Ten years ago, English football saw the creation of a new separatist league. Eight teams have been inducted into a new elite that, controversially, would protect its members from relegation for the first three seasons of its existence. Clubs were able to make a formal request for membership, and 16 teams initially applied for the eight places available. The Women’s Super League is born.
Despite some similarities to the European Super League proposal, which football fans so strongly opposed last week, the WSL proposals have not met with nationwide condemnation or widespread fan protests. Indeed, in 2011 the response was overwhelmingly positive, with the league seen as a modernizing leap forward for women’s football.
But the eight-team league hasn’t been entirely without controversy, not least because, in the criteria for joining the top flight, off-field stipulations outweighed recent on-field performances. The most unfortunate to have been excluded from the inaugural WSL campaign in 2011 were the 2009 FA Cup finalists, Sunderland. The power of women’s football, renowned for bringing some of the best young talent in the English game to Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton and Jordan Nobbs, finished fifth in the former top flight in 2010, but has always been sorely overlooked.
“It was devastating to miss it,” now says former Sunderland Ladies president Maurice Alderson, who ran the club at the time. “We had a pretty good pedigree and I think they pretty much hit us in the teeth.
“It took two years to apply for 2011. Then they rolled out an England card for the future of women’s football and it stopped in Leeds. We said ‘wait a minute’, do you realize there’s Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Newcastle beyond that? “They were ignoring one of the strongest teams in the country. This part still bothers me.
But it wasn’t just the North East’s lack of representation in the Super League that hurt Sunderland. The project’s schedule and their omission caused them to lose many of the country’s top young talents, who have become household names.
England Bronze, Nobbs and Lucy Staniforth were among the players to leave the club after it was announced in 2010 that they had missed the WSL. An 18-year-old Bronze, now FIFA’s Best Player of the Year, joined Everton, while Nobbs, 17, chose Arsenal, where she remains to this day, as Lincoln nabbed Staniforth.
“We couldn’t hold back these players, the opportunity for WSL football was there,” added Alderson, whose daughter, goalkeeper Helen, has also transferred to Doncaster Rovers Belles. “We lost a lot of that family atmosphere at Sunderland Ladies back then because they were all players who had all grown up together.
“After that initial disappointment we thought ‘we’ll show them’, we kept the core of a good team and showed that we were the best of the rest.
Sunderland certainly did that, winning what had become the second tier – the Women’s Premier League – three times in a row in 2011, 2012 and 2013 before being accepted into the new ‘Women’s Super League Two’, when the WSL added a second level for the 2014 summer campaign.
“The more we kept going and made a name for ourselves, they finally couldn’t ignore us,” Alderson continued. “In coming up with our initial offer we may have been too honest, as other clubs got ahead of us who couldn’t deliver on some of the revenue promises – and so on.”
Instead, the former top tier Bristol Academy was chosen instead of Sunderland to join the new league. They were alongside champions Arsenal, Birmingham City, Chelsea, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Everton and second-tier teams Liverpool and Lincoln.
Lincoln moved to Nottingham in 2014 to reform as the Notts County Ladies, which reached the 2015 Cup final but withdrew in 2017. Bristol Academy would later be taken over by men’s club Bristol City and will remain in the top level today.
Previously, the Doncaster Rovers Belles had been controversially demoted from the next level, as a license application saw Manchester City parachuting directly into the first flight in 2014 and the Belles – trailblazers who were historically one of the most successful women’s teams. of the country – now play in the fourth floor of the pyramid.
Many other big names in women’s football before the WSL were formed are now miles away from the upper echelons of modern football, including 2006 and 2008 Cup finalists Leeds – who withdrew their candidacy to join the WSL as they failed could not afford the costs. – and two-time Millwall Lionesses Cup winners. Likewise, Blackburn, Watford and Nottingham Forest, who were also in the old top tier just before the WSL was formed, all remain outside the top flight.
Alderson spent 11 years as chairman of Sunderland and was involved for a total of 13 years until his departure from the club in 2016. In 2018, license applications would cause more heartache for the club, when, having been a A top-tier team, they dropped out of two divisions in the same summer which saw Premier League-backed men’s teams, such as Manchester United and West Ham United, successfully apply to climb the pyramid. Sunderland now remains at level three.
Nonetheless, despite these events, Alderson remains very positive about the overall impact of the WSL, adding: “It was a fabulous idea that is paying off now. Women’s football has never been so famous as it is today.
“It’s fantastic, the opportunities for the girls are there now, there is something to aim for, and the [star players] are still very accessible. Hope the game will continue from here. We have helped in the formative years and the players are reaping the rewards now. “
The fully professional WSL may now seem like a far cry from the days when Alderson’s Sunderland used to fundraise for outdoor travel by packing bags in supermarkets, but with eight team members from England Women’s World Cup 2019 which have gone through the club – including the captain as well. Steph Houghton, Jill Scott, Beth Mead, Carly Telford and Demi Stokes – the English game is certainly stronger for the contribution of the Lady Black Cats in simpler times.