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Crystal Palace Women v Sunderland Ladies - Barclays FA Women’s Championship

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Opinion: “The lack of fixtures hurts Sunderland Ladies players, fans, and our club!”

“A three-week-long break for Sunderland Ladies with only two games left of the season is utterly ridiculous. To grow, the game needs bigger leagues, more meaningful fixtures, and more drama!” writes Rich Speight.

Photo by Jacques Feeney/Getty Images

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Sunderland’s men’s senior team will play at least 56 games in this regular season - hopefully, if they keep this great run going, they’ll reach game 59 at Wembley on 21st May.

It’s a long, hard slog no doubt, but it’s what we as Sunderland fans want because we love football and we live to follow the ups, downs, highs, lows, dramas, and controversies of our team. We all feel a bit lost in the summer, to be honest, distracting ourselves with cricket and transfer gossip...

Sunderland’s women’s team, however, will have to wait until next weekend to play their 26th game of this campaign, the River Wear derby against Durham WFC in the league. The season - comprising of the FA Women’s Championship (FAWC), the Continental Tyres League Cup group stage, and two rounds of the FA Cup - will add up to 27 games in all, that’s only 48 percent of the number of games that the men have to face.

Sunderland Ladies v Durham Women - FA Women’s Championship Photo by Will Matthews/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This is a matter that fans should care about. Games played create stories, they create interest, and they maintain the loyalty of fans. All 20,000 of the club’s season card holders will have the opportunity to attend the Lasses home games at Eppleton next season, but that might only be fewer than 15 matches.

It’s a huge issue across the increasingly global and ever more popular women’s game and one that needs to be addressed urgently by the clubs, sponsors, the Football Association, and the PFA.

At least the unions are aware that this is a significant problem that is holding back women from achieving; I keep referring in my articles to the 2021 Player Workload Report from the international players’ union, and its key finding that focused on the under-utilisation - the lack of minutes on the pitch - of players in the women’s game:

The underload of professional women footballers is one of the most pressing issues in the sport today. Even at the very top of the game, elite players are afforded a relatively low number of appearances each season, limiting growth and development opportunities for the players as well as the sport overall.

The welfare and development of footballers requires them to play games of football regularly. It maintains their fitness and increases their sharpness. It allows for their bodies to get into the cycle of training, resting, playing, and recovery. Minutes on the pitch are important for the honing of talent, the ability to make and correct mistakes, learning how to deal with in-game situations, and gaining the kind of on-pitch experience that will stand them in good stead in the years to come.

Despite the women’s season being stretched out over almost the same period as the men’s, these long random breaks in the middle mean that players are not able to maintain the match fitness. As the FIFPRO report states:

Linked to underload is the uneven distribution and scheduling of matches in the calendar. Long, quiet periods are juxtaposed with bursts of overload in which players need to play an unusually high number of games in a short window. Additionally, the scheduling of games is important. The match calendar is more dense and sparse at the same time, meaning when the games are scheduled is crucial.

There’s also the psychology to consider - regular fixtures allow players to move on from a bad performance or an unlucky break and put it right in the next game. When that next game is often two weeks away it surely has a detrimental impact on the mindset of players.

This inequity in the number of games also holds back the commercial development of women’s football and the potential earnings of the players. It is difficult for clubs in the FA Women’s Championship, for example, to invest in providing women’s sections with better stadiums and upgraded facilities, and therefore a better all-round matchday experience, when that asset will only be utilised - and therefore able to generate any revenue - for a maximum of 45 hours a year?

Add into this the limited availability of games to watch remotely live, and the low quality of that coverage when it is available, and all this puts a huge barrier in front of potential sources of sponsorship revenue that clubs can demand, and it also limits the commercial endorsements that players are able to secure.

It’s a recipe for non-league crowds and a non-league feel to what is the potentially the biggest potential commercial growth area in the industry. We can all see the opportunity, but the lack of fixtures is hurting the game.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid: Quarter Final Second Leg - UEFA Women’s Champions League
UEFA Women’s Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou on March 30, 202
Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

With the proviso that the timeframe covered in the FIFPRO report included significant interruption to the playing schedule, this is a pattern that’s been long established. We can see it in our own fixture list this season.

