“Now is the time to strike, to grow the game exponentially, to share the resources and build on the goodwill, to reward the years of volunteering and to ensure a bright future for our game.
The next year is always the biggest one as women’s football continues to grow, but perhaps 2020 has the most responsibility attached to it yet.” – Me, December 30th 2019
It’s hard not to reflect during these most unique of times. I’d written my review of 2019 with the hairs still tingling down my arms at the memory of the adrenaline pumping conclusion that the 2019 Scottish Women’s Cup Final provided to a year that had seen attendance records broken and our national side qualify for football’s biggest party for the first time.
It is a year removed from Scotland’s World Cup bow and as those who cheered on our charges either from the stands across France or from the comfort of home see reminders populate their memories on social media Scottish women’s football finds itself with the finger stuck firmly on the pause button after what had been a promising start to 2020.
2019 ended with the news that Rangers and Celtic were now seemingly engaged forces after many years of half-measured involvement. New eyes were being brought to the game and whatever your feelings may be in relation to the Old Firm they are powerful brands on a global scale who when handled correctly can be harnessed as a tool to help grow the game. Glasgow City remain the benchmark though, despite that opening day defeat, and their level of dominance in recent years will be what their rivals will aspire to. City along with many others continue to raise their game as the spotlight the game continues to work towards starts to flicker that little bit brighter.
BBC Alba remain a constant, continuing their commitment to live women’s football with the dramatic end to the SWPL1 season opener between Celtic and Glasgow City at a storm swept K Park and extending it to their lockdown coverage of the Frauen Bundesliga, weaving insight from members of the Scotland national team amongst coverage from one of women’s football’s traditional powerhouse leagues.
BBC Scotland appears to be stirring from their extended post-World Cup slumber, with an agreement reached to broadcast live coverage via the BBC Sport website, the Edinburgh derby between Spartans and Hibernian providing a last gap finish all of its own on the opening day of the season.
The launch events for the newly re-configured SWPL and SWF Championship were the most heavily attended to date but the real test of those outlets in attendance will come in the numbers they send out to cover games and the time they invest putting women’s football on our screens, in our ears and down in print. Having attended three games over the opening SWPL weekend as well a number of SWPL Cup ties I can tell you that the faces so far remain the same.
A commitment to coverage when football is back in full will help to ease concerns that any current interest isn’t just a passing phase whilst the wait for the men’s game to return continues. Well intended lip service after all is still just lip service and I often wonder if there is a chance to grasp the thistle and embrace the raft of new media platforms available, often at our fingertips, to help increase engagement.
While the posturing within the men’s game rumbles on movement within women’s football in Scotland has been done in a far more low key manner, with the contents of Zoom calls and WhatsApp conversations remaining well and truly in house, although changes look set to be equally as revolutionary with the expectation now that a change from a summer to winter calendar is close to agreement.
Only one game of the current league campaign has been completed and so voiding the season is a far more straightforward affair whilst the re-launched SWPL Cup, which commenced sponsor-free despite it’s heightened profile, was blindsided by the storms that now seem like a gentle breeze compared with the tornadoes currently tearing it’s way through 2020.
The nimbleness in which Scottish women’s football can still manoeuvre with as an organisation still crafting it’s identity is a benefit, and broadly the self-interest that for observers seems to currently dog the men’s game, remains in the background although it is naive to think that as competition grows, differing opinions and ideologies won’t eventually bubble to the surface.
The move to a winter season will move Scotland’s schedule in line with Europe’s biggest leagues, bringing a more familiar routine to players and coaches, easing player movement and hopefully preventing the mid-season squad decimations that sides have suffered in the past whilst checking a couple of UEFA-related boxes along the way but there will still be challenges to overcome.
The 3,123 that turned out for last year’s showpiece final was a modern day record, and a gentle reminder as to what can be achieved when a clear plan is put in place, there were other highs to be found last season but there’s no escaping that most clubs still struggle to pull fans through the gate and the overall fan experience still needs work.
The role of the matchday delegate, brought in to help raise standards on game days, still seems unclear and with the game keen to project a professional attitude as it continues to grow, particularly within the SWPL, facilities such as seating, shelter, catering, player identification and clarity over venues and kick offs (hopefully on time), will be key in attracting increased footfall to grounds, especially in the midst of a Scottish winter and in direct competition to the men’s game. How those fans return in a post-coronavirus world will have to be meticulously planned to.
It’s a tough time for many clubs in Scotland no matter the size but it is important that the momentum in raising profiles that some have put in prior to the shutdown is not lost, although it is telling that in a social media landscape that has been flooded with content over the last couple of months that in some cases the women’s side has been pushed into the shadows.
You can’t become a fan of women’s football if you can’t see it and hopefully as restrictions ease the barriers that have prevented clubs and independent outlets such as Leading the Line from championing the cause, will start to come down. I want to shout about the game in Scotland, to talk it up, inform those that are curious and hopefully help to inspire the next generation by bringing them closer to the players they see on the field or on their screens. I’d be lying if sometimes there hasn’t been points of frustration in recent months in trying to achieve this but it is also important to recognise those clubs who have maintained that momentum and the way women’s sides have kept their academy prospects engaged should be seen as an important step in protecting the future.
What else? Oh, the Champions League. Technically that’s still happening although it’s worrying to read suggestions that Glasgow City may be forced to step aside if the right resolution can’t be found to get them back in action before the tournament requires the crowning of a champion. Competing on a continental stage is set to become more difficult for Scottish sides as Europe’s governing body is wooed by nations that can move from 1 to 100 at the wave of a chequebook, the exorbitant sums that wash over Europe’s top leagues providing the ability to absorb any losses growing the women’s game can accrue even during these testing times. It could be a long time before a Scottish side reaches the last eight of the Champion’s League again.
Things internationally remain on hold too. Euro 2021 is now Euro 2022 and Scotland are currently scheduled for a supercharged end to their qualifying campaign with six games set to take place across 74 days starting with an away trip to Cyprus on the 18th September. How realistic that schedule is remains to be seen and the new normal will have a massive say in how Shelley Kerr plots a path to England in the coming months.
It’s a path that we should be confident of getting to the end of. This current group is as talented a Scotland squad as any that have come before, perhaps even more so, and as captain Rachel Corsie and winger Claire Emslie return to action for the NWSL Challenge Cup, another WSL season comes to an end where Scottish stars, including title winners at Chelsea, Erin Cuthbert and Jamie Lee Napier, have lit up the league. There is a strong domestic presence too and with professionalism on the table in Scotland for the first time it will be interesting to see who may return north to continue their career.
Women’s football in Scotland will be back, but before that happens it is important that it comes back in the right way, with purpose, in a sustainable way and most importantly with the safety of all those involved at the forefront of our minds. The cost of doing this will be a hurdle that will have to be overcome but it shouldn’t come to the detriment of future growth of the game.
It’s not just our game that is on pause, the world is, we are all trying to be more mindful, to approach things with kindness and to provide support to those who perhaps need it now more than ever before.
I’ve missed my Sunday’s jumping from ground to ground, the handshakes and backslaps, the drama, the goals and off-mic conversations. Women’s football means a lot to me, this time of reflection has brought greater focus to my desire for it to succeed, and I can’t wait for the day when something doing its best to masquerade as normality returns.
The time to strike is still there, it’s just that we’re going to have to wait a little.
Remember you can follow Leading the Line on Twitter, @LeadingtheLine. Here there will be live insight from the games, comments on the breaking stories from the world of women’s football news as well as early sight of what will be coming via the podcast (available on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud and all good podcast outlets) and on the website. It’s right good!