IN THIS PIECE, JONATHAN BRICK LOOKS AT THE HOPES OF THE ENGLAND WOMEN’S NATIONAL TEAM AHEAD OF THE WOMEN’S WORLD CUP IN FRANCE NEXT YEAR.
I am of the opinion that England’s Lionesses can do well at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
I have followed the women’s game in recent years as part of my own research into modern football and when I wrote about whether England could win the World Cup, I would say that you ought to ask Jill Scott, Fran Kirby and Eni Aluko. Much coverage of the team in the last year has focussed on the old manager leaving and the new manager joining. Philip Neville brings experience working under Sir Alex Ferguson and both under and with David Moyes; his first role as manager is with a hungry group of players who are among the best in the world.
The much-maligned Football Association have spearheaded a drive to engage fans with both the England Women’s team and the Women’s Super League, which ran on an August-May calendar for the first time in 2017/18. Chelsea ran away with the League, with Manchester City six points behind; both sides lost in the semi-finals of the Women’s Champions League to teams from France (Lyon) and Germany (Wolfsburg), while Aluko left Chelsea to join Juventus. She was joined by Lianne Sanderson, a veteran of the women’s game who played for England in the 2007 World Cup.
Sue Smith and Rachel Brown (now Brown-Finnis) have since become respected pundits, while Aluko and Alex Scott both travelled to Russia as part of the commentary teams on the men’s World Cup 2018. Both Jill Scott (at Manchester City) and Karen Carney (at Chelsea) are still playing a decade on, while Kelly Smith is often spotted at Arsenal Women games. If only she had been born a few years later, she would have gained the plaudits that the England team gained during the 2015 Women’s World Cup, where they reached the semi-final and lost in the last minute to Japan.
The manager of the 2007 team, Hope Powell, is now in charge at Brighton & Hove Albion. Powell brings nous and experience to her role as her team compete in a revamped Women’s Super League. For the 2018/9 season, which ends in France at the Women’s World Cup, Brighton are one of ten teams trying to steal the title from Chelsea, with Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Reading and Birmingham also competing in the top tier. Bristol City, Yeovil Town (who failed to win a game in the 2017/8 season) and Everton keep their places, while West Ham United have been approved as part of the open application process. The big game in the season, spread over 20 matchdays starting in mid-September 2018, will be Chelsea v Manchester City. But Manchester United may soon muscle their way into the duopoly.
Both Manchester United and Salford City set up women’s sides in 2018. The former, which joins the second tier of the women’s game, are coached by former England captain Casey Stoney. She has brought in her friends and teammates Alex Greenwood and Siobhan Chamberlain. I had the fortune to speak with Siobhan’s parents, who had seen the growth in interest and prestige in the women’s game in England.
The BBC have been brilliant in screening both the Women’s FA Cup Final – which kids were allowed to attend for free – and England internationals. They will cover the team in the 2019 tournament, which may well be won by England but the favourites must be the holders, the USA, along with The Netherlands not far behind after their triumph at the 2017 Euros. They beat England 3-0 in the Semi-Finals as the Lionesses fell short once again.
I attended the 2018 Conti Cup Final in Wycombe, watched by Stoney and Phil Neville. I was very impressed with Louise Quinn, a tall centre-back for Arsenal, and as always with several players who represent both England and Manchester City: the scampering Izzy Christiansen, Jill Scott, Demi Stokes, Karen Bardsley and Steph Houghton, the face of the women’s game thanks to her role as England Lionesses captain.
This solid core of Manchester City players mimics that of the Three Lions, Raheem Sterling, John Stones and Fabian Delph all play for the same club and country, as do Dele Alli, Harry Kane and Kieran Trippier. The great man-managers guiding them for their club help them become better for their country, though in the women’s game the top figures are Emma Hayes of Chelsea and Nick Cushing of Manchester City, who earn far less in bonuses and can walk down a street unmolested in the way Pep Guardiola cannot.
Hayes, along with Hope Powell, recognises that the women’s game is greater than their club’s achievements. Chelsea versus Brighton will be broadcast on BT Sport this season as they renew their deal to cover the women’s game; I hope over 1000 attend games at Kingsmeadow down in South-West London to watch in the flesh the likes of Karen Carney, Ji So-Yun and the mighty Fran Kirby, the 2018 Women’s Player of the Year. Fran’s movement is terrific, while Drew Spence is a dynamic player in the midfield and Millie Bright is always dangerous when she comes up for set-pieces.
