Just when you thought 2020 was bad enough, the first week of 2021 has gotten off to a rather tricky start for women’s football. As fans of the game first of all, it has been tough to follow and process as confusion, frustration and at times anger has swelled. To those who say the women’s game is boring, strap in.
First, let’s examine this weekend’s fixtures, or lack thereof. As of now, there is just one remaining fixture in the Barclays FAWSL and three in the FA Championship.
When football returned in the midst of a pandemic, we all expected some disruption. Clubs across the divisions have had to get their heads around bubbles and training in a safe and secure way. They deserve praise for going above and beyond to keep the game that we love going for us to enjoy through one of the most difficult times in recent history.
Prior to the winter break, we saw several matches postponed due to Covid-19 cases and self-isolation; many of which still need to be rescheduled. The criteria were first questioned when Bristol were forced to play their game away to Manchester City. When one of their starting team woke up with symptoms in a tight turnaround from a mid-week cup game, they ensured that those in close contact remained in isolation and, therefore, five first-team players missed the game. However, their request to postpone was denied and they were forced to bring up academy players, suffering a difficult 8-1 defeat. Many have questioned why this was so. Yes, there were eventually no positive tests, but Bristol City were essentially punished for doing the right thing.
Cue January 2021. Both Manchester City and Arsenal requested postponements earlier this week due to Covid-19 cases in their squads (we’ll get to the why later on). Both requests were approved by the FA who said they had proved an inability to field 14 players for their fixtures.
On Friday, everyone was preparing for the four remaining FAWSL fixtures. In a press conference first thing, Everton manager Willie Kirk said that no positive tests had come back in the latest round of testing. By the evening, their game against Manchester United was off, announced through this Everton statement – “Five members of the Everton Women squad contracted coronavirus between Christmas and New Year. While those players returned to training this week – and the rest of Willie Kirk’s squad tested negative – club medical staff confirmed this morning the five players are unable to be passed fit to play this weekend.” This, alongside a number of injuries, meant Everton were unable to field a team of 14.
Over at Birmingham, Carla Ward updated the media around her struggles of producing a fully fit squad together for their fixture against Tottenham – “We have 10 players available currently. One will have a fitness test today. As it stands, the maximum we can possibly have available will be 12.” The BBC’s Emma Sanders also reported that there had been one positive case within Birmingham’s ranks but that they had had a postponement request denied. On Saturday, Birmingham announced that they would be unable to fulfil their fixture out of “a duty of care to our players”. A tribunal will now decide whether they can just reschedule or whether they will be docked points and/or receive a fine.
Understandably, much confusion has ensued, with managers, players, journalists and fans frustrated. We all know the impacts from Covid-19 can be severe and has an effect on players’ fitness. No one is questioning that. In these “unprecedented” times, we have to accept that there will be disruption but players’ health and wellbeing must always be at the forefront of decisions. The biggest gripe is the application of the rules and the lack of clarity – how in some cases, injuries/lack of fitness comes into play and in others, it seemingly doesn’t. This could be easily explained by a clear clarification of the rules and what circumstances are considered.
Coin Toss Gate
Of all the drama this week, the possibility of FA Cup ties being decided by coin toss is one of the most bizarre.
Since the beginning of the season, we’ve talked about the FAWSL as the best league in the world. Star players from across the globe are lining up to play here and we have been treated to some quality football over the last four months. The trajectory of professional women’s football was only going up, despite the pandemic.
But things are far from perfect, with the divide between the professional and amateur leagues clearer than ever. With government guidelines forcing “non-elite” play to be suspended, only 23 women’s teams are allowed to play across the country. The unequal support of grassroots football and the differences between the men and women’s game are once again under the spotlight.
This latest suspension has also led to a problem with the early rounds of the FA Cup. Currently at the second-round stage, it consists completely of “non-elite” clubs and, as a result, cannot continue.
There is a fixture crisis looming and the FA is faced with a conundrum. From this, it was reported by Tom Garry at the Telegraph that a coin toss is being considered as an option for deciding ties. It gets tiresome saying “this would never happen in the men’s game” (a phrase we hope will die out soon), but in this circumstance, it is appropriate. This would never be an option for the male edition of the competition and has been rightly been met with disbelief. As Birmingham’s Carla Ward said on Friday, “Look, if you are telling me that is an honest, genuine conversation being had, I would love to be a fly on the wall…Look, I don’t know. You tell me? What do you think of it? I can’t see it happening. If it does, we can have another press conference and I’ll bring a glass of wine with me because it’s crazy; it’s a crazy idea!”
We all want this year’s edition to be concluded but there must be some flexibility. Surely, it will have to be extended or postponed and maybe even, like last year’s FA Cup, run into the start of next season. This feels like a much better alternative to a coin toss that would severely undermine the competition. There has been lots of talk about Dubai-gate bringing the game into disrepute (again, we will get to that) but for us, this would be much more damaging.
And we get to Dubai-gate, finally. We’ve never been too intrigued by Dubai; it wasn’t on our list of places we ever wanted to visit, mainly down to the homophobia and questionable attitude to women’s and human rights. Now though? We don’t even want to hear the word again. Another downside of this situation is that, due to all this talk of it and some clever digital marketing, we keep getting served adverts for holidays there. Will it ever end!
We don’t think we need to go into too much detail on this one. It has been covered non-stop for the last week. In short, a number of players across the two leagues made the decision to go to Dubai over the Christmas break; some with their club’s permission, some without. Understandably, other players, managers, those working in the game and fans were frustrated, disappointed and angry at this. To make things worse, several of the players who travelled have unfortunately tested positive for Covid-19, forcing teammates to isolate and games to be postponed. How could this situation be exacerbated? With silence. We, of course, all wish them a speedy recovery, but the lack of acknowledgement and apology has been the biggest frustration for many, turning this storm in a tea-cup into a tornado in a tankard.
Although Manchester United haven’t suffered with Covid-19 cases in this instance, Casey Stoney was the first to step up and take responsibility for allowing her players to travel, a testament to her character and her understanding of the women’s game as a whole – “I said before Christmas that I will always take my players’ wellbeing into consideration and I granted permission for my players to go home, see their families and to have a break. I do trust my players wholeheartedly to stick within government guidelines – everything we allowed them to do was within government guidelines – but I have to be honest and, on reflection, it was a poor error in judgement from me. I am sincerely sorry for that. The buck starts with me and it stops with me, so I am sorry for that. Everything was considered as a club in terms of the players’ needs. That’s why it was approved. I’m human and I make mistakes. I made a mistake and I take responsibility for it.”
Do we hold the women’s game to a higher standard? Do we expect more from players? Yes and no – we know they appreciate the game more; we know they’ve fought hard to get where they are today; we know they deserve more for their efforts; we know they have more to lose. It’s also because we’re not used to seeing silly or reckless behaviour very often. So, when something like this happens, it feels huge. How can this fire be put out? Acknowledgement and an apology. Then we can get back to admiring the game and players we love so much.