by Nick Mabey.
Congratulations to Southampton FC women on winning the FA Women’s National League Southern Division this week. They’ve been top all season and clinched the title with a couple of games to spare. The icing on the cake was being able to lift the trophy after beating Portsmouth in front of over 5000 fans at St. Mary’s. The team can now look forward to a play-off with Wolves (winners of the Northern Division) for the prize of promotion to the Championship (the second tier of the pyramid).
It’s been a magnificent season for the Saints right from the first match (a 3-1 victory over MK Dons) to the last. They’ve scored nine goals four times and eight goals twice. If I sound knowledgeable about this I’m really not. I’ve kept tabs on the team’s progress via Southampton FC’s website and a fans forum I’m a member of. I’ve threatened to go and watch them play a few times but sadly have missed out. I will almost certainly go next season when, if they get promoted, I’ll no doubt be regarded as some sort of plastic, fair weather fan.
My two credentials for being a fan of Southampton FC Women are obvious and obscure. The obvious one is the team are part of the club I love and so I can bask in their glory as I have done when the Academy sides have achieved success. More obscurely, my interest in women’s football in general, and Southampton in particular, started in the late 1970s when one of our PE teachers, Sue Lopez, played for them. Not only that, she was a star for them and spent pretty much her whole career with us, earning 22 England caps in the process (think Matt Le Tissier but without the twitter account).
Amazingly that Southampton team appeared in eleven consecutive FA Cup finals between 1970 and 1981, lifting the trophy eight times. That’s an astonishing achievement that is little known outside of the families of those that took part. The women’s game was very different back then, both on the pitch and in society’s opinions off it. The fact that an eight-times FA cup winning England international was working full time as a teacher says it all. And there were plenty who believed there was no place for women in football.
Thankfully those day have passed, at least for the vast majority, and women’s football is now part of the furniture. Southampton’s success in the 70s was matched by Doncaster Belles in the 80s and Arsenal in the 90s. This paved the way for more and more clubs fielding women’s teams, which in turn led to the inauguration of the Women’s Super League (WSL) in 2010. And this past decade has seen a consistent rise in quality, attention, money and professionalism in the game. Nowadays the big clubs in the men’s league mostly have teams dominating the WSL and the whole game seems in rude health.
At Southampton we are playing catch up. Strangely, the Southampton team that Sue Lopez played for still exists but it is not the team that has just lifted the National League Southern Division. I don’t pretend to understand how there can be two teams calling themselves Southampton but there are. In fact they played each other in a pre-season friendly last July, with Southampton FC beating Southampton Women’s 18-1. This gap in quality has grown rapidly over the last few years since Southampton FC integrated a new women’s set-up within the club. And it looks like growing ever more if the team achieve their promotion and get to the Championship, and one step away from a treasured place in the WSL. In many ways it’s a more exciting future than we can reasonably expect from our men’s side – but that sounds like sacrilege so perhaps I shouldn’t go there!
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