Julie Elliott: We must keep knocking down barriers in women’s football
What a summer it will be for women’s football. With the European Champions on home turf, we have already seen a record attendance at a Euros game in the Old Trafford opener that saw the Lionesses beat Austria. We have so much yet to come, not least the sell-out final at Wembley.
Women’s football already finds itself in an incredibly strong position, as it continues to expand and bring in new fans every single year. Last year’s Sky TV deal has opened the game up to millions of people who had never watched women’s sport before. We have Barclays expanding their sponsorship of the game to the top two leagues. And we have the incredible continued support of BBC Sport, which has been there from the start, ensuring that the game is accessible, and visible.
The change in the listed events regime will also make sure that the sport remains visible, whilst new opportunities for exposure continue to emerge as the sport grows.
It is also a great time to be a player. I was proud to announce in a speech earlier this year the change in contracts for women who play football in the top two divisions, as they finally receive long-awaited maternity support and long-term injury protection. FA Cup prize money has also been trebled, with money to be disproportionately directed towards the lower leagues to support clubs in developing sustainably. This will hopefully avoid issues in the future where clubs make a loss competing, having to fundraise in order to afford transport to the next round.
We have also seen record numbers of girls playing football. At the grassroots we have seen teams pop up all over the country – you only have to walk through a park to see young girls of all ages playing football, as I do often in Sunderland. As a city, we have produced so many top-quality footballers, like recent Lioness captain Steph Houghton and currently Lionesses Demi Stokes and Jill Scott. They are showing young girls today that they, too, could play for England.
It is also a great time to get behind campaigns like the FA’s #LetGirlsPlay campaign, which aims to give all girls equal access to play football in schools by 2024. Having the opportunity to play football is not just important for engaging in pathways to professional football, but for confidence, health and friendship – investment in grassroots sport is important to develop future Lionesses, but it is key to foster community too. I just want girls to have equal access to football as boys do. There should be no barriers to playing.
As we celebrate how far the sport has come, and the gains we have made, it is important to remember how we got here – how we got to 68,871 people sat inside Old Trafford watching the Lionesses. Ever since the FA lifted the 50-year ban on Women’s Football that came in – a year after Dick Kerr Ladies beat St Helens Ladies in front of a crowd of 53,000 – it has taken the hard work and dedication of so many players, coaches, referees, managers, volunteers, and, most importantly, fans, to get to where we are today.
In 1984, Nettie Honeyball, the captain of the second ever women’s team, asked the question to those who doubted her, “why not?... are women not as good as men? If men can play football, so can women”.
Today, we prove her right, and it is thanks to trailblazers like her that we find ourselves where we are today. Let’s celebrate it… and let’s hope the Lionesses win us some silverware.
Julie Elliott is the Labour MP for Sunderland Central and vice-chair of the Women’s Football All-Party Parliamentary Group.
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