Starting with the season opener right at the end of August - later than the men - we played three games in September, four in October, four in November, three in the first 15 days of December, and then three in the last 15 days of January (with one covid-related cancellation), three in February, four in March (including the re-arranged fixture), and so far only one in April.

The winter break is perhaps a blessing and something it’s probably best to maintain, but surely it could be limited to the Christmas holidays in the future. We need international breaks, of course, and we need space in the calendar for summer international tournament football for all age groups.

There are, of course, challenges of part-time players being able to play mid-week games, especially when this requires travel across the country. Maintaining Sunday early afternoons as the regular kick-off time for league fixtures is therefore important, and players like Megan Beer, who is a firefighter as well as a footballer, should be carefully considered, especially while we’re not fully professional.

Nevertheless, this season the Lasses will play an average of 0.77 games per week over a 35-week period. The Lads play 1.43 games over a 39-week period, which also includes international breaks. If we could get that average up to at least a game a week, then it would do a great deal of good for everyone and really help in efforts to build our club as a whole.

Sunderland Ladies v Blackburn Rovers - Barclays FA Women’s Championship Photo by Charlotte Tattersall - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

A gendered issue

It also remains the case that, in a society where work and caring responsibilities are still highly gendered, many young women will have demands placed upon them that their higher-paid contemporaries in the men’s game simply do not and that many of the systems and conventions of the game are either centred around men or based on assumptions of women juggling multiple roles on top of their athletic careers.

It is therefore a long-overdue development that our women’s squad will soon benefit from new rights to maternity and injury cover, changes which were announced during a Parliamentary debate convened by Sunderland MP Julie Elliot, which will be a comfort to our captain, Keira Ramshaw, whose fiance is currently expecting their first child.

According to Suzy Wrack in Guardian, the standardised contracts for players in the WSL and FAWC due to come in next season will be a marked improvement on the current patchy situation, with terms and conditions varying considerably across different clubs:

Under the new terms, a player taking maternity leave will be paid 100% of her weekly wage, as well as any other remuneration and benefits, for the first 14 weeks before dropping to the statutory rate. In addition, there is no qualifying period, whereas players previously had to be employed by a club for 26 weeks before being eligible for the statutory minimum.

Players will also now receive their basic wage for the first 18 months following an injury, then half of their wage for the length of the injury thereafter, mirroring the injury rights of male players.

In the FIFPRO report, Chelsea FC’s Dr. Sean Carmody outlines how much of our understanding of the physiology and risk factors associated with football may not be directly relevant to the modern professional female athlete and their career pathways:

Our understanding to date has been derived from men’s football and there are obvious issues with this. Physical performance is dependent on many variables, particularly the conditions under which players train and perform in. This may include access to facilities (e.g. pitches, gym) and support resources (e.g. sport science, nutrition), and the level to which women’s footballers can access these varies considerably. Many may only begin strength training once they become professional – which can affect training age and physical reserve, all of which can determine injury risk.

On Friday, we had the worrying news that Fran Kirby, the wonderful Chelsea and England winger whose skills have won so many fans across the game over the last decade, is to take an indefinite break from football due to a fatigue condition.

This is just one individual case of a player with a history of injury and illness, and we shouldn’t assume that it is connected to scheduling and variable workloads, but it is concerning that one of the most talented players we’ve ever seen perform at Eppleton has had to take such a step, and so close to the biggest football tournament the country has seen in a quarter of a century.

Expansion and Innovation

So how do we get from around 27 to around 42 games a season for a club like Sunderland Ladies?

The planned expansion of the top two tiers of English women’s football must happen sooner rather than later. This isn’t necessarily in the interests of the big four WSL sides - they will be very happy with their regular headline encounters between one another in the league and the later stages of the cup competitions that monopolises broadcast interests, and the time to focus their attention on European and potentially global competitions.

Those clubs in the Champions League already moan about fixture congestion, but actually, that’s more about the impact of the clustering of games on recovery, rather than the overall minutes on the pitch of their star players. Domestic fixtures are already rescheduled to suit their needs - Arsenal, for example, played Coventry United in the FA Cup Quarter Final on a Friday evening to give them more time to prepare for their Champions League game.

But it is in the interests of English football more generally for the FA to realise the vision of two expanded, fully professional leagues by 2026. If there were 16 teams in each of the top two tiers - expanding the league by eight games - it would create more interest, more derbies, and more opportunities for the game to be covered and audiences to attend.

