Football journalist Harriet Drudge gives the lowdown on women’s football after the announcement that Manchester United will field a professional women’s team for the first time in 2018/19…
Before the FAWSL launched in April 2011, the league was run in a pyramid format, with three divisions making up the pyramid: the FA Women's Premier League (National) at the top, with the Northern and Southern divisions on equal footing, forming the second tier. This structure was in place from 1994, the year the FA took over administration of the Women's National League and League Cup competition from the Women’s Football Association, who launched a national league formed of 24 clubs in 1991. In 1997, the FA outlined plans to develop the women's game from grassroots to elite level and the following year the first 20 Centres of Excellence for girls were established.
There were eight founding members: Arsenal, Birmingham City, Bristol Academy, Chelsea, Doncaster Rovers, Everton, Lincoln Ladies and Liverpool. Arsenal won the first two editions of the new league, extending their run of consecutive league title wins to nine. The north London club remain the most decorated women’s team in England (as record holders for FA Women’s Premier League, FA Women’s Cup, FA WSL Cup, FA Women’s Premier League Cup, FA Women’s Community Shield and London County FA Women’s Cup wins), although a new generation of champions has come to the fore since the Gunners last won the league in 2012.
So which clubs have had the biggest impact since then?
Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool Ladies lead the way in terms of league titles won since the 2011 restructure, each being crowned champions twice. Manchester City Women went unbeaten in the league in 2016 to secure their first FAWSL title, just two years after joining the league. In terms of the cup competitions, Arsenal are the dominant force. The Gunners – much like the men’s team in recent years – have taken a shine to the FA Cup, winning the competition four times in six seasons. They were only runners-up this year, however, in the fourth final to be held at Wembley.
The league structure expanded in 2014 with the creation of FAWSL 2 and the introduction of promotion and relegation. Nine teams were awarded places in FAWSL 2, with the 10th league spot being taken by a relegated team from the eight-strong FAWSL 1. Doncaster Rovers Belles were the team to drop down, their spot being taken by the revamped, re-launched Manchester City Women. From next season, FAWSL 2 will be known as the FA Women’s Championship.
When does the new campaign begin?
The 2018/19 season begins on the weekend of the 18 & 19 August with the opening round of group fixtures of the Continental Tyres Cup. The FA Women’s Super League and The FA Women’s Championship league fixtures commence on the weekend of the 8 & 9 September.
How did last season pan out in the two divisions?
Chelsea finished the league season unbeaten, winning 13 matches and drawing five, to finish six points clear of Manchester City. Doncaster Rovers Belles romped to the FAWSL 2 title but won’t be playing in FAWSL 1 next season, as promotion and relegation was suspended while the FA introduced the new, restructured and fully professional top flight. The Belles – a founder member of the FAWSL and historically one of the most successful clubs in the country – would have remained in the second tier regardless, as they can’t afford a licence to play in the top flight, which now requires clubs to have the resources to run an Academy.
Which cups do the teams also compete for – and who won them last season?
Chelsea secured the first half of their Double with an impressive display at Wembley earlier this month, beating Arsenal 3-1. The Gunners’ goal that day was also the only goal the Blues conceded throughout the whole competition. Arsenal did take home some silverware last season, though. They won the FA WSL Continental Cup (the League Cup), extending their love affair with knockout competitions.
Fran Kirby won nearly every individual accolade going in 2017/18, including the inaugural Football Writers’ Women’s Footballer of the Year Award. A key component of Chelsea’s Double-winning side, the 24-year-old striker scored 25 goals in 36 appearances. Though she no longer plays in FAWSL, England defender Lucy Bronze is definitely one to keep an eye on within the wider women’s game. The former Sunderland, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City right-back has had an incredible first season with Lyon, helping them to the French league title and UEFA Champions League. With the French Cup final against PSG still to come later this month, it could mean a third successive Treble for the French juggernauts.
United's women's team is new, but are there any notable professionals who played for the Reds at junior level?
Manchester City midfielder Izzy Christiansen began her youth career at United. The 26-year-old from Macclesfield has won every domestic trophy with City, was named PFA Women’s Player of the Year in 2015/16 and is now a regular senior England international regular after making her way through the youth teams.
Which teams will the Reds be joining in the FA Women’s Championship, and who will be the favourites for promotion?
Teams confirmed to be joining United in the restructured Women’s Championship are: Aston Villa, Charlton Athletic, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Durham, Leicester City, Lewes FC, London Bees, Millwall Lionesses, Sheffield FC Ladies, Sheffield United Ladies and Tottenham Hotspur. Given their dominance in the league last season, the Belles will be favourites for the second-tier title next season – and if they can establish the foundation to adhere to the FA’s new regulations, that could see them earn a spot in FAWSL for 2019/20.
If I can't attend United games, will I be able to watch them on TV?
If you can’t get yourself to the ground for the Reds' fixtures, selected games will be broadcast live on MUTV. The official television channel will show regular features on the women's team and you can also follow the side's fortunes on ManUtd.com and the club’s social media of course.
The women's national side has a strong connection with United, with Phil Neville the current head coach. How are England faring under the former Red?
Neville has made a decent start to life as England manager (P5 W2 D2 L1), including an impressive 4-1 win against France in his first match. His approach is one United fans will appreciate, too, with plenty of energy to his team's attacking play. Indeed, Phil thinks England can go all the way at next summer’s World Cup in France… let’s hope he’s right!