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Football

Three months on from England Women's stunning Euros success, how much has really changed for women’s football?

The SPORTbible Team

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Three months on from England Women's stunning Euros success, how much has really changed for women’s football?

There’s no denying this summer’s UEFA European Women’s Championship captured the hearts of the nation.

After years in the cultural wilderness, women’s football was suddenly front and centre, as pundits praised the welcoming atmosphere in stadiums across England and the good-natured mixing between fans of rival teams.

England’s Lionesses became household names on their journey to winning the tournament, with their dramatic face-off against Germany bringing 87,192 fans to Wembley and a further 17m watching at home – a record for a Euros final, and hailed a game-changer for the women’s game.

Their victory sparked a national conversation as the late Queen praised the ‘inspirational’ squad while the government unveiled plans to honour the team by naming grassroots football facilities after the ‘class of 2022’.

It's three months since England Women's finest hour. Credit: Alamy
It's three months since England Women's finest hour. Credit: Alamy

But did hosting the competition leave a legacy for women’s football in the UK? Three months on from the Lionesses’ victory, I headed to a game at Reading’s Madejski Stadium to find out.

Sunday’s match saw Reading FC and Leicester City FC face off in the Women’s Super League – regarded as the top tier of women’s football – in a bottom-of-the-table clash.

The Royals’ home ground – now known as the Select Car Leasing Stadium – holds 24,000 and certainly lacks the glitz and glamour of Wembley. Built on a former household waste dump and surrounded by industrial buildings and a retail park, it’s a far cry from the buzz of England’s national stadium on the day of the final, but the family-friendly atmosphere still hums in the air.

A tinny rendition of the summer’s unofficial anthem Sweet Caroline plays over the tannoy as the teams emerge from the tunnel. The song doesn’t reignite the electric atmosphere from England’s final on 31st July, but the pure joy of the youngsters singing along to the rousing chorus echoes the spirit of that legendary day, albeit on a smaller scale (the crowd takes up just a quarter of one stand).

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The crowds may be vastly disparate, but the fixtures have something in common: a sense of community. It’s not all about the numbers, after all.

Reading’s stadium is a welcoming place; the supporters in the stand are a diverse collective. A mum breastfeeds her newborn, a grey-haired gent sips tea from a brown paper cup. The crowd boasts children’s football teams wearing matching tracksuits and families enjoying their weekend together. Jess, a mum-of-two from Twyford, tells me these matches are when her children spend time with their grandparents. She sees the women’s games as a multi-generational experience that is more affordable than the men’s matches they’ve been priced out of (my ticket for today’s match cost just £12).

It’s clear how much the result means to the fans inside the ground. A rumble of disappointment echoes around the stadium as Leicester City’s Natasha Flint scores a sumptuous first-half goal from the edge of the box against the run of play. Groans accompany fouls, and worried gasps for any possible injury.

The Madejski Stadium hosted Sunday's WSL fixture between Reading and Leicester City. Credit: Alamy
The Madejski Stadium hosted Sunday's WSL fixture between Reading and Leicester City. Credit: Alamy

A persistent girl’s football team (wearing full kit, including boots) are determined to start a Mexican wave. And the delight when Rachel Rowe scores Reading’s equaliser as the clock ticks into the 90th minute brims over as Rowe scores a stoppage-time winner to bring the hard-fought match to a close. If the stadium had a roof, it would be well and truly raised.

Despite the modest turnout, it’s clear that women’s domestic game is still riding the wave of England Women’s Euro success. Nowhere is this more evident than in attendances around the country; when big-hitters Arsenal came to town a fortnight ago, Reading had their record attendance for a women’s match.

Other Women’s Super League teams also report bumper ticket sales, with Arsenal and Chelsea selling out of women’s season tickets and Manchester City stating sales have doubled. Previously spectator growth at women’s games has been limited by the size of the grounds they played at, but more clubs – including both Leicester and Reading – have committed to playing all 2022/23 home games at their club’s main stadium. Already clubs look set to smash last season’s average WSL attendance of 2,000.

Attendance figures are on the rise in the women's game. Credit: Alamy
Attendance figures are on the rise in the women's game. Credit: Alamy

It’s not only on the pitch that things are changing. More girls are playing at grassroots level, women’s football is getting more and more TV coverage, and WSL and England players are gaining celebrity status, as shown by Jill Scott reportedly lined up for this year’s I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. Clubs are also working alongside players to ensure women feel comfortable and confident as they play, as demonstrated by West Bromwich Albion’s Women’s team adapting their kit to include navy shorts.

Finances are still a major difference between the men’s and women’s games, with investigations based on interviews with over 70 WSL players showing the average wage currently stands at £47,000, compared to an average Premier League player’s annual wage of £2.86m.

Most, if not all, WSL teams are funded through the overall group/PLC, meaning the revenue brought in by the men’s game subsidises the women’s teams, however, the financial support available to women’s teams is growing. Grants such as the Premier League Stadium fund are available to clubs in the top four tiers of football and the Premier League is providing £1.75m per annum over the next three years to create a network of Girls’ Emerging Talent Centres.

Let’s hope this is just the beginning and the powers that be continue to get behind the WSL because if the enthusiasm shown by the young people watching the UK women’s game is anything to go by, the future could be very bright indeed.

Featured Image Credit: Katey Lovell/Alamy

Topics: Womens Football, England, Womens Super League

The SPORTbible Team
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