Chelsea manager Emma Hayes has renewed her call to prioritise league matches over cup games, to help the women’s game get a serious foothold in mainstream UK sport.
Conscious that top-flight women’s football can lose momentum if there aren’t regular fixtures in the WSL, she took the opportunity after the 3-0 victory over Crystal Palace Women in the Conti Cup group-stage game on Sunday to call for either an expansion of the league, or a system of teams playing each other three times each season instead of twice.
That, she believes, will improve the credibility of the women’s game… even if it comes at the expense of the additional cup competitions which, she maintains, eat into precious weekend playing time.
“Listen, we’re here to win it,” she insisted when asked if she was taking the Continental Cup – the women’s version of the League Cup – seriously. “I can’t change [the system], but would I prefer a bigger games programme in the league? Yes!
“I think if [the Women’s FA] want the Continental Cup to exist, put it in midweek, like you do in the men’s game. Don’t make a Sunday game a Continental Cup game, it should be a league game. This is how we build our sport: league, league, league on Sundays! If you then want to retain the Conti Cup, put it in midweek. We can all play a lot of our younger players. That’s the key.”
Asked to give a number for the ideal size Women’s Super League, Hayes said: “I think we should play each other three times. Keep building as you are.”
Pressed to say how big the women’s top flight should be, she suggested a jump from 12 to 14 in 2020/21 would be about right. “I do think it’s worth taking another couple of teams up next year; rather than one, take two more sides up from the Championship,” she said.
There are currently a dozen teams in the WSL, so the season’s league programme has 22 matches. If every team played each other three times instead of twice, that would bump the league game tally up to 33. Each of the men’s Premier League teams, by comparison, plays 38 matches in a season. However, it would be a tricky task determining which of the women’s ‘extra’ fixtures would be home games, and which would be away.
If the WSL increased its size to 14 teams next season, that would instantly boost the league programme from 22 to 26 matches, giving four more playing Sundays in the year.
A WSL source told The Good Life, however, that the prospect of each team playing each other three times in the WSL was unlikely logistically as, although it would provide fans with more league games to watch, it would make life unsustainable for those clubs without large squads to draw on for cup matches, and could further skew the league to give an unfair advantage to clubs with the deepest pockets.
“Everyone knows my feelings on this,” said Hayes. “The FA, everybody, the whole world knows my feelings. I believe in selling the product, and the league is the product. And if we’re going to have Continental Cup games, at least put them in midweek and not on the weekend.
“Don’t have them sandwiched between league games, and then clubs have the choice to use more of their academy players, as opposed to putting [Conti Cup] games in prime time, which I think should be [used for] promoting league fixtures.
“We have to work towards a solution for the future so we keep all parties happy. As I’ve said a million times, I’m only interested in the progress of the game – not Chelsea, just progress.”
Chelsea next play West Ham at Rush Green on Sunday October 27 at 3pm in the WSL. The Irons pulled off a remarkable comeback in the Conti Cup last weekend. Two down to Spurs as the match entered stoppage time, the Hammers scored twice through Martha Tomas and Kenza Dali to achieve a draw. However, Spurs won 4-2 on pens, gaining an extra bonus point.
The Blues then have a third away game on the trot, against Lewes Town, before coming back to Kingsmeadow on Sunday November 17 to host Manchester United for the first time in the WSL in an eagerly anticipated encounter that seems certain to guarantee another 4,000+ crowd.