How dominant City could help England to World Cup glory
Jen Offord went to Manchester City to investigate how the Women's Super League club’s commitment to excellence could propel the Lionesses to World Cup glory.
With the England women’s team’s all-singing all-dancing squad announcement last month, anyone who was able to drag themselves away from the host of stars lining up to assist in this, will probably have noticed a recurring theme in the squad list. Eight of Phil Neville’s “world class” squad hail from one club – Manchester City – along with a couple of the club’s former players, Lucy Bronze and Toni Duggan, now playing outside of the English league.
The women’s game is currently going from strength to strength globally, but especially in England where the national side are gaining in popularity, in part thanks to its differences to the men’s game. Central to this growth is Manchester City Women's Football Club, a side that has only existed in anything like it’s current guise since 2014.
The rise and rise of Women’s Football
Manager of City’s women’s team, Nick Cushing, draws the obvious link between the rising popularity of women’s football and the improved product on the pitch, arising from increasing investment in the game at domestic level. It’s an investment City were able to make from said relaunch in 2014.
“The game has grown in every area,” Cushing says.
"From when we came in 2014, we were the first professional team to have a full squad of players that would replicate the way that we work as a football club, be that a men's team or a women's team."
“We had our players coming in eating breakfast together, training 19 hours a week, full gym programmes, full team of staff, sport scientists, physios, doctors, head coach, goalkeeping coach; not every team in the league had that opportunity.
“Since then a lot of other teams decided to go professional and that culminated last season with the league being completely professional. We've definitely seen an increase in the ability of the players, whether it be physically or technically the product on the pitch has become a better product to watch in my opinion, in terms of style of football, intensity of football and that's a direct result of players training more and being on the training pitch and in the gyms longer.”
It would perhaps be easy to be cynical about the achievements of the notoriously wealthy club, owned by Emirati royalty, and dismiss them as privileges bought through first-rate facilities and players. However, with whispers that last year’s relaunch of the domestic league structure was largely designed to force the hands of certain bigger clubs to step up their game on the women’s side, it’s an investment City were willing to make – as well as able to – far earlier than many others.
Gavin Makel, head of women’s football at the club says the move to improve their women’s team was about doing what was right, as opposed to spotting a smart future pay-off.
Head of Women's Football Gavin Makel watches as Manchester City's Karen Bardsley signs a contract extension with Manchester City Women's Football Club, at City Football Academy, Manchester.Getty Images
“We're very much a club about giving opportunities to everyone whether you’re male or female, we have a big disability programme within our foundation as well - that's very successful,” Makel says. “So it wasn’t necessarily looking at it from a commercial angle, it was more about - we should be doing this, this is the right thing to do, because it is part of who we are as an organisation.”
Though he does recognise – as many are now starting to, as evidenced by recent investment announcements by high street brands such as Boots and Barclays – that there might just be a pay-off somewhere further down the line.
“But the other side is that we recognised the next evolution within football was women's football and we wanted to be a part of that. There are commercial upsides, of course, but we're still living in a world where the commercial growth of the women's game has got a long way to go before we're anywhere near that being sustainable.”
However it’s not just about investment, a cursory glance at City’s Women’s squad list indicates a clear commitment to developing homegrown talent, and not just because of the marketability of English players thanks to the high quality of the domestic structure.
The marketability of English talent is also demonstrated by the England squad, five of whom play outside of the WSL – a far higher proportion than of those in the men’s national side.
“As a club we have a strategy that we want to develop our own football players,” Cushing says.
"If you look at our squad you don't need to be a genius to work out that we wanted to develop English players, the majority of our squad is English and the majority of our players that are English are playing for the England team."
Additionally, City and England midfielder Keira Walsh echoes those sentiments expressed by her boss, but also thinks her domestic club’s style is well suited to that of her national side.
“I think the majority of our squad is English and I think that's something City probably pride themselves on is recruiting English players, so I think that's probably where it goes hand in hand with the England squad selection.
"I think Nick’s coaching philosophy is probably similar to Phil's in a sense…I think for some players it is an easy transition into the England squad."
She adds: “Nick does take pride in bringing through young English players and giving them a chance.”
