PFA marks international women's day

While talk of reform in men’s football is dominated by feverish speculation around independent regulators and financial distribution models, the women’s game is quietly undergoing its own revolution.

The governance of the game is being fundamentally redrawn as, next season, a new and independent company (currently known as NewCo) will take over the running of the women’s professional game in England. It will cover the Women’s Super League and Championship, with the clubs as the company shareholders.

We all hope this will herald a successful new era for the women’s game. Nikki Doucet, the chief executive of NewCo, has approached the role with enthusiasm and energy. That will be needed as, with the clock ticking, there is plenty of detailed, operational work still to be done.

Those details are vital because, for those who play the game, reform mustn’t just feel like a marketing plan, or a fresh coat of paint that covers up the cracks. Players can be forgiven any fears they have that talk won’t be matched by action. Promises of genuine change in the women’s game, with better conditions for players, are not new. Too often, though, positive sentiments have not been matched by action.

That is why the recommendations of the independent review, carried out for government last year and led by the former Lioness Karen Carney, are critical. They represent a deliverable to-do list of practical changes which will vastly improve the experience of those who play the game. They include better training facilities, improved mental health provision, parental packages, and support with career transition.

These recommendations have been heavily influenced by the players. That means choosing to ignore the recommendations is, in effect, choosing to ignore the players.

What was so valuable about Carney’s review is that it did not wrap itself in the warm comfort blanket that the women’s game can sometimes be accused of adopting. It was a brave move to throw that off and highlight the difficult realities, however uncomfortable they might be. The government has fully backed the “excellent” recommendations and will, quite rightly, expect to see evidence that these are being delivered when they convene the game’s stakeholders later this month. It’s crucial that they are properly held to account.

For a long time, players in the women’s game have had to bend and adapt to cope with its growing pains. No woman currently playing football got into it for riches and rewards. They play because they love it. That fundamental dedication to the game, often despite significant odds, is part of what makes the culture of women’s football special. It does, though, breed a resilience that can be taken advantage of.

Too often, the women’s game is an environment where players are never quite secure, and where you are constantly reminded how fortunate you are to be doing what you do. It excuses a half-hearted approach to player support on the basis that it will be accepted, or at least tolerated, because the consequence of speaking up might be a place on the subs’ bench or the exit door. It gives an excuse to employers who feel they can treat employment rights and basic standards as a nice-to-have, or as an optional extra where the tab will be picked up by someone else.

Increasingly, players aren’t prepared to accept this and their resilience is now being seen in that they are standing up for themselves and each other. We always encourage our members not to be afraid to know their worth and to demand their value. That does not just apply to what they do on the pitch but to the many ways in which others utilise and benefit from their positions as role models. Players deserve more than pats on the back.

Women’s football is not a charity. It should not behave like one or expect its participants to act like beneficiaries. Yes improvements will cost money, but proper professional infrastructure does cost money. There is, and will continue to be, enough in the game to deliver this.

Players now see significant new investment coming into the game, with potentially transformative figures relating to new broadcast and commercial deals. They will want to know that, after many years of warm words and make do and mend, funding a proper, professional environment will be top of the priority list. Players are tired of feeling let down, and so this is a chance that must not be missed.

Click here to view Marie’s piece in the Guardian. 

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