Women’s Football is growing massively in Scotland, we all know this. It is wonderful to see more girls and ladies play organised football than ever before. Exposure is at its highest and very recently the SWPL announced a wonderful new sponsorship partnership that will bring additional funding into the game. The growth and development of the game have been fantastic however there is one emerging pattern that needs to be looked at. Are we providing ample opportunity for recreational football within the female ranks?
With the growth in the female game and the increased exposure that has come with it, the prestige attached to professional clubs having a ladies section and actively promoting it has increased. This is a great thing. We can now see ladies sections connected with the bulk of senior clubs in the men’s game, however, a question mark still hangs over how seriously these ladies sections are taken. More often than not the Ladies team is at the bottom of the priority pile after the Men’s 1st Team, reserve squad and youth setup. This can lead to Ladies Teams being moved to anti-social training times and provided with inadequate training facilities. This is, of course, a sweeping generalisation but sadly it is more common than the Club who puts their ladies setup high on the priority list.
The reason I bring this to attention is that while the connection with a professional club is great for the exposure, it is not always the best option for a female looking to play football. As we see more and more senior sides have a ladies team connected with their name tag, I believe we will see some of the pre-existing teams be pushed to the periphery. Take Bishopton for example. A well-ran ladies section who have been around for years and are currently competing in a very commendable third place in their division, but can they continue to survive in the shadow of Morton on one side of the Clyde and Dumbarton on the other? I hope so, but then we have Port Glasgow in the same neck of the woods whose attempts to get a team off the ground never materialised. Elsewhere in the country Clubs have come and gone – Mill Utd and Claremont to name just two – while others compete in the shadow of a larger name tag (Kilwinning, for example, live on the doorstep of Rugby Park).
I hasten to add I am all for Morton, Dumbarton, Kilmarnock and the rest creating well-ran, sustainable ladies sections but, I hope female footballers are not lured by a badge when there are a number of extremely well organised female football clubs already existing. Many parents may feel they are making a better decision to take their daughter to a Professional Club where they can play in a reserve squad or development setup when, the reality is, there are great organisations out there who do not necessarily have the “big name” attached to them but can provide an excellent football experience for their girl. Take Westerlands LAFC for example who have quietly snuck their way into the 1st Division and held their own with the Academy Teams of Glasgow City, Hibernian, Celtic, Rangers and Hearts. Jeanfield Swifts continue to thrive as a Club in SWPL 2 without the “professional” name tag attached.
As I said though this increase in emerging teams is a good thing, it would appear it has led to a squeeze on the teams who are trying to operate two squads. Every week Coaches scramble around struggling to find available players to fill their teamlines. Other teams struggle to get off the ground and groups of players move en mass from Club to Club. The consequence is that a number of teams fail to fulfil fixtures or, worse still, end up folding altogether. St Rochs were unable to kick a competitive ball this season while even Glasgow City, the most successful ladies team in recent years, was unable to maintain a Development Squad in SWFL Division 1 South.
This brings up the question of a recreational league and whether or not it is time to look at a string outside the pyramid setup. Should the youth setup feed a senior setup that only allows one squad per team? Any additional teams could play in a parallel strand that operates on a recreational basis only. Now I would be one who would strongly suggest keeping everything in ladies football under one umbrella. Keep all competitive teams flowing into one pyramid system and do not allow the ladies game to get caught up in the same pitfalls that the Men’s game has fallen into (various governing bodies, a half attempt at a pyramid system and Junior and Amateur Football remaining completely separate all leads to a very complicated men’s football organisation). The ladies game has moved in its own very positive direction with the establishment of a genuine pyramid set-up but is there a need for a recreational strand that runs parallel? There are already murmurings coming out of the SWF offices for such a league and meetings have taken place over the previous three years or so regarding this issue, so would a recreational league be the answer? A friendly league where players are not asked to commit to the same level as is required in the competitive setup.
In ‘amateur’ sport, we need to accept certain realities. Players have careers, studies and families and even need to take their holidays and enjoy leisure time. Football is a huge commitment for a player: training at least twice a week; giving up most of their Sunday; ensuring they are fit to play often means sacrificing a Saturday night. As these ladies hit their mid-20s other commitments take over. Promotions at work or the chance to start a family can lead to breaks from, and sometimes completely step away from, football. From chatting with these players though I get the impression these ladies would stay involved if the appropriate option existed for them to do so.
A recreational league could be the answer. Matches every third week and a connection with a Club that allows the players to play on the competitive weekends if they want. However certain philosophies would need to be included. Subs would need to be rolled-on and off and perhaps equal amounts of playing time would need to be guaranteed to all players. Then again that could be looked at on a club by club basis. You then have the issue of points. As soon as points are thrown in there, as soon as competition is on the table, players stop playing recreationally. I do not know a player who ever steps on a park and does not try to win but a whole different mentality is created as soon as there are points up for grabs. With that in mind does it run as a recreational league without any form of promotion or relegation and only occasional games or does it simply operate as a friendly setup where all teams involved have the chance to organise friendlies with each other on dates and times as suits themselves but without any form of competition?
I do not know what the answer is but I get the sense that an answer will need to be provided sooner rather than later. As they say, if we do not learn from history we are condemned to repeat it and 2018 will bring folding clubs, unfulfilled fixtures and mass movements of players from club to club unless we find a way to keep players playing at a commitment level that suits them.
Female football is on an upward trajectory in this country but to keep it going that way we might need to think outside of the penalty box!