“It has not been handled in the right way,” said Chelsea’s Magdalena Eriksson. “When you make a mistake, you always have to look back and see what you could have done better.”
Eriksson said there should “absolutely” be some sort of inquiry into why Chelsea’s Women’s Super League (WSL) game against Liverpool went ahead.
A pitch inspection at 9.30am after freezing conditions overnight and a confirmation tweet at 10.16am — the game was on. Huge white sheets covered the pitch like billowing clouds and the sound of heaters and blowers echoed around Kingsmeadow. Warm-ups were delayed but kick-off went ahead at 12.30pm, only for it to be postponed six minutes later due to player safety concerns.
Sunday was an embarrassment for the WSL and summed up the gaping holes in the infrastructure of women’s football. The league prides itself on being the most competitive league, attracting the best players, supported by a landmark broadcast and sponsorship deal, and yet it was a day in which the WSL showed all its frailties. The fundamentals of facilities and league-wide management do not do its players justice.
Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema and Beth Mead and Chelsea’s Fran Kirby and Kadeisha Buchanan were just some of the players who demanded better for their game on social media.
“We’ve got to take our game seriously,” said Chelsea manager Emma Hayes. “We can have blowers and little pitch tents, but it’s not going to be enough. It’s -1C. It’s the right decision.
“No game in the women’s game at this top level should be cancelled. We need undersoil heating everywhere. We don’t live in Barbados.”
At 3.30am, Liverpool fans awoke to be up in time for the club coach leaving at 5am. They were already halfway into their journey when news came in of a pitch inspection.
The league had deployed pitch covers and heat blowers as a form of protection to ensure the game could be broadcast. There is always an effort to put on games owing to the minimal wriggle room in a congested calendar.
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Referee Neil Hair conducted an inspection at 9.30am, walking the surface to see if the field was playable. It is the referee’s decision, not the clubs’, to determine if a match should go ahead.
At that time, there was optimism about the game being played — but that was not supported by the FA’s guidance to the media that stated the pitch was not deemed playable. Removing the covers, raking the frost and using the blowers delayed the warm-up to give the pitch the best chance to thaw.
According to FA guidance, during the warm-up, the referee deemed the surface playable. The definition of ‘playable’ seems to be a grey area — the clearest indicator is whether a football stud can enter the grass. Then it comes down to judging whether the surface puts anyone at risk. Officials go through regular training around the suitability of grounds and this year have discussed processes in person followed by online sessions.
Liverpool manager Matt Beard, however, said: “You can clearly see in the warm-up, it didn’t take a stud, the far side was frozen.”
The side nearest the Kingsmeadow dugouts faces south east and does not get any morning sunshine.
“I said to the referee that we had to move our warm-up because it wasn’t safe,” he added.
“I could feel that it was definitely frozen in certain places,” said Chelsea’s Eriksson. “It’s not ideal but we just get on with it. We try to do our best and leave the decisions to the decision-makers. Unfortunately, the decision was made way too late.”
Liverpool’s managing director Russ Fraser sent the FA an email before kick-off expressing their concerns about playing the game but it was out of their hands. Liverpool captain Niamh Fahey went to speak to the referee directly before the game but kick-off went ahead.
Temperatures, however, remained around freezing level and the pitch deteriorated. Hayes said it was an “ice rink” for players while Beard described them as “bambi on ice”, slipping and sliding. It was another anterior cruciate ligament injury waiting to happen. The FA, which governs the league and the England national team, should be insisting on a certain pitch standard, not least because its international players are bidding to win the World Cup in six months. Both teams’ captains told the referee they were not happy and in the sixth minute, the match was abandoned after several players slipped.
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Questions arose as to why kick-off was not delayed like Everton’s WSL game against West Ham but neither club put in such a request to the FA’s executive operational committee. Some felt temperatures were not going to rise while others believed there was pressure from the BBC to maintain its broadcast slot. The BBC insisted it was not part of the decision, however, telling The Athletic: “There was no pressure applied by the BBC to get the game played. The safety of the players is always paramount.”
It was not just the fact that the game was called off but the farcical manner in which the situation was handled. The FA put out a statement explaining the reasons for the referee’s decision three hours and 23 minutes after the postponement.
Hayes lamented the absence of the league’s governing body at the game. “They need to be at our games to execute those decisions,” she said.
Sutton United’s 3pm home game on Saturday, five miles from Kingsmeadow, was postponed. Elsewhere in the WSL, Brighton’s match at home to Arsenal and Tottenham against Leicester were also called off because of frozen pitches but at least they made their decisions before kick-off.
Hayes called for undersoil heating, which is understandable, but a massive expense. Who would pay for that league-wide? Would that be a barrier to promoted teams if it became a league requirement?
Why didn’t the women play at Stamford Bridge? There is a 19-day gap when it is not being used but the pitch is being renovated. The key issues, however, are expense and logistics. It costs around £500,000 to put on a women’s game at Stamford Bridge, 20 times more than hosting at Kingsmeadow. It is not a money-making practice, yet.
The question is, how are you going to grow a fanbase in the women’s game if you postpone a game six minutes after kick-off? Hayes’ promise of a free hotdog at the rearranged fixture — for which Sunday’s tickets will be valid — cannot compensate for the disappointment.
Many fans were annoyed the decision was made so late.
“I’m just livid, absolutely furious,” said Liverpool fan Susan Logie. “It would never happen in a men’s game.”
They had only arrived 15 minutes before kick-off due to an incident on the motorway and had to wait at the blue gates for their driver to have their required break. Such a quick turnaround was not expected.
“I’m not sure we’ll make the journey next week (for the Chelsea vs Liverpool FA Cup game),” said Peter, a Liverpool fan who had come with his young daughter:
“This is our first away game, so it’s not the ideal start.”
“They need to start thinking about looking after the women’s teams and women’s supporters as well,” added Jo Goodall, founder of Liverpool Women’s Supporters Club.
This single incident, which made a professional league look tinpot, is part of a bigger picture. Discussions need to be had to prevent clubs, players and fans being put in this position.
Tens of millions of pounds have been invested in the men’s game over decades. In a world where senior female footballers earn a fraction of male academy players, clubs have to start investing and committing to sustainable long-term solutions.
Do all WSL clubs install underfloor heating? Or share men’s stadiums? Or, despite the potential injury risk, use artificial turf? Everyone agrees that women’s football deserves better. It’s time to show it.
(Other contributors: Caoimhe O’Neill, Florence Lloyd-Hughes; top photo: Zac Goodwin/PA Images via Getty Images)
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