Moving the goalposts


Written by Lesley McGowan. Originally published in The Annual 2018.

With the popularity of the women’s game at an all time high, former Liverpool F.C. youth player Lesley McGowan takes stock of her experiences as both a player and a fan.

I vividly remember the first time I watched a Woman’s football match on the big screen.

To set the scene, it was 2008, Arsenal Ladies dominated the English Premier League and had done so for as long as I could remember – household names (at least to those with an interest in the sport) such as Rachel Yankey, Kelly Smith, Julie Fleeting and Lianne Sanderson helped steer Arsenal to three straight Cup and League doubles. After the dissolution of Fulham Ladies a few years earlier, no one else in English Women’s football really came close to Arsenal.

At the time, I was part of the Liverpool FC youth team – pretty much everyone I played alongside and against aspired to play for Arsenal someday. Of course, none of us were good enough but a girl can dream.

This was a time when women’s football was largely an amateur sport – with the exception of a couple of the top teams who probably identified as ‘semi-pro’ outfits. However, the media finally started to take notice of the rise in popularity of the sport and started screening big domestic and international games on mainstream television.

Obviously today having women’s football aired on TV is a common occurrence, especially since the London Olympics and the professionalisation of the sport several years before. However, around a decade ago, it was an exciting time for women’s football having the FA Cup Final shown on the BBC – an excitement I shared.

I presume most people will be aware of the rapid growth of the sport over the last five years, but just to quantify this.

– The first fully professional league in the UK, the Women’s Super League, was introduced in 2012 and included eight teams

– The first Women’s GB team was entered into the London 2012 Olympics and eventually worked their way to the semi-finals

– Today, there exists a two tiered professional league with around 22 professional women’s teams with scope for further progression

Back to 2008 – I sit down, an excited teenager about to watch the crème de la crème face off in a hotly contested FA Cup Final. Leeds Ladies FC had, against the odds, made it to the final and were very much considered minnows in comparison to the giants that were Arsenal Ladies. This is no disrespect to Leeds; they were widely regarded to be one of the strongest teams in the country – I can vouch for this having played against them numerous times during my career. But still, they just couldn’t compare to Arsenal – no one could at the time.

Arsenal eventually came out on top with a comprehensive 4-1 win – goals coming from Kelly Smith, Jayne Ludlow and Lianne Sanderson. Only a consolation goal from the then promising youngster Jess Clarke would spare the blushes of the Yorkshire side in a very one-sided game. 

I did sit through the entire game; witnessed a couple of great goals from the majestic Kelly Smith, but one thing really stuck with me. “This does NOT look anything like men’s football.”

I’d never seen top-level women’s football on TV before and perhaps I had a rose tinted view of how good women’s football was. I played alongside some very gifted players at Liverpool, who have since gone on to play for England and I could have easily been convinced that they were as good as men, if not better.

I had grown up playing against the boys in the school playground, and had never felt inferior in terms of ability. But of course, how could I expect the women’s game to even compete with the multi-million pound men’s game that had around 75 years of development over us?! From this point onwards, the game became a little tainted for me and I refrained from watching – sometimes admittedly out of embarrassment. 

It was only recently, that I began to reconsider my somewhat narrow-minded outlook. As I have mentioned before, the game has seen exponential growth over the last ten years and the quality of football, ability and physicality of players has gone a long way to help improve the perception of the sport in the media and consequently amongst the general public.

This summer, I decided to give it another go and threw myself somewhat unexpectedly into the Women’s World Cup – I watched as much as I could and in fact really enjoyed it. The tournament brought back memories of that 2008 FA Cup Final and I was delighted and somewhat surprised to see how far the game had come – this was my break through moment.

I know where you think I’m going with this – “she’s going to say that the women’s game is nearly as good as the men’s”. No, I’m certainly not going to argue that.

I’ve just come to the realisation that it is in fact a completely different sport. Stick with me here.

Should goals be smaller so that goalkeepers have more a chance against lofted long-range shots? Should the pitches be smaller so that goal kicks aren’t seen as an advantage for the opposition rather than an advantage for the defensive team?

Growing up playing in the boys’ school team and alongside friends in the garden, there were never any disparities between the boys and the girls that could play football. However, that was bound to change – boys grew into men, and girls into women and this is where the clear differences come to light.

The way the game is built and implemented is manufactured around the increased physicality of men. Let’s be honest, even at their peak fitness, women will on average never be able to kick as far, run as fast or indeed jump as high as men. This isn’t anti-feminism or indeed a sexist outlook, it’s biology. It is fact.

However, the sport hasn’t identified this and has very much cemented a generalised set of rules that encompass the entire footballing world. Men’s and women’s pitches and goals are the same size, we play the same length of time – essentially, there are no differences. 

When piecing together my argument ahead of sitting down to write this article, I did some research on other sports that amend the rules between the sexes. The only mainstream sport I could find as an example is tennis, where the men are required to play the best of five sets to win a match, for the women it is the best of three. Whether this is just a legacy ruling and something that will change as we see continued moves towards equality in every aspect of modern society I don’t know, but it is something we can adhere to as a clear comparison.

I therefore think there is an argument to apply the same thinking to the women’s game of football. Should goals be smaller so that goalkeepers have more a chance against lofted long-range shots? Should the pitches be smaller so that goal kicks aren’t seen as an advantage for the opposition rather than for the defensive team? I don’t think there is a need to alter the length of the game – women can certainly handle 90 minutes, but can we make it a little easier for these highly talented footballers to exhibit their skill by not limiting them by environmental rulings that are somewhat beyond their control?

This may be a controversial viewpoint, and seemingly the opposite of what a former women’s footballer and fan of the game would be expected to say. I do believe however that for even purely entertainment purposes, the above considerations could have a huge impact on the entertainment value and therefore the viewing figures of the game.

Naturally, such large-scale changes would be difficult to implement given the huge overhaul in legalisation and of course the cost in altering the facilities to address the issue. Perhaps it’s a long term dream, perhaps it’s unlikely to ever happen, but as long as the women’s game is expected to live up to the physicality and excitement of the men’s whilst playing in an environment built for the latter, I’m not sure we’ll ever really come close to achieving such an outcome.

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