In an age when books on sport – and football in particular – are commonplace, it’s still rare to find one that focuses on the women’s game.
The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England won’t be the last on a subject that is gradually seeping into the consciousness of more open-minded football fans.
But what makes it important in the evolution of the sport’s perception is that it is written by somebody who not only knows how to write but who knows the game well; is a friend of female football but not oblivious to its inevitable shortcomings.
As a journalist, the last thing I want to read is a whitewash of a multi-faceted, fast-growing, big-bucks business at its top end and precarious, hand-to-mouth existence at the other.
The game has so much going for it. That’s why I chose to cover it and devote so much of my life to following it. But it’s not perfect, and my articles on Sent Her Forward reflect that.
Dunn, a much-respected journalist, whose expertise on the women’s game – and women in sport generally – is much sought-after, has strong views on elements of the development of women’s football: funding, fixtures, resources, treatment of players, agents and, probably above all, the Super League licensing system that militates against genuine meritocratic sporting competition.
That she is prepared to explore those issues, while maintaining a genuinely positive outlook, is what gives this book the integrity that some publications on the women’s game lack.
Super League pointers
Chronicling a year from summer 2015 to the dawn of summer 2016, using football events to help signpost the days, Dunn zig-zags across the football landscape, one minute rubbing shoulders with the England players who shone at the Canada World Cup, which in effect serves as the launch pad for the book, the next rubbing her hands to keep out the cold at a chilly Mile End Park as she follows the progress of the ambitious, recently rebranded Leyton Orient in one of England’s myriad regional leagues.
Her odyssey takes her all over the country and beyond, watching games, talking to participants, and to administrators, such as the FA’s director of women’s football, Kelly Simmons.
There are a few pointers for Brighton, from their predecessors as Premier League champions, Sheffield FC, about what to expect when they join the Super League next spring.
But there’s positive news from Simmons, who believes the club are well-equipped to cope with the demands.
There’s focus on the haves and have-nots of the women’s game and the key role that men’s football plays in its sister game’s destiny.
The words of David Parker, Birmingham City’s manager until just a few days ago, will ring true throughout women’s football – as many have found to their cost:
“If you look at the women’s game and the money they’re spending, business-wise it’s absolutely ridiculous… the game doesn’t make money… and the players now, what they’re demanding… it’s just not comparable to reality.”
As will the lament of Orient’s irrepressible boss, Chris Brayford.
The affable Brayford has always insisted to me that his “girls” talk more sense about the game than he does, but he succinctly hits the nail on the head when he explains to Dunn the challenges of taking his London & South East Regional League side to the next level.
“We’ve had the team to win promotion but we haven’t had the squad,” he says, echoing the sentiments I hear almost weekly around the grounds, from youth and county league to FAW Premier League.
While they’re at it, Brighton’s players might also want to read the fascinating views of Sheffield’s long-serving Lisa Giampalma, the player whose goal got her club into the Super League at Portsmouth’s expense, about why her joy was short-lived.
But unlike with so many sports books, there’s room for the keen amateur as well as the all-conquering football hero (or heroine).
A significant chunk – arguably yielding the more fascinating insights – focuses on the lot of women and girls who play football for fun – and certainly not for financial reward.
Some, like the former KIKK United, whose reinvention as Leyton Orient seems to have transformed their fortunes, dream of reaching the big time.
Others, like Crawley Old Girls, are juggling full-time jobs – often shift work – to make week-night training sessions and Sunday matches for the love of the game – with success and recognition (Crawley OGs have had both) an unexpected bonus.
I’m not sure this down-to-earth, matter-of-fact chronicle of life as a female footballer (or as one of the thousands of others whose unpaid efforts ensure that females actually have some football to play) will attract many new faces to the game.
But it will strike a chord with the hundreds of thousands up and down the country who already play, coach, organise, watch or follow via the limited – but growing – media coverage devoted to the game.
Lurching from subject to subject – often revisiting them deeper into the calendar – can make it difficult to follow at times.
But Dunn’s determination to canvass the views – but also the experiences – of such a diverse range of people involved in an even more diverse range of roles in the game is also one of the book’s great strengths.
Beginning at the 2015 Women’s FA Cup Final and ending, more or less at the 2016 showpiece event, Dunn finds herself –not by accident – in a rapidly changing world, where the immediate future of the Super League and its relationship with the rest of the game (the winter pyramid) are under consideration.
Like the accomplished journalist she is, Dunn met a staggeringly daunting deadline to have The Roar of the Lionesses in the shops by the one-year anniversary of the cup final that she features at the start of her chronicle.
But she narrowly missed out on a couple of developments, meaning she had to write carefully around some of the subject matter.
Brighton’s success in the Premier League play-off against Sporting Club Albion came agonisingly soon after she’d completed the book; the announcement that the Super League would switch to a winter timetable also escaped her clutches – indeed, Dunn bravely goes out on a limb in her book to suggest that a summer league remained the most obvious choice.
But on one of its most fascinating elements of all, Dunn’s timing was perfect.
She caught up with Sylvia Gore, one of the English game’s early pioneers, at a Super League match in March.
Gore, 71 at the time, might have played in a different era, but her knowledge was bang up to date. Having pursued her love of football in an altogether different time, one of glaring prejudice, she spoke with passion and exceptional knowledge about the modern game.
In her illuminating conversation with Dunn, she proved that while she might have been born half a century before many current players, she still had her finger on the pulse of how the game was evolving.
“The parents, they’d say, ‘Well, they’re not going to get anything out of football because they’re girls. If they look back at it now they’d have [eaten] their words because they can now achieve and look forward to what they can do.”
Sylvia Gore died in September, weeks after The Roar of the Lionesses was published.
The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England, by Carrie Dunn, published by Pitch Publishing