The Continental Tyres Cup fixtures were released last Wednesday afternoon and they underlined one constant of the women’s football scene in England - the WSL’s League Cup is a really weird competition badly in need of reform.
On the surface, the third ranked domestic competition is a great opportunity for clubs like ours - we get guaranteed fixtures against teams in the Women’s Super League in the regionalised group stage.
The #ContiCup Fixtures are out!— Roker Report - The Lasses (@RRLasses) September 8, 2022
This season the Lasses face three @BarclaysWSL sides inc. the holders and a @BarclaysWC rival in the Group Stage:
@LiverpoolFCW 2/10 (H)
@ManCityWomen 27/11 (A)
@LCFC_Women 7/12 (H)
@RoversLadies 18/12 (A)#HawayTheLasses | #SAFC ❤️ pic.twitter.com/LOpj9tNv5W
This autumn both the Lasses and our Championship rivals Blackburn Rovers will play Leicester City, Liverpool and, most notably, last season’s winners Manchester City, whose early exit from the UEFA Champions League means they enter the competition at the first stage.
The women’s domestic league season is currently far too short and has huge gaps in the schedule - the 12 team divisions providing only 22 games - so ensuring a few extra games are played is both good for revenue and good for the fitness and development of the players. Limited game-time and underutilisation of talent is something that holds back English footballers who are not brought up in WSL academies from moving up through the pyramid.
Last season’s penalty shootout wins against Liverpool and Sheffield United provided some of the highlights of our year, although the stinging 7-0 defeat at home to Aston Villa was a tough reminder of the quality gap between teams at the middle of tier one and those in middle of tier two. The Conti Cup also gave opportunities for our younger and fringe players to get on the pitch.
In a welcome change from last year, the Conti Cup games will be played on a weekend, meaning that the remaining part-time club like ours are able to field stronger sides. Previously, when playing mid-week and especially away from home, it was extremely hard for those players with careers and educational commitments outside football to participate.
Yet there are elements of the competition that remain symptomatic of the wider problems in the structure of women's domestic football at the higher levels, particularly those that go against the grain of the standard structures of English football more generally.
Three points for a win in all league and group stages has been the norm across all forms of the game for many decades and a win on penalties counts the same as a win in regular time, but in the Conti Cup things are not quite as simple.
Games cannot be drawn, but some losers still get prizes. It’s three points for a win, but only two for a win on penalties, and the losing team gets a point for the draw in regular time.
As a result, Sunderland failed to progress last season primarily because the losing sides in our two penalty shootout victories both got a point for their efforts, while we were effectively docked two points in the group for not having won the games within the 90 minutes. Liverpool won the group with eight points (one of which they got for losing against us on penalties), Sunderland finished with seven.
We would still have reached the next round as runner up in the group, but we missed out on points per game to Manchester United (who, if you discount the ridiculous penalty loss points distribution model, had the same record of three wins and a loss out of four games in their group as we achieved).
The irony of Sunderland once again being on the wrong end of rules that favour the Red Devils will not be lost on many Lasses fans, and overall there is a deliberate skewing of the odds of overall victory in the Conti Cup towards the elite teams backed by Premier League clubs.
Champions League sides Chelsea and Arsenal will be injected into the quarter finals, meaning they only need to win three games to lift the trophy. If we could defy the odds and go all the way to the final, we’d have to play seven games.
This is, I’m sure, exactly the kind of model that the top teams in the men’s Premier League would love to see replicated for their domestic cup competitions, especially as UEFA has massively expanded their men’s competitions.
There is no prize money in the competition and last season the coverage was absolutely minimal, so Sunderland will effectively be paying to play this autumn. After the successful campaign by supporters that forced the authorities to massively increase the prize money in the FA Cup, this is a particularly egregious omission.
There’s also a general lack of promotion and coverage - although when the big teams come to town it can be a crowd-puller for the Championship sides, as we witnessed when Man United played Durham at Maiden Castle last year.
So, as with everything in women’s football right now given the marked uptick in interest from fans and media alike, there’s a window of opportunity to continue to make improvements to the way the game is run and - most importantly - to how the competitions are structured.
Time for Change
In one of her final acts as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries announced the long awaited independent review of women’s football that was recommended in last year’s Crouch Report that followed from the Fan Led Review.
Whether or not the new Prime Minister, with her free market ideology and zeal for deregulation at all costs - will abandon the legislative elements of the wider review and therefore hopes that the regulation of the whole of the English game, men’s and women’s, might be carried out by an Independent Regulator (iREF), we still have an opportunity to shape the future structure of women's football through this process.
There's no reason to believe that her successor in the cabinet, Michelle Donelan, will abandon the process now - the optics of doing so in the wake of the Lionesses success in Euro 2022 would be a needless waste of political capital.
The Women’s Football Review is to be headed by England legend turned pundit Karen Carney, and will be supported by the civil servants who did a sterling job on the Fan Led Review. Yet it appears Carney won’t have the direct day-to-day input and active guidance from the Football Supporters Association (FSA) that the wider review had and the FA will be providing support.
Carney is a high-profile figure and has the intelligence and insight to ask the right questions. Like Jill Scott and Fara Williams, her career spanned the period of rapid growth in women’s football over the last two decades from amateur to professional. As a pundit she is forthright and knowledgeable, she has the passion as well as the understanding of the wider societal impact that our game can and does have on individuals and communities.
Yet the FA’s close involvement in an “independent” review is a cause for concern as it is they who, as the organisation that runs women’s football at all levels in England, are the subjects. To mitigate this, supporters like us will have to get involved as actively as we can, and it’s encouraging that Carney is already talking about a broad and inclusive approach:
Tracey Crouch’s fan-led review of football was opened up to everybody and I want to have the same approach. This review is for everyone. I want responses from fans, spectators, non-football lovers, businesses … Every and any suggestion is welcome. The women’s game is unique and so we need unique ideas to make it a success. I will be looking to speak to experts from different fields from healthcare to entertainment.
As the most long-standing and most successful club in north east women’s football, we need a voice. Many loyal Lasses fans believe that, despite the contribution of our teams and players to the successes of the national team, our region has been deliberately marginalised by the powers that be.
There are loads that can be learned from Sunderland’s journey up and down the league structures over the last 33 years. From how the club first instituted a women’s section in 1989 to how we merged with the pioneers of Cowgate Kestrals and entered the league structure with a bang.
From how we developed the massive talent of the players in our region to how we dominated the Women’s Premier League while being excluded from the WSL. And, most of all, from how the women’s side’s dependency on the waxing and waning attitudes and interests of the men who run Sunderland AFC overall has been, to say the very least, a double-edged sword.
So it’s for fans of clubs like ours, through Red & White Army and the BLC as well as the potential new SAFC Women’s Supporters Group that the club and Supporters Trust are keen to see created, to take advantage of the Carney review.
It will, hopefully, be the precursor to ensuring that competitions like the Conti Cup are restructured to be fairer and more rewarding (or at the very least, less weird), how the leagues can be expanded, how women’s sides - both independent clubs and those tied to teams in the men’s pyramid - can be protected and their finances secured.
Apathy is the enemy of progress, and if the last year has demonstrated anything it is that women’s football supporters - together with the players - can make changes. But it’s up to us to get involved if we’re to see the changes we want implemented.