If it is too early in the sponsorship and TV deal cycle for the clubs to consider expansion now, then reform of other competitions and the creation of new tournaments in the anticipated wake of the Euros would be a simple and effective move.

Sheffield United Women v Sunderland Ladies - FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup
This season’s Conti Cup brought two penalty shoot-out wins, but neither brought us three points
Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images

The Conti Cup has never settled on a format that really works, but I would like to see it expanded and given more prestige, including a decent dose of prize money throughout the stages and a final at a venue in the midlands, rather than in London.

Currently, the bizarre points format, particularly the earning of three points for a regular win, one for a draw, and a bonus point for a penalty shoot out win, needs to be scrapped. I can see the value in having a drawn game decided on penalties without extra time, but it should be three points or none at all.

If the Conti Cup is where the FA wants to experiment with new innovations, perhaps the top four finishers from both the National League Premier Divisions could be included and maybe it is also the competition where live streaming on a platform like YouTube, Twitch and/or Facebook rather siloing games away on the clunky old FA player, could be trialled.

Beyond this, many FAWC and National League supporters talk about the need for a winnable competition exclusively for sides outside the WSL - an equivalent of the EFL trophy. This would be a welcome addition to the schedule, give tier two sides the opportunity to rotate their squads in the early rounds, and provide cup interest after the top WSL teams have entered the Conti Cup.

Sunderland Women v Newcastle United Ladies: FA Women’s National League Cup
Sunderland celebrate the third goal during the Ladies FA Women’s National League Cup match between Sunderland Women and Newcastle United Ladies at the Stadium of Light on August 25, 2019 in Sunderland, England.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

Looking outside of England, there are examples of what might work. Long-term supporters still look back upon the old format of summer women’s football seasons with a sense of sunny nostalgia, and I like the idea of introducing a mini competition to open the season in each division, like the NWSL Challenge Cup in the USA.

This could be a kind of late-summer series of three regional groups and national finals which might be played, in our case, between the tier two northern sides Sunderland, Durham, Blackburn, Sheffield United, with equivalent groups in the midlands and south. Each league will have a final, each have a trophy.

It could take place on relatively warm and light evenings in August and September, and then the regular Sunday afternoon league season could get going from the start of October.

Another possibility is a series of regional cups, which in the north east might include the tier two, three, and four sides Sunderland, Durham, Newcastle United, Durham Cestria, Middlesbrough, Norton & Stockton Ancients, Chester-le-Street, and others (depending on promotion and relegation and how the regional boundaries are drawn). Such a competition would create proper local derbies and provide up-and-coming sides with the opportunities to test themselves against higher-level opposition.

These are all just ideas, but ones that have been kicking around WhatsApp groups and Twitter for a little while. Maybe they have legs, maybe they’re impractical. But the core issues of underload and clustering need to be addressed from the very top of the game - fundamentally and for the long-term - with consultation with the PFA and the Football Supporters Association.

Sunderland is ahead of the game

At Sunderland, however, the club appears to be proactive in providing the players in women’s football with the opportunity to get more meaningful minutes on the pitch. The introduction of a new U23 squad may, depending upon the league in which they’re entered, mean younger players are able to play for both sides on a dual registration getting more.

The Foundation of Light has its scholarship programme, which has brought the likes of Maria Farrugia into the first team, and the Regional Talent Club (RTC) U18s tie-in with Gateshead College, where many of the youngsters in our squad play during the week, continues to produce talent for the Lasses.

With Sunderland Head Coach Mel Reay in charge of their studies and their training (and players like Claudia Moan being employed as coaches at the college too), we have a situation that means our young players are at least getting regular game-time, a good education, and almost full-time football.

They have been really successful this season - securing a treble of titles - and the RTC are currently arranging open trials for U10 to U16 under former SAFC youth player Wayne Walls - click here to register your interest. The RTC academy system across the board will be expanded up to Under 18s in the year to come.

But it is clear that only through structural changes to the way the pyramid works, with bigger leagues, better and more meaningful competitions, more promotion and relegation opportunities, will we create a game that is a viable, full-time, professional career option for more of these young players and provides more opportunities for Sunderland fans to watch our fantastic Lasses in competitive action.

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