Journalist and academic Carrie Dunn has delved into areas previously unexplored in sports books, focusing on developments in a year of women’s football in England.
Dunn, a freelance writer, occasional broadcaster and journalism lecturer, has come up with an insightful account of the lives of footballers, managers, coaches and administrators in a time of great upheaval in the women’s game.
She spoke to Sent Her Forward about her hopes, fears and expectations before, during and since writing it.
What motivated you to write the book? What did you hope to achieve?
I wanted to write a book to chronicle a “year in the life” of women’s football. There’s been far too little literature on the women’s game, and I thought picking up on the 12 months after England’s bronze medal at the Women’s World Cup would make for a great story.
Who is it aimed at?
Obviously people who are already fans – but I think it’s fair to say that the stories of these people will be interesting to anyone with a passing fascination with sport.
Why did you include a grassroots element when you could have focused on the more readily recognisable Super League teams and international players?
An excellent question and one that I thought I’d be asked more, actually, because since the WSL has launched there’s been a worrying detachment between the élite and the rest of the pyramid. It’s a marketing strategy, of course, but it allows for a certain amount of glossing over what happens below the top two divisions.
We might have a dozen clubs in England with fully professional women’s teams, but everyone else remains an enthusiastic amateur, making scores of sacrifices every day for the game they love, and I think that’s important to note. It’s also important to see how the pyramid links up – or doesn’t.
The book looks at the rolling impact of England’s relative success at the World Cup: do you feel that in reality it has been as significant as was predicted – and is there any tangible evidence that grassroots football is benefiting?
No and no. I suspected it wouldn’t be (one of the reasons I wanted to write the book, to be honest), partly because of the scheduling and the ever-troublesome WSL fixture list, but also because the media coverage is so inconsistent. If media outlets had continued to cover women’s football in a consistent fashion after that bronze medal, maybe that wave would have been ridden.
What actually happened was that attendances in the WSL rocketed the week that the Lionesses came back, and then nothing. It doesn’t help that the Women’s World Cup was on one channel with the WSL on another, though.
Grassroots clubs are working inordinately hard, and I get the feeling that there’s certainly more interest in women’s football at that level. I think it might take a generation to see the full impact. The Lionesses often say they’re there to inspire a generation. Let’s hope those girls who watched the tournament in 2015 will be leading the way in 10 years’ time.
It was an amazingly fast turnaround from completing the book to publication. Impressively so. How much of a problem was that? And, indeed, what was the reason for publishing it so promptly?
In practical terms, it was hard work, but fun. The reason is nothing more exciting than my publisher wanted the book to be out in August! That left me with an end-of-May deadline, which was doable – I wanted the book to span FA Cup Final 2015 to FA Cup Final 2016 – but again tough slog.
Regarding the timing, I seem to recall the FA made an announcement about the switch to a winter timetable – something you address in the book – at about the time the book was published. What were your feelings when you realised you’d missed the opportunity of including that in your work by such a narrow margin?
I think you also had to write around the outcome of the 2016 Women’s Premier League play-off, which determined that Brighton would join next season’s WSL, as the winter season had not quite finished by your deadline. Did that cause you headaches?
That’s right to both. To be honest, you could keep delaying and delaying because things are always changing with women’s football. I could have sat tight and waited for the new women’s football strategy that will lay the groundwork for 2017-18, for example. But it was never intended to be an encyclopaedic account of what was happening and what will happen – it’s a snapshot in time.
While the book promotes women’s football, you don’t shy away from some of the more controversial elements of the game. Was it important for you to touch on subjects that might not have gone down so comfortably among those who want to further the cause and popularity of women’s football – indeed, possibly undermine it?
It WAS important for me to be honest and accurate. I think those of us who cover women’s football often find ourselves caught in a dilemma – we want to promote the game we love, of course, but there are also less-than-ideal elements of it that need to be talked about and improved.
I did know when I was writing it that maybe some of it wouldn’t be a comfortable read for some, but I’ve done my very best to present a balanced picture of both the great things and the not-so-good that we find in our game.
There are even suggestions that women’s football in England, at élite level, is beginning to absorb some of the characteristics of the Premier League, in terms of greed, disproportionate influence, TV’s interests before those of fans, the aforementioned involvement of agents. Is that what you believe – and if so, can anything be done to curb this?
To an extent. I don’t think it’s motivated by the same things, though. I think a lot of the problems we find at élite level are driven by the best intentions. I think the WSL has expanded too much and too quickly without consideration of some of the knock-on effects, and with the hope that just mapping on structures that have worked in men’s football (eg the TV broadcasts) would be fine in the women’s game.
The licensing system is entirely alien to English football culture and I think that was expanded too quickly as well; I was really interested to see Baroness Campbell’s announcement this week about the licences being renewable yearly now. I wonder what kind of impact that will have.
Since your book, of course, the FA has addressed the issue of relegation – though still not ruled out completely the possibility of less successful clubs joining by meeting non-playing criteria to earn a licence. How do you feel about this development? Does it go far enough?
I’m not against clubs having money, obviously. I do have concerns about women’s clubs being entirely financially dependent on a men’s club. We’ve seen far too often that if the men’s club falls into monetary difficulties, the women’s team will be the first cut adrift.
I also think that a lot of women’s teams (including those in the WSL) would benefit hugely from a better structure behind the scenes, most obviously in terms of media and marketing. I do feel a touch troubled by the idea of privileging non-playing criteria over what happens on the pitch, but perhaps I’m old-fashioned.
Is there a danger that women’s football will ape another aspect of the men’s game – that teams coming down from the relatively lucrative WSL set-up will be the ones best equipped financially to go straight back up? Is there a danger that the gulf that many believe currently exists will become even greater?
Yes, I think so. That’s another reason I’d have liked to have seen a slower expansion of the top two divisions.
Finally, you’re very knowledgeable about sport (and women’s football in particular). What did you learn about the game that you didn’t already know in the course of writing this book?
I’d say the sheer commitment of people involved in the game out of the spotlight. I knew theoretically how important volunteers are to keep the sport running, but it wasn’t till I saw it all in practice that I really understood it. That kind of commitment is something I admire so much, and it was a privilege to get to know them.
The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England, by Carrie Dunn, published by Pitch Publishing