Football’s come home for the women’s game

It was around one hundred years ago that those crusty old men in the Football Association deemed women’s football as ‘unsuitable for females'.

Chloe Kelly scored the winning goal as England won Euro 2022
Chloe Kelly scored the winning goal as England won Euro 2022

How times have changed, and the sight of Chloe Kelly racing around Wembley waving her England shirt after scoring the winning goal in the UEFA Women’s Euro England 2022 final will be an inspiration for young women and girls.

It could also be a defining moment in the women’s game, where the Lionesses achieved what eluded their male counterparts a year earlier. England’s men suffered heartbreak in the final the previous year, losing on penalties to Italy.

Some things never change, eh?

But it wasn’t always like this. In 1921, the FA effectively stopped women playing at any of its affiliated grounds by asking affiliated clubs not to host matches, saying the sport was “unsuitable for females”.

That ban lasted for 50 years, with almost irreparable damage to the women’s game. It has been back since the 1970s, but for me, the transformation has not been an evolution, but a revolution.

A local leading light in the women’s game, Christina Torkildsen, diplomatically described that as ‘unhelpful’ and setting the game back 50 years.

It began for me when standing on the touchline in the sunshine on an early September day back in 2011. That 2010-2011 season had just seen the formation of the new Women’s Super League as the game began to take off.

I was somewhere in the Midlands to watch my six-year-old granddaughter make her debut for a boys’ football team. Her older sister had herself been inspired to join a girls' team when she was a ball girl in a game where England star Eni Aluko was playing.

This inspired the younger sister as did the fact that her best friend was a boy, and they both are original members of a new boys’ team.

She turned out to be pretty good. Still a bit of a novelty, the only girl, but one who could easily hold her own. We won’t mention the score on that day, but that was not really the point. She was up and running.

It was not long before the professional clubs came knocking, first Aston Villa and Birmingham City, but also interest from the likes of West Bromwich Albion and others.

Aston Villa seemed like a good fit, but that’s when the hard work started, not just for Martha, but for her teammates and their parents.

While Villa provided some kit and training facilities this was still nowhere near what was provided for the boys at academy level and was a costly business. They had to pay subs and provide their own transport to places like Chelsea and Arsenal to the south and Liverpool and Manchester to the north.

But as time progressed, it became noticeable that some clubs were investing heavily in the women’s game, with the likes of Manchester City even building their Academy Stadium next to the Etihad.

Others were also investing, and professional coaching paid off as skills were honed and fitness levels monitored and expert medical attention was available as the game became quicker and more technical.

Watching Martha for 10 years, the progress in the women’s game has been astonishing.

From there it was a giant leap forward when the WSL went professional in the 2017-2018 season and that’s when things really started to take off for younger players.

Martha moved to Birmingham City in 2019 and had a successful period, before moving back to Aston Villa, who had just been promoted to the Women’s Super League and had just opened the new women’s academy.

Former Birmingham City star Cristina Torkildson, Villa’s youth technical director, has been a driving force at both Aston Villa and Birmingham City and her efforts are starting to pay off.

The U21s division was a new creation, with teams in the WSL offering academies for some of the best talent in the land.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Villa are close to the best. That’s tough for me to say as an Albion fan.

Crissy says she is determined to push the women’s game to the same level of commitment as the men’s.

She said: “The whole purpose of the academy is that it is a centre for excellence designed as a pathway to the first team.

“We want to give the girls the same opportunities as the boys and that has been happening.

“The WSL going professional has been key to this, allowing players to not have to work to supplement their income and concentrate on physical and technical development.”

With the BBC, Sky and ITV now showing WSL games and major finals, sponsors are eyeing up opportunities and much-needed funds could now flood in and take the game to even greater success.

The Euros were a fantastic festival of colour, camaraderie and competition rounded off by that memorable final. But it’s not all about the very top level.

Government, local councils and sporting bodies and particularly schools can provide facilities for those at the very grassroots of the game to have the same opportunities as their male counterparts. No longer should girls football be banned or discouraged in schools.

It’s taken a while, but football has finally come home for the women’s game.

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