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Women's game deserves better

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Jacqui Oatley | 17:00 UK time, Wednesday, 22 April 2009

How fantastic to see England superstar Kelly Smith proving every week that she's one of the very best talents in the world.

The former Arsenal playmaker is taking the new United States professional women's league - the WPS - by storm, having scored three goals in her opening three games for the Boston Breakers, picking up a WPS Player of the Week award along the way.

Smith is joined in the new league by fellow England team-mates Alex Scott (also at Boston Breakers), Eni Aluko (St Louis Athletica), Anita Asante (Sky Blue) and Karen Carney (Chicago Red Stars).

Excellent experience for these players to test themselves against the best, but what have they left behind? The answer: a great deal of disillusionment.

Kelly Smith and Alex Scott are now playing in the US

While the WPS league was starting with a flourish, the Football Association in England was deciding to postpone its new women's Super League.

And how do you think this news has gone down with players, clubs, administrators and coaches? Having spoken to a range of them, I can assure you it's hit them like a ton of bricks. They're also deeply unhappy that they only found out via a newspaper report and hadn't been told directly. FA chairman Lord Triesman has since written to the clubs to apologise for the leak.

Tears have been shed by people who have worked tirelessly to try to make it happen. These are the same people who have been grafting for years to try to drag the women's game up to the standard of the Scandinavian countries and Germany.

One top player told me she's now regretting her decision not to pursue a professional career in the US in favour of remaining loyal to the supposedly exciting new game at home. Some England players are feeling demoralised and let down just four months before Euro 2009 in Finland.

The Super League is only one part of a four-year strategy to develop the girls' and women's game. The rest of the proposals, I'm told, are still going ahead as planned.

The idea was to have a semi-professional league of eight teams (initially) played in the summer with better playing surfaces and facilities, desperately-needed television exposure, with clubs receiving up to £70,000 each per season to help them become self-financing, rather than be dependent on their male counterparts. Look no further than Charlton as an example of the perils of relying on a men's team. The aim was to make the league more competitive, raise the profile of the game in England, encourage young fans to watch their idols and to prevent top players from wanting to play abroad.

It's certainly too late for that.

The first few words of the promotional publication for the strategy states in capital letters that "the FA must take the lead role in developing the women's and girls' game". Yet, the feeling is that women's game is the lowest hanging fruit and the first to be picked off the tree when cuts are made. Further down, the document reads "To be trusted to lead, we must: Lead with confidence to deliver the strategy". It seems that some in the game have had their confidence shaken.

Clubs are generally run by volunteers who had spent a great deal of time putting together their application to join the summer league. Three weeks before they were due to hand in their completed applications, they discovered, via a newspaper report, that all that time and money had been wasted.

The FA's public statement on the matter, which followed the leak, said that the league would be deferred until the summer of 2011 "as a prudent measure in the current global financial downturn to ensure that we are able to use our financial resources in the most appropriate and meaningful way".

A spokesman told me that the FA is not picking on women's football and that this project is just one of several to be put back due to the "current financial climate". The National Football Centre at Burton reportedly being one of the others. Lord Triesman also stated in his letter to the clubs that the move was "caused by financial difficulties in companies with which we trade".

So the FA may not be singling out women's football for cutbacks, yet many feel the game simply can't afford another setback in its development. It has already suffered greatly due to a lack of investment over the years and many believe that this long overdue project should have been ring-fenced, with savings found elsewhere.

"I personally believe it's been shelved indefinitely," says Vic Akers, legendary manager of Arsenal Ladies who's won 30 major trophies in his 22 years at the club (it will be 31 trophies if they beat Sunderland in the FA Women's Cup final on 4 May). "It's sad that the girls' game always seems to take the mallet over the head. We've already lost five national players to the United States, including the iconic Kelly Smith. We'll lose more, and that can't be good for the game in England."

Casey Stoney, England defender and manager of Chelsea, is equally aggrieved. "We're struggling for survival," she says. "We had a plan for the financial year, now it's changed. Clubs need to know where they stand. We take two steps forward and five steps back."

Sue Smith has been hit hard by the decision

Sue Smith, Leeds Carnegie and England winger, adds: "I'm gutted. Everything was set in place. We were excited about having the Super League to look forward to after we got back from Euro 2009. But not any more. We feel deflated".

The feeling amongst those I've spoken to is that the deferment of the Super League will hamper the growth of a sport so desperately needing a shot in the arm from the powers that be. The women's game is still trying to catch up on its development after it was effectively banned for 50 years until 1971.

The vibes are not all negative, though. Twenty England players are being awarded one-year contracts worth £16,000 each to enable them to cut down on their working hours so they can concentrate on their fitness. A major help to those who were getting run-down and ill due to working so many hours before and after training sessions. This should help avoid a repeat of the problems the players had at the World Cup in 2007, when their £40 a day pay left many struggling to make ends meet.

There are some extremely hard working, passionate people working on women's football at Soho Square and a set of highly professional, yet part-time, players who give their all for their country. They feel as though they've been let down again.


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