Women’s football is one of the fastest growing sports, not just in the UK, but all over the world. Manchester United and Southampton are the only current Premier League clubs with no women’s team – it surely cannot be long before the former in particular come under pressure to create one.
Everton Ladies and England under-19 midfielder and centre-back Megan Finnigan spoke to Matt Addison about her career to date, starting with her very first memories within football.
“I started playing when I was about six years old, so really young. At the time there were no girl’s teams to play for, so I had to play with the boys, just at a local team in Wigan where I’m from. When I was about nine years old, I got scouted by Everton and I went to play for the girls there.”
The way that Finnigan came to play football in the first place was coincidental. When her local team, run by her godfather Chris Leather, was missing players, she was only too happy to fill in.
“They asked me to play one week because they were really short. I remember my mum was not too happy about it, but my dad was quite pleased, obviously.
“I just remember turning up most weeks, and the typical reaction would be for the other team to go ‘Oh, they’ve got a girl playing’, stuff like that. At that age I used to score quite a lot so I wasn’t really bothered – I don’t score so many now! I just really enjoyed playing to be honest”.
Finnigan now uses her family as her driving force. She grew up in a family that was “football mad”, and has a lot to thank her father and brother for.
“My brother and my dad both played. My dad used to run about five kids teams, and open-age teams as well. I’ve always loved football. They don’t play as much now, so I kind of use it as my inspiration, and my motivation, for my dad and my family, because they are the ones that got me into it”.
Kelly Smith, who won 117 international caps and is probably the most famous player in the history of women’s football in England, is often cited as the inspiration for many female players. At her peak, she was widely considered to be the best female player in the world.
“Obviously, she is a really good player, a legend within the women’s game. For me, I’d probably say when I was growing up, even though I used to watch it, the women’s game was not that big – a lot of my idols come from the men’s game. Being a Liverpool fan, someone like Steven Gerrard is obviously a massive role model to me. Within the women’s game, Farah Williams is heavily capped for England and used to play for Everton as well. She is someone that I see as a role model as well.”
Finnigan, having recently established herself as a regular in the Everton first team, will be hoping to go some way to replicating those achievements.
“I’m only 18 years old, so to say that I’m playing regularly within Everton’s first team and to have almost 30 England caps is a massive achievement. Of course, I want to progress even further, but at my age I’m happy with what I’ve achieved so far and I just want to push on really”.
Despite still being so young, picking a highlight from her career so far is a tough ask.
“Every time I put the England shirt on, to be able to stand there and sing your national anthem, for me there’s no greater honour. Within that, I’ve been able to go to major European finals. I’ve not been lucky enough to ever win anything – the same with Everton, I’ve never won a medal with them – but just getting that experience is incredible.
“Recently we went to Northern Ireland just before Christmas with England: we won the International Cup [against France, USA and the host nation], and so I’d say that’s my biggest achievement to date”.
Finnigan’s international debut, too, was of course an incredibly proud moment, if one tinged with nerves.
“When I first broke into the England scene I was really quite shy. I’m a shy girl anyway, but once I find my feet I start to get a bit louder. I was really new within the England team. A lot of the girls didn’t know who I was, and so for me to be playing against Poland [was fantastic]. I was in the team, and I started, alongside really established girls; I was really nervous. All my family came and watched me. I can’t really describe it. I think I played pretty well as well; I was happy with my performance. When you come off the pitch, the adrenaline that you’ve got, it is a non-stop buzz.”
Finnigan played with the England under-19s in the qualifiers for the European Championships in Sweden last April, but despite the fact England did not ultimately qualify for the tournament they won back in 2009, the trip was certainly worthwhile.
“That was a really valuable experience. As you go through the age groups with England, the [performance] level and the physicality really intensify. Playing with older girls that are playing regularly with the first team and having to try and match that at international level is something that I find difficult, but a really valuable experience.
“When I went to the qualifiers with the under-19s, I’d only just come back from injury, so for me it was a big step.”
The whole England setup makes regular use of St George’s Park in Staffordshire. The facility, built at a cost of £105million, came under scrutiny when it was opened in 2012, due to the seemingly extortionate cost. Finnigan, though, believes it was worth the significant outlay, a view seemingly shared by most that use the complex.
“It is amazing. Every time you go, you’ve got to remind yourself how lucky you are to use it. I’m there pretty much every month at the minute, just for training. The facilities are first class, and the pitches and the access you’ve got to everything is just amazing.
“It’s used by all the senior men’s teams, women’s teams and development squads. All the England teams have access to it, and I think local teams around there have access to it too. It’s a massive investment but it’s really good.”
The FA believes the campus will improve the state of the English game as a whole over the next decade or so. Finnigan, though, has more short-term targets in mind.
“For Everton, last year, I started to really establish myself in the team. I played pretty regularly, but we didn’t get promotion which was the aim. As a women’s side, and on the men’s side as well, Everton have got a really good history, but the last couple of years we got relegated to the second division. Our aim ever since then, and it’s the same this season, is to get promoted, because until we get promoted, we can’t go full time unfortunately. We’re still part time at the minute, so that’s the aim. Personally I just want to be as big a part of that as I can.”
This year in England, a ‘Spring Series’ will take place, allowing the women’s game to align with the men’s calendar, meaning fewer disparities between the two.
