Sky Blue Thinking

Toni Duggan - MCFC

They’re a team which has never competed in the upper tier of domestic women’s football.

They’re a side which finished fourth in the Women’s Premier League National Division, behind Leeds, Watford and league champions Sunderland last season.

They’re the team which will take the place of Doncaster Rovers Belles in the FA WSL 1 next season.

They have just announced the signings of three England internationals, all from existing FA WSL clubs.

And Manchester City LFC are threatening to tear up a lot more precedents when the new season gets underway next spring.

With their place formally confirmed amongst the elite of women’s domestic football next season, Manchester City Ladies FC have wasted little time in establishing themselves as serious contenders for the 2014 FA WSL crown. Even with months remaining between now and the commencement of the 2014 season, City have begun treading the path so spectacularly laid out by Liverpool last season, whose veracity in the transfer market instantly transformed them from league also-rans to champions in a single season.

Indeed, if imitation is truly the sincerest form of flattery, Liverpool can feel well and truly honoured so closely have City matched their 2012/2013 winter transfer activity. Where Liverpool saw fit to raid local rivals Everton, making off with two of their most established internationals in Fara Williams and Natasha Dowie, so City have trodden the exact same path, securing the signatures of towering midfielder Jill Scott and prized forward Toni Duggan from the blue half of Merseyside. Everton fans could be forgiven for an uncomfortable sense of deja vu.

Add in the signature of England ‘keeper Karen Bardsley, signed from Lincoln Ladies after just one season, and the rest of the WSL will be looking nervously at the newcomers whose intentions to challenge for the title are already writ large.

Nor is the comparison with Liverpool merely superficial. With both clubs now officially partnered to their respective men’s teams (itself far more than a coincidental outcome of foreign ownership and a need to demonstrate active corporate social responsibility to audiences that might otherwise label them as treating football as a mere wealth-derived plaything), the two newest powers in women’s football are both backed financially and commercially in a way that would be impossible on the pure merits of independent women’s football. Nor is this anything new; previous powerhouses Arsenal have made use of this exact tactic for years.

This is, of course, slightly troublesome.

On the one hand, the clubs and the FA can – quite correctly – point to an encouraging trend of formal investment and attention in the women’s game. Clubs will begin to wield enough power to remove the still apparent desire to move to more financially lucrative environments, particularly the US, and the game as a whole will benefit from increased competition at the top levels.

Conversely, such power is threatening to become the exclusive domain of teams with wealthy, professional club backing. How, for instance, can Bristol Academy, Notts County (formerly Lincoln) or – to take the obvious case – Everton be expected to compete with teams for whom wages and transfer agreements in the women’s game mark no more than a miniscule percentage of their daily expenditure in the lucrative men’s market? While we should welcome any initiative which makes the talent drain to the US less apparent (Kim Little’s recently announced departure to Seattle Reign clearly demonstrating the continued allure of the US for women’s football), does it really make for a better domestic game if the power shifts so decisively to a few financially independent clubs?

These, perhaps, are debates for the future. There is, after all, nothing to guarantee that City’s drastic transfer business will have the same instant impact seen in Liverpool this year. And even if it does, it will surely make for a thrilling 2014 season.

As for the future – perhaps we just have to hope somebody is thinking seriously about it.

Image from MCFC/Press Association – Thanks!

CS

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