As in the men’s game, there is no shortage of top young talent; unlike in the men’s game, top talent gets a game at the top level. Leah Williamson and Beth ‘Meado’ Mead are both youngsters at Arsenal breaking into Phil Neville’s England team, while I was particularly impressed with Jess Carter, a teenager who played in a Women’s FA Cup Final for Birmingham City, who has moved to Chelsea for the new season.
Carter has been converted into a modern-day full-back in the mould of the great Lucy Bronze, who in 2017 moved to Lyon for a new challenge after winning everything with Manchester City. Izzy Christiansen, a dynamic midfielder, followed her in July 2018, while Toni Duggan became shifted to Spain with Barcelona. New players seizing their opportunity at Manchester City include Georgia Stanway and Mel Lawley, who are both excellent and tricky.
Ellie Roebuck is another young Citizen, who deputised well for the club last season and helped her side to a 0-0 draw with Chelsea with a quite astonishing save from close range. It will be no surprise if she takes the England jersey as well as the Man City jersey from Karen Bardsley. It will also help that in training she faces shots by the likes of Nikita Parris and Nadia Nadim, the Danish medical student who fled Afghanistan as a child and is one of the faces of the women’s game, though she was quiet when I saw her play Chelsea last season.
In transfer news, Gemma Davison has left Chelsea; I enjoyed her play on the wing, bamboozling opposition defenders and setting up Kirby, Aluko or Ji. Writer Kieran Theivam has called Ali Riley the signing of the summer; a defender from New Zealand, Riley helps replace Claire Rafferty and Gilly Flaherty, who have both joined West Ham United. They are now teammates with Jane Ross, a striker with frightening prowess who has left Manchester City; the Chelsea players will be thankful they are on the same side as the Scottish forward.
Arsenal have upgraded their goalkeeper by signing Pauline Peyraud-Magnin from Lyon. I was always perturbed by Sari van Veenendaal, a tall goalkeeper who was always one moment away from disaster. Ellie Brazil, another former Birmingham player, has joined her friend Chloe Peplow at Brighton, who have signed Laura Rafferty from Chelsea. Solid midfielder Niamh Fahey, who has won many trophies with Chelsea and Arsenal, signed for Liverpool, whose manager is now Neil Redfearn, briefly of Leeds United.
Unfortunately, the new season opened with bad news for fans of Doncaster Belles, Oxford United, Sheffield FC and Sunderland. All three could not meet the requirements of the new format for women’s football and they followed Notts County and Watford out of the first two tiers. Clubs in the second tier, then called Women’s Super League 2, could apply for promotion; London Bees (Barnet), Millwall, Durham, Tottenham Hotspur, Oxford United and Aston Villa all competed in the league in 2017/8. This season the league will include Charlton Athletic, Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, Lewes and Leicester, with Manchester United taking the place of Oxford United.
Although some games can be mismatched – poor Yeovil are at least fully professional for the 2018/9 season – the women’s game has the same levels of skill and technique, and far better discipline. After every game players line up for photos and chats, while in the press journalists like Jo Currie, Jen O’Neill, Anna Kessel and Molly Hudson write reports for newspapers and periodicals. Twitter is a great starting point to become familiar with the big names in the women’s game, though there is no better entry point than catching a game live in person or, failing that, on BT Sport. The BBC also offer a weekly highlights show.
England Women complete their 2019 World Cup qualifying campaign with games against Wales at Newport on August 31 and against Kazakhstan on September 4. As a measure of how unequal the qualifying group is, Wales have won five and drawn two of their seven games, with no goals conceded; England have scored 21, conceded one and won five of six games. Spain, Switzerland and Italy have 100% win records.
The domestic season commences, rather annoyingly for the club managers, on September 8 and 9. The League Cup, known as the ‘Conti Cup’ as per its sponsors Continental Tyres, begins on August 18 and 19. My predictions would be that Manchester United gain promotion from the second tier – perhaps with some judicious loans in the middle of the season – and that the top division is won by Emma Hayes’ Chelsea. Manchester City will do well again, while Arsenal will grow under their new regime, especially with their brilliant forward line and the excellent Louise Quinn in defence.