The first women’s football team I ever saw on television was the Hounslow Harriers.
Coached by a man cruelly overlooked in 90min‘s list of greatest ever Irish managers, they won silverware, played abroad and boasted a fearsome strike partnership who were attracting interest from the United States, largely because they were capable of breaking down even the mighty Chiswick. Also, as we all know, the utmost elite football teams always include alliteration.
The Hounslow Harriers were trailblazers. So why, when recalling great women’s football teams from the past, are they not mentioned in the same breath as Doncaster Belles, Southampton and Dick Kerr Ladies?
Because, the Hounslow Harriers aren’t real.
They are the side represented by Jess Bhamra and Jules Paxman and coached by Joe (no surname, like Pele?) in Bend It Like Beckham.
Released in 2002 – pre WSL, pre London Olympics, pre Lionesses making an impression at major tournaments – the film is a cult classic, absorbed countless times by any girl who grew up watching, playing and loving football.
For a whole generation of girls, the first female footballers they ever saw on TV were fictional.
This is why the recently announced major new WSL broadcast deal with Sky Sports and the BBC is so significant. The deal sees 44 WSL games each season shown live on Sky Sports – including a guaranteed 35% on Sky Sports Main Event – plus an additional 18 on BBC One or BBC Two.
Women’s football will be available to watch on mainstream, easily accessible channels, not tucked away on the red button or the FA Player like a niche indie band playing the Other Stage at midday at Glastonbury.
For children growing up today, seeing women’s football on TV will become normal. The players will be visible and households will know their names. This is so huge for changing attitudes towards a sport.
For years, men’s and women’s Wimbledon tennis highlights have been shown together. If there’s a big result in the women’s draw, this will get top billing. If there’s a big result in the men’s game, that will get top billing. The likes of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka are among the biggest names in sport, regardless of gender. And that’s partly thanks to the way women’s tennis is packaged and presented; it’s not inferior because it’s played by women, it’s just tennis.
By providing women’s football with a proper platform, one day that too might be just football.
The investment of £7m-per-year is also landmark, particularly during a global pandemic and all the financial implications that has brought.
Whenever female footballers have the sheer audacity to ask for anything, like fair access to training facilities (bloody feminists) the lovely folks of social media will always chime in with the argument that women’s football teams don’t bring in any revenue – even though seven Premier League clubs were run at a loss during the 2017/18 season. The £7m investment is a trust in the game as a product, and gives clubs the opportunity to prosper financially.
But beyond the money and the marketing opportunities, what is so key is the visibility.
While a generation of girls grew up with Jess and Jules as the first female footballers that they could name (although in a fictional film about female football, a woman still couldn’t land a coaching role), poor Jess was left with ‘that skin head boy’ David Beckham as her role model as she didn’t know women’s football existed.
Thanks to the TV deal, kids today can instead grow up saying, “anyone can cook aloo gobi, but who get about the pitch like Jill Scott?”