At first glance, the ladies’ set up at West Ham has strong links to the famous club they play for. From using the London-based training ground and club kits, to the team name they represent every time they step onto the pitch. But beyond that, the links between the ladies’ and men’s teams at West Ham United seem to fade away all too readily. West Ham Ladies train in the evening, well after the men who use the facilities during the daytime. For most ladies playing football, evening training is almost a must as they juggle families and jobs with playing football but you can’t help but feel slightly like they are pushed aside, training when the whole place is almost shut down.
But the Premier League South side are by no means the only ladies’ team in the same situation, and the downsides of playing the women’s game seem to have no effect on the ladies’ love for the game and the club. Goalkeeper Nikki Duncan joined West Ham last year and despite having to travel down to London from her home in Northampton, she seems happy and proud to be playing for West Ham. “This is where I will probably be for the rest of my career because you have got great management and great girls,” she says. The mood around the training ground is relaxed and happy as the ladies look to push on from a successful season last year and win promotion to the Women’s Premier League, now the second tier of the women’s game behind the Women’s Super League (WSL).
The WSL is a major change for the women’s game at the top level but despite the increased interest drawn to women’s football thanks to the WSL and Women’s World Cup, the ladies admit that the lower leagues don’t seem to have been affected by this successful summer for the women’s game. But they don’t only have praise for a new format that could potentially both damage and enhance their league and below.
“The only thing I don’t like about it is that the WSL is for the better teams and for us, I love playing against the better teams,” says Hammers midfielder Stacey Little. “The only way we can get those teams now is in the FA Cup. If we were to get promoted into the Premier League we wouldn’t get to play the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea and I think that is the disappointing thing.
“Everyone wants to play the best to show you can step up. We can get promoted into the Premier League but we can’t get promoted into the WSL. If the FA wanted to do that I can’t see why they couldn’t have put money into all of the leagues. Maybe they could have changed the structure of the leagues so you have the Premier League, Championship and a Division One because they have put the money into this one league and left the rest of us out of it.”
Whilst the idea of not having to pay to play football (a luxury for some of the better paid players in the semi-professional WSL league) is an idea that Duncan welcomes, she adds, “If a teams wins the Premier League then I don’t think it is recognised as much now because all the best teams are in the Super League.”
As is too often the case with women’s football, money is never far off the agenda. Little is a key player for the Hammers and a West Ham fan but admits, “The biggest thing in women’s football is the lack of funds.” By plying their trade in the Premier League South the ladies have some long trips to contend with, including away games at Plymouth and Portsmouth, something that the players have to pay for themselves. Little adds, “When you tell people actually you don’t get paid, it’s all out of our own pocket and we do it for the love of the game a lot of people are shocked.” And the depths of which the game struggles financially, even in the third tier of women’s football in this country is shocking. For any young girls dreaming of playing football at a good level Duncan warns, “money wise you have to be prepared to give everything just for the love of the game.”
Whilst ladies’ clubs often struggle in the shadow of their male counterparts, Little adds that confidence in your own ability and dedication to the sport is key. “You have to believe in yourself, if you haven’t got the confidence as soon as you step out onto that pitch it will go wrong. When I have been coming back from injury it took me ages to get back into my stride again and I would get so frustrated with myself but you have got to be dedicated, you have got to want it 100 per cent,” she says. With the time and money most female football players in the lower leagues put in, few could doubt their dedication.
But the continuing development of the women’s game in this country has opened many doors for young girls interested in getting involved in the most popular team sport for women in England. Academies and centre of excellences are becoming more established and this is a route that the ladies at West Ham have a lot of praise for. “A bit more is going into the centre of excellences. Especially this year I know they have cut them down to make them more elite so they can focus getting the players to a better standard. So I think in the next couple of years you will start to see a bigger difference in the abilities of different squads,” Duncan says.
The long-term success of the women’s game will inevitably come down to the young players breaking through now and Little is excited by the youth set up at West Ham. “The reserves have got a very strong squad and some of them have come up through the U16s. It stems through the younger age groups now so over the next few years I think you will see the women’s game improve a lot more again,” she says.
West Ham striker Kelley Blanchflower spent time in an academy, developing her game with Arsenal Ladies before making the move to West Ham at the beginning of this season. Whilst she admitted the pressure is understandably a lot higher at a club like Arsenal, she has not let the step down the leagues effect her game and has already netted 11 times in her first 12 games for the Hammers.
For manager Julia Setford, money is also an issue she has to contend with in her aim to guide West Ham Ladies to promotion. Transfers are commonplace within the men’s game but for women’s teams like West Ham, bringing in new players might not always be so easy. “It is difficult because other teams in our league have a lot more funding than we have and then can offer travel, expenses and free kit but our girls obviously have to pay to play for us,” Setford says.
But the lack of funds is by no means restricted to West Ham and a lot of lower league teams often struggle with the financial pressures. “You end up in the combination league with teams that have to fold because they don’t have the money, so it ends up going from 12-13 teams to around eight. It becomes pointless and then you are going to lose decent players,” reveals Duncan.
But despite the financial concerns that continue to plague the women’s game, the ladies at West Ham seem positive about the season ahead. Little says, “our main aim is promotion this season. Last season was a major disappointment as we were sitting at the top of the league for a lot of the season and it was our own fault we didn’t get promoted. It will be difficult to improve on last season because we did so well but I think we have definitely got stronger.”
And Setford agrees. “Last year we had a flying start, if anything maybe a bit too good. We were winning and we got too comfortable. When we got to Christmas we didn’t have such a strong squad. We lost a few players and girls had other commitments as well but if anything it has reversed itself this year. The team that won the league last year had exactly the same start as we have so it’s still early days but I think we have a good chance this year.” Despite enjoying a mixed start to the season with three wins out of their first six league fixtures, West Ham currently sit second in the table.
Whilst the issues over money and concerns for the futures of the lower leagues look unlikely to go away, the success and love for women’s football is clear at West Ham. They may be too distant from the men’s team that they share their name with but West Ham Ladies will be looking to replicate their male counterparts and win promotion to the Premier League this season.
Do you think that the lower leagues of women’s football need more money? Do clubs like West Ham Ladies need to be connected to the male teams more? If you want to read more of my bite size, 140 character views and thoughts follow me on Twitter @jennyk5
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