The WSL and Women’s Championship are back this weekend. So next week, I want to be able to write about the great goals and dodgy decisions, about the shocks and walkovers, who has celebrated like they’ve won the league and who has had a meltdown and been sent to the stands.
But for now, however, the creeps, control-freaks, and coke-heads who are involved in the women’s game for all the wrong reasons have those of us who care about the game for all the right reasons talking, in public and private, about how the hell we can end the pervasive culture of abuse in our sport.
It’s been an issue for many years, but in the weeks following the profile-boosting Euros in England, it’s grabbed the sporting headlines. First came France and stories of “inappropriate” relationships between young girls and older coaches. Then Spain’s national team went on strike, frustrated that the tactically inept, power-hungry, and entitled Jorge Vilda who nominally coaches them (and who got his job because of who his dad is) remains in post.
The French authorities have at least acted, but the old men at the Spanish federation demanded the players apologise for their insubordination if they want to resume their international careers.
Then, over the last week, we have seen the long-running story of abuse in the world’s top professional league, the NWSL, come to a head. Megan Rapinoe pulled no punches in her comments about the men who’ve been called out in Sally Yates’ report.
People had spoken out for years and were ignored. Owners of clubs hushed things up, fearful of the reputational damage and neglectful of the rights of the women whose talent is the product they sell.
Some have suggested that Rapinoe was booed by English supporters at Wembley because of public support of trans people’s right to exist without being abused and discriminated against, but anyone who listens to the 37-year-old speak knows that she is the heart, soul, conscious, and, indeed, the most eloquent and intelligent voice in this sport.
I refuse to believe that anything more insidious than the English football tradition of riling your opponents was at play.
Players with the wealth, power, and profile to take principled stands against abuse and for better protection are, therefore, few and far between. So when the two best sides in the world, England and the USA, stood shoulder to shoulder on Friday evening in front of over 75,000 at Wembley and millions on TV, it was a powerful moment of true solidarity.
But up and down England there are persistent whispers about those coaches - the “proper wrong ‘uns” - who somehow manage to move from club to club in our leagues spreading their brand of overly familiar, unprofessional, and corrosive “management” styles.
As they do so, they are ruining a string of young footballers’ confidence and career progression along the way. These are often players on one-year deals, who then move on (and often down) rather than kick up a fuss about the treatment that they’ve been on the receiving end of.
As the US report stated, these players are conditioned from an early age to accept verbal, emotional, physical, and even sexual abuse as just part of the game. They may not even be aware that what is being done to them is wrong, so ingrained is this behaviour in the culture of the sport.
As upper tiers in England professionalise, the very welcome new contracts are rolled out, and more resources are put into women’s football, the turds who’ve been sticking out our own Championship neighbourhood for years are pushed further down the pipeline.
In the National League, where clubs of such varying statures and financial muscle play at the same tier, the people hiring the managers of women’s teams know little to nothing about the women’s game in general.
And down there in particular, if anything resembling a professional contract is on offer a player is highly unlikely to speak out about the abuse they or others may suffer at the hands of the powerful men above them in the hierarchies of their clubs.
We appear to be pretty fortunate at Sunderland. Alex Clark told me last week about all the safeguards in place for the women who play for us and the rest of the staff at the club, and the recruitment of a new dedicated women’s safeguarding officer will be another step forward.
Mel Reay and Steph Libbey, as respected professional coaches, former players, and experienced educators in their own rights, have created a supportive, caring environment for the young women who represent us with such passion and pride when they take the field.
As Rapinoe said, it is those women players who have driven this game forward and will continue to do so who matter - they’ve had to battle for everything they have now, and there are plenty more battles still to come.
The whole of women’s football, top to bottom, wants to never have to deal with these kinds of things, but we have to. Online and offline, we see and hear about only the tip of the vitriolic iceberg that these women suffer, day-in-day-out.
We know that the causes of social justice will be an integral part of our game while the scourges of racism, misogyny and physical and emotional violence against women and girls are still with us in society at large.
For everyone’s sake - if you see it, if you hear it, speak up and make sure you’re heard. And if someone speaks up to you, then you need to listen and act, don’t turn away and hope someone else will take responsibility.
But I want to end this ramble on a positive, Championship-related note; the scenes of pure joy from the Irish national team showed after their victory over Scotland in the World Cup Playoff on Tuesday night.
Back in 2017, the FAI eventually responded to demands from players including then Sunderland star Steph Roche for better working conditions and implemented systemic changes that have taken them all the way to Australasia. Their inspirational head coach, Vera Pauw, has also bravely stood up and told her story of surviving rape and abuse as a player and called out the Dutch FA’s inaction at the time.
Their team is packed full of players from our Championship rivals like Durham, Birmingham City, and Bristol City, as well as a fair few who guided Liverpool to the top spot and promotion last season. So next summer, along with the Lionesses, we’ll be cheering for Niamh Fahey, Saoirse Noonan, Jamie Finn, and Louise Quinn too.
For theirs is a story of how a football institution, driven by the women who play the game, can turn things around. It points to the answers to the question I posed at the start of this piece, and it’s well worth a read.