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Bristol City Women v Sunderland Ladies - Barclays FA Women’s Championship

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Women’s Championship Ramble: Mixed progress with heroes and villains on and off the pitch

Sunderland and others show that there’s more to improvement and success at this level than points on the board, but SUFC need to have a long hard look in the mirror!

Photo by Ryan Hiscott - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

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The Championship takes a break this weekend for the weird and wonderful world of the Conti Cup, but it’s worth looking back on last weekend’s performances and how the sides have progressed so far.

A question arose in one of the groups I’m part of after last weekend’s fourth round of Barclay’s Women’s Championship fixtures. What, a colleague asked, was the performance of the week?

Was it London City Lionesses winning three-nil at home against Durham, whose growing pains seem to be severely impacting their perennial ambition to push for promotion? Was it pre-season favourites Crystal Palace traveling up to Blackburn and emerging with three goals and three points in the bag?

Or could it even have been Charlton Athletic, whose comeback at Eppleton against the Lasses was almost entirely earned by the run of the ball and a questionable decision by the officials?

No, the consensus answer seemed to be that although winning is everything, there’s a hell of a lot more to football than the scoreline - particularly when you take the long view of the development of Tier 2 women’s football.

The nominees were Southampton, who continued their impressive introduction to football at this level by doing what Sunderland could not and scoring away at Bristol City to get another point on the board, and Coventry United, who responded to the humiliation at Bramall Lane by going to St Andrew's and scaring the shit out of the Brummies.

There’s no love lost between the West Midlands cities at the best of times, but Coventry - already a potentially fatally wounded animal - lashed out (metaphorically this time) when three nil down at halftime, scored two second-half goals, and could well have well equalised in the final minutes.

And the unofficial performance of the week award was carried home from Birmingham to Butts Park in the hands of one young woman - 19-year-old backup goalie Jodie Whiteman. The ‘keeper whose nightmare in Sheffield went viral online after the Blades’ social media account posted clips of some of the goals she conceded with no context, was the star of the show last Sunday.

If she was the Championship champ of the week, chump of the week goes to the person in charge of the overall social media output at Sheffield United FC. After the horrendous ridicule, vile misogynistic abuse, and all-round nastiness Whiteman was receiving became clear, many people in the tight-knit and protective women’s football community were rightly very worried about her welfare and the reputation of our still semi-professional league.

As the video views clocked over the two million mark and the retweets went into the thousands, there were concerted efforts made behind the scenes from our community to urge SUFC to simply press the delete button and end the source of the abuse. This was not out of a sense of censorship but of genuine concern for the person on the receiving end.

But, although I was personally told they were “working on it”... nothing happened, hours passed, then days. Those with the power to post do not, it now appears, have the power to delete, and those that do have a tin ear to private calls for a little mercy to be shown.

The power dynamics within football clubs are often opaque, but there’s no doubt that on the red and white side of the steel city, the hard-nosed men are more interested in the potential value of clicks and engagement than they are in the wellbeing of a low-paid teenager.

Coventry United v Bristol City: Barclays FA Women’s Championship
Jodie Whiteman - Championship Champ
Photo by Matt Lewis - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

One wonders what Courtney Sweetman-Kirk and her teammates think of this abdication of responsibility on the part of their employers. We all know that it is the most popular area upon which the know-nothing element of men’s football supporters will jump to put the women down and ensure the growth of this side of the game remains as slow and as difficult as possible.

The damage in failing to delete this video - cut to emphasise the pretty tame long-range efforts that eluded Whiteman who had come off the bench unexpectedly after her teammate Eleanor Heaps had been knocked out and was on her way to the hospital - does to the Barclay’s Women’s Championship brand, cannot be underestimated either.

It’s something that the sponsors of the league and the Football Association must surely have on their radars, and they should use their power to ensure that protocols are agreed upon that ensure that players are better protected from easy to anticipate troll reactions.

Turning back towards Sunderland AFC Women, the question “woz we robbed” of at least a point in that game at Eppleton on Sunday was addressed at length on our Twitter Space earlier in the week.

The answer, “yes, of course we woz” - the ball never crossed the line for the corner that led to their first equalising goal and we almost certainly deserved more out of the game. We’ll be fine though, despite the improvement in the form of Coventry United.

One question remains, however, lingering in the background of miserable misanthropes like me. Will we make the two to three-place progress that was planned for this season or will we slip back relative to the other clubs of similar stature that make up this division?

The attendance on Sunday was not great, our youngsters are not being selected for the national team age groups, and we’re sat only one Coventry win away from the relegation place. Woe is us...

But if we look beyond the short-term fortunes of the first team in four games so far, we see much progress. We see that the Under 23s' first league game in tier six was a 6-0 win. We hear that the Under 14 RTC girls are an absolute revelation, taking apart local boys' teams in the city at will. We see new full-time staff being recruited to work directly on fan engagement, media, and the commercial side of SAFC Women as well as performance analysts and training staff.

It’s very much the KLD and Speakman way of doing things, isn’t it? Get the fundamentals off the pitch right, invest in staff, and trust that the process and that the coaching staff will sort out any issues on the pitch.

This weekend we welcome WSL-newbies Liverpool back to Eppleton for a Continental Cup game. Rachel Furness will surely be getting a runout after starting both of the reds games this season on the bench, and we should see some exciting young prospects on both sides too.

The likes of Libbi “Peggy” McInnes for Sunderland, who signed a new contract with the club this week, should feature. And if there’s one area that the women’s side of our club needs to ensure it is not caught short on it is in securing its assets - the talented young players - and ensuring that their value in a rapidly rising transfer market is realised in the years to come.

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