Walsh herself is a lifelong City supporter, breaking into the team in 2014 at the time of the relaunch. Though it’s likely to become increasingly difficult to get the break she benefitted from at City.
“I think it's a lot harder for young players now to break into a first team because of how much the women's game has changed,” she says, going back to the increasingly competitive nature.
“A lot of players are wanting to come to play in this league and eventually I believe that it will probably be the most competitive league in the world in terms of every team challenging for the trophy.”
In terms of the experience of being a City player, Walsh believes the way the club treats its female players has made a huge difference.
“It definitely makes a difference when you're in and around the Academy players and the first team are just across from us. I think it does make a difference in a sense that when you do come into work everyday you do feel like you're being taken seriously as a footballer,” she says.
“We get the same opportunities as a lot of the boys and I think that's something that does attract a lot of players to City and having such a good stadium across from the training ground - the stadium and the pitch is second to none and hopefully after the World Cup we'll get a lot more fans down to the stadium.”
Those sentiments are echoed by teammate and Scotland international, 23-year-old forward Caroline Weir, with the two set to face each other in their opening World Cup fixture.
“It's a great club and it's definitely at the top end of the women's game - it's leading the way in so many different ways. The facilities are great, the overall professionalism, and that they include the women in everything they do,” Weir says.
“As a player it is such a great environment to be in especially with the way women's football is going it's definitely helping do that.
“When you're at a club like City you are treated as an equal and you can tell the passion they have for growing the game, pushing the boundaries for women's football as a whole.”
This is something that the club clearly pride themselves on, and Makel says that the platform they have given their female players has helped to drive interest in the team, which is evident in their matchday attendance figures.
While the average attendance across the WSL top flight’s 11 clubs is 937, though admittedly not as high as Chelsea Women’s average of 1925, average attendance at City’s Academy stadium was 1504 for the 2018/19 season.
Makel says: “By putting our women's team alongside our men's team, the more we do that, we're normalising it.
“Internally over the last five years we've normalised it. We make sure that our women are visible in all our channels and in everything that we do.”
Caroline Weir and Claire Emslie of Manchester City Women hold the FA Women's Continental Cup and the SSE Women's FA Cup trophy on stage during the Manchester City Teams Celebration Parade on May 20, 2019 in Manchester, England.Getty Images
At the World Cup itself, Weir says all is fair in love and football and with City also accounting for several members of the Scotland squad, there will be some familiar faces in Nice on June 9.
“There's not really bigger games you can play as a Scottish player so it's exciting and it's going to be a great occasion obviously,” says Weir of hers’ and her national team’s World Cup debut.
“I don't think we'll think too much about being City teammates.”
Given its Scotland’s first qualification for the Women’s World Cup, Weir says they focus first and foremost on getting out of the group stage. Though for Neville’s Lionesses, the expectations are far higher.
Walsh, 22, also making her way to her first World Cup says: “I think the feeling is that we're going there to win.”
Having finished third at the tournament in 2015, Walsh says: “I think the girls set the standard last World Cup and we're hoping to do one better this World Cup.”
Regardless of the level of expectation on his players, Cushing thinks they will be well placed to deal with it.
"We've got a really high expectation and responsibility on our players to continue to win for City and they continue to deliver for us so I can't see any problem in the expectation levels for those players."
He adds: “Phil [Neville] and his players have been very forward in saying that they want to win the World Cup, but I also think that they're very realistic in the sense that they know it will be a challenge.”
There are expectations outside the World Cup too, or rather with regards to what it might do for the women’s game, following the surge in popularity experienced after the last World Cup.
“I hope that there is almost a bigger influence than 2015,” Cushing says.
“One thing we experienced after England getting to the World Cup semi-finals, was a really good feeling around the national team and around the women's game and I just hope that we can almost embrace that but continue to develop the game. More fans, better players, all of these things will make the women's game better.”
Meanwhile Walsh is excited about the product reaching a wider audience at last.
“As people actually watch it hopefully they will see that it is a competitive game and there is a lot of skill involved, and we have had to prove a lot of people wrong,” she says.
“But I think more people are starting to see that women's football is a great game and hopefully the World Cup will show that.”