“It was always really difficult to try and explain to people how our season runs. Prior to this season, before the change, it was always run as a summer league, completely different to the men. I think the more similarities there is to the men’s game the better. Running alongside the men is only going to help.”
One glaring disparity between the men and women’s game is the need to study alongside playing professionally, due to the massive differences in salaries at the top level.
“It’s ridiculous [what the men earn]. I don’t think that gap will ever get closed because I just think it is too high. The women are getting paid more [than before] but again, it’s nothing compared to what the men get paid. That’s probably unfair; we train just as much as they do, but I suppose a lot of the women’s clubs share the same facilities as the men. We train at Finch Farm [the same facility as Everton’s male first team], and again that’s a massive step.”
Finnigan clearly isn’t failing to put the work in academically, despite the potential distraction of professional sport. She achieved straight A’s in her A-Levels, taken at Winstanley College in Wigan, and now studies Geography at the University of Liverpool. Collecting those results was not an easy task, however.
“I was away at a training camp at St George’s Park in August. I knew that was going to be the case for a while. Originally I was scheduled to go down to UCAS headquarters. I was going to open my results live on TV apparently, so I’m glad I got out of that really!
“When you’re not the one who is going to collect the results, it’s even more antagonising. My dad was the one who was going to get them, and he was constantly winding me up [about what grades I had got]. In the end I was happy.”
It is a delicate balance for Finnigan, training twice most days – including eight sessions a week with Everton – and attending lectures in between. When she is not playing football or in the gym, she is studying ecology, conservation and contemporary town planning.
“It’s always been difficult. This semester I’m in four or five days a week. It means I can’t always train in the daytime with Everton. We train at night-time as well but things like that mean I have to be extra disciplined and extra focused.
“If I just did football or I just did my education, my life would be boring, so I don’t mind it.”
The support from the University of Liverpool, she says, has been “brilliant.”
“I’m on a scholarship within the university, called an Elite Athlete Scholarship. Through that, I get access to the gym at university, which is massive for me. It means that in between lectures I can go and use it. I get extra add-ons, like if I need a new pair of boots or something, they can cover the cost. There’s also the strength and conditioning and physio support. They are really good, and because I’m often away with England, in the semester, I have to catch up with a lot so my tutors are really good with that.
“After university is finished, as much as I want to have a successful career [outside of football], my football career is what I really want to pursue. My degree is probably going to be a back-up for when my career is finished. Once I leave the University of Liverpool I won’t be as restricted to one club. I can maybe, if things aren’t working out at Everton, move around the country, and see what other clubs have got to offer. I’ve been tied at Everton for quite a while, and even though I love the club, I would like to try something outside of my comfort zone as well.”
One of the teams you might expect to be out of the question, given the time Finnigan has spent with Everton, would be rivals Liverpool, who she grew up supporting.
“If I’m being honest, there was a time a couple of years ago when I was pretty young, making the transition into the first team, and I considered going into Liverpool’s development squad and making a breakthrough there. I’d love to be able to wear the Liverpool shirt one day, but also I have got massive loyalties to Everton, so we’ll just have to see.”
Moving to America would be another option, something that a number of England players decide to do.
“It’s a really good lifestyle out there, and you’re studying alongside your sport. It’s something that I did consider, but I’m on a professional contract now at Everton, and once you’ve signed I don’t know how easy it is to go over there and join a university. One thing I always said was that if I didn’t study over there, I would like to go and play over there. I have a lot of friends over there, and they love it, so it’s something I’d definitely be willing to explore.”
One of those friends is Sandy MacIver, fellow England international, who moved to the US last summer, joining Clemson University to play there whilst studying.
“She’s my best mate. We played at Everton together for a couple of years. She’s in America now, on a scholarship, but we play at England together.”
The women’s game has come a long way in the last few years, and perhaps it won’t be too long before studying at the same time as playing is necessary, as with the men’s game.
“Over the next few years, it’s only going to get better in my opinion. If you look at the changes in the last ten years, it’s grown so much. People are able to play as a woman full-time, training every day, and that was never even an option even ten years ago, so it is only going to improve. It’s getting a lot more recognition in terms of the media, and games on the TV. The Women’s World Cup [in 2015, when England finished third] was a big success. That was a really positive step and made it really popular.
“I’m not stupid; the men’s game is clearly a lot faster than the women’s game and the women’s game is never going to be up there with the top level of the men’s game. But still, when I was playing with the boys, I was better than them. You always get discrimination, but I think that’s getting a lot less now.”
One key part of the salary disparity is the money made through televised games. Finnigan believes that the women’s game will only get more coverage in future – female presenters like Gabby Logan and Juliette Ferrington, who both work for BBC Sport covering shows like Match of the Day and Final Score, prove that equality within the game is improving.
“Even at my age, when you go to European Championships, that gets televised on Eurosport and things like that. There’s a lot more on BT Sport within the women’s season, however it’s not every weekend which would be the ideal thing. As more money gets pumped into it, and I think it will as we get more investment from abroad, a lot of players abroad want to come here, because at the moment in England it is the top league. I think it’s only going to get bigger.”
It feels like the women’s game is on the verge of a major breakthrough; increased participation and decreased discrimination can only be a good thing.
As Finnigan says to potential young players, “Don’t be afraid of the boys; just have fun, and always try your best, because you never know who is watching.”
The women’s game has come a long way in the last decade, and similar progress can be expected looking into the future. It will not be long before it is Finnigan herself inspiring others to get involved.