, and their full-time professionals either left or went part-time. Notts County Ladies closed down two years ago when a new owner took over at the men’s club. Charlton Athletic cast their women adrift at the turn of the millennium when the men got relegated and caused budget cuts across the club.
And Premier League Burnley—though their budget might be small compared with some of their opponents—are not amateurs competing against professionals. Manchester United are offering their players the chance to play football as a career full-time under a well-known coach alongside star internationals, with a view to future success. Their squad should, as Whyatt points out, have no problem winning the league against teams who train for only a few hours a week.
“You can’t imagine them doing anything but walking that division,” she says. “They’ll be a real force in WSL1 when they get there next year.”
The introduction of the Women’s Super League—a small, closed league, with no promotion or relegation—seven years ago was supposed to ensure the spread of top talent, was supposed to ensure good competition, was supposed to ensure an attractive spectacle. Short-term success has emboldened the FA to expand their pilot project, and now promotion and relegation can happen as long as the teams moving leagues meet the licensing requirements—money, contact hours, home ground standards and so on. But it also means that full-time professionals are thrashing amateurs in the second tier. There will be little official outrage or comment, though, because keeping United in the women’s game is essential to continue to raise its profile.