After around 174 days since the last competitive match was played, women’s football returns to England today on the biggest stage of them all.
The Community Shield will be played for the first time since 2008 as Chelsea and Manchester City line up against each other at Wembley.
Playing before the men’s game at Wembley, the home of English football, is a decision that only deserves praise. With the curtailments of women’s leagues across the country and uncertainty about when they would return, the top two teams in the country can now showcase their talents and bring the women’s side of the game back into the limelight.
Emma Hayes has had a strategic summer window. Keeping together the core of her group, she has brought in young talent in the form of Niamh Charles and Jessie Fleming, as well as the experienced Melanie Leupolz from Bayern Munich. In addition, Sam Kerr, who arrived in January, has had time to fully settle into life over here while Fran Kirby is back from long-term illness, having suffered from pericarditis.
Maintaining a stable squad has very much been Hayes’ way over the last few transfer windows: “We identify our targets so early in advance that ideally we get the players in for the beginning of pre-season because I want the opportunity to work with them. All of our players that we’ve brought in are ready for now and in a few years for Chelsea. The strategic decisions that we take are never short-term. Our preference is always to have long term thinking in what we do.”
The process clearly works. The players that sign tend to stay and it plays a key part in their current dominance. Chelsea haven’t lost a league game since January 2019 and have been the best team in the country over the last 12 months. Solid defensively and ruthless in attack, they present a formidable opponent for any side. Beyond the high standards Hayes sets for them, squad togetherness is key: “You’ve got to have standards that are adhered to and everyone is driving towards that. That’s in place, but I think I have a great group of people who are growing together. Because of that, the expectations they have for each other are so high that it’s the reason why we are in the position we are in.”
More than anything, however, the. manager and her players are just excited to be back, challenging for one of the six trophies available to them this season and facing one of their fiercest opponents: “When you get to play the biggest games against the biggest opponents, everybody wants to be involved in that. Of course, it’s a marker. It’s signalling the start of the season and it’s important the players understand that there’s a trophy to compete for. This isn’t a pre-season game and I’m certain that Manchester City will approach it the same way we will.”
Taking centre stage at Wembley doesn’t really come any bigger as a first game for a manager. Appointed in May after the departure of Nick Cushing, Gareth Taylor is looking to kick off his time as Manchester City manager with a bang. For his part, Taylor is excited to get started: “It means everything. I was so excited when I heard about this game, particularly starting a new job and hearing one of your first games will be at Wembley. I was fortunate to be there as a player but to lead a team out is really special for me and something I’m really looking forward to.”
Same as their counterparts, City have brought in only a handful of signings this season, but they have certainly claimed the headlines. England youngster Chloe Kelly joined after a breakout season at Everton while Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle, two World Cup winners, have joined the influx of players into the league. No one can argue with their calibre and their forward players, which also include Ellen White, Lauren Hemp, Georgia Stanway and Caroline Weir, are a frightening prospect.
With strengthened squads, it is going to be absorbing to see how both sides will match up against each other. Manchester City also have six trophies to play for this season and will looking to set their marker up against their rivals early on. The occasion only adds to that for Taylor, who is eagerly anticipating women football’s return to the limelight: “It’s a really big celebration having it on the same day as the men. It’s the first time in a number of years that this has happened. It really raises the profile of the game and it’s a great game to have at Wembley. Unfortunately, there are no supporters but it’s great in terms of maximising profile of women’s game.”
Chelsea v Manchester City kicks off on Saturday 29 August at 12:30 BST. You can watch the game on BBC One.