2014 always felt like it may emerge as a landmark year for women’s football in England. Even before the realisation that 15 years of national team stability would be brought abruptly to a close after the failure of Euro 2013, the second stage of the reformation of the domestic game pointed to a redressed balance for the upper tiers of women’s football and the opportunity for old hegemonies to be blown wide open. Indeed, conditions could not have been more ripe for it, with an interesting and unforeseen impact of the influx of foreign ownership into British football being increased investment in the women’s game from owners either used to the commercial viability of women’s football (the American contingent led by John W Henry’s Liverpool) or seeking to deliver a wider community investment/PR focus (Manchester City’s gulf investment).
Having seen the first stage of its restructure of the game deliver both burgeoning popularity and interest, the FA’s introduction of the second tier of the FA WSL now seems more timely and, indeed, prescient than we are used to seeing from a body more typically associated with reactive and poorly-considered administrative decisions.
The year of change is clear to see, both on the pitch where squads that have remained relatively stable since 2012 have been ripped apart and rebuilt with thrilling regularity, and off it as new powers emerge at every point of the spectrum.
The latest of these – London Bees FC – launched today, trumpeting the largest commercial investment yet seen in women’s club football in the UK, a promise which amounted to a deal worth up to £0.5m over the course of 3 years with Stanmore College. The interesting aspect of the deal, however, turns out not to be the numbers (the details of such a significant investment remaining under wraps for now, at least), but the wider context of the educational partnership. For this is a deal which benefits sponsor as much as it does club. The club will be joining 9 other teams in WSL 2 when the league begins in early spring.
Tied inseparably to one another, the Bees’ home games at The Hive will be staffed by Stanmore College students, who have been offered the opportunity to become part of the match day experience, manning the turnstiles, providing the security and staffing hospitality. Players, meanwhile, will be offered access to the college’s higher and further education courses enabling London Bees footballers to gain academic and vocational qualification while continuing to develop their football careers.
The model may not be entirely unique – Bristol Academy are a clear blueprint for successfully managing the club/academic institute relationship – but in the hands of London Bees it has an opportunity to point towards a new model for future club management, with a US style partnership between education and sport offering commercial and curricular benefits both ways.
London Bees kick off their inaugural campaign in the coming months and will be holding open trials on the 1st February 2014. With a manager still to be appointed and the majority of the senior squad positions unfilled (the existing Barnet FC Ladies seemingly destined to become the development team for London Bees), the clear message seems to be ‘watch this space’.
New England Manager Mark Sampson’s first game in charge of the national team ended in a 1-1 draw with Euro 2013 finalists Norway in La Manga last week. Handed the early initiative through Eni Aluko’s tenth minute strike, England were eventually pegged back in the 87th minute through Melissa Bjaneso’s late header.
The game marked the return of prodigal daughter, Lianne Sanderson, to the England lineup after her dramatic retirement from international football four years ago when, aged just 21, she grew frustrated at her treatment under previous boss Hope Powell and vowed never to play for her again. Belatedly winning her 29th cap, Sanderson’s return to the fold will be a significant boon to Sampson and his staff. We look forward to seeing more of her, back on the international stage again.
The Australian Open crashed home the first big sporting shock of 2014 this weekend with Serena Williams’ sensational 2 sets to 1 defeat to 14th seed Ana Ivanovic in the pair’s fourth round encounter. The Serb’s victory came as more than a mere surprise, not least due to the fact that since her victory at the 2008 French Open – a year in which she topped the WTA Singles Rankings – Ivanovic has only once reached the quarter finals of a major tournament, at the 2012 US Open – by way of comparison, her vanquished opponent has taken 8 major titles.
Williams, in truth, never looked comfortable – a back complaint, it later emerged, hindered both her movement across the court and the power of her groundstrokes – while Ivanovic looked a world apart from a player who has never previously taken a set from the world number 1. And while this victory may not mark Ivanovic’s return to the big time, it certainly blows the tournament open for Li Na, Agnieszka Radwanska and Victoria Azarenka.
For Williams, the wait to prove herself the statistical equal of Martina Naratilova and Chrissie Evert continues, though few would bet against her doing so this year assuming her back problem abates in good time. More distant, however, is the 5-title gap between Williams and Steffi Graf. Graf, of course, retired aged 30 and still near the top of the game. Williams is 32 and perhaps her name is destined to remain merely amongst the pantheon rather than atop it.
Image from bbc.co.uk – thanks!