“I didn’t realise how tough it would be,” says former England international Karen Carney. “It was one of the best and most challenging things I’ve done, but if you asked me to do it again, I’m not sure I would. But I don’t ever regret doing it.”
Carney, who represented her country 144 times, won trophies with Arsenal, Birmingham City and Chelsea and is now a highly regarded pundit, was appointed by the UK government to chair an in-depth review into women’s domestic football following England’s 2022 European Championship success.
Although there was some crossover in terms of leadership, chairing the review was a very different experience from the commentary gantries and TV studios to which Carney has grown accustomed as she has established her media career in recent years.
“Not at the time, no,” says Carney, when asked by The Athletic if she enjoyed the process. “(But) Now, I look back and think about what I learned, who I learned from, it’s probably one of the proudest things I’ve done.”
The review meticulously examined issues from corporate structure to professional playing environments, from fan experiences to grassroots football. Carney had meetings with industry experts and, supported by the Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) and the Football Association (FA), collated evidence from 98 contributors as well as former and current players.
“I learned that I could take on a lot of work,” says Carney, 36. “I also learned not to take on that amount of work again.”
Although Carney says there were “great” conversations with many people wanting to push the women’s game forward, there were equally “tough” moments. Having been in the industry since she was eight, Carney was fully aware of the barriers that women’s football was, and still is, facing. But as chair of the review, she found it difficult to detach herself from her lived experience.
“It was hard, because hearing everyone tell you about the obstacles, I had been through that,” she says. “It was really hard to sit there and listen to it. The amount of stuff that was thrown at me, it was a lot. To take that on and to try to decipher it all was sometimes quite challenging. It was a raw experience. Sometimes that was upsetting because I’m a part of that industry.”
One line of the multi-page review reads: “Players painted a picture of a game that is striving for success, but struggling to offer a working environment that fully protects and supports those working in it.”
Players from England’s top two divisions said they were treated “like second-class citizens” by their clubs. At one team in the second-tier Championship, “bin bags were used as curtains in changing rooms”. At another, it was “so cold in their unheated facility that players needed to wear a winter coat indoors to do match analysis”.
In its written submission for the review, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) says: “Pursuit of a career within the women’s game is likely to still be viewed as a financial risk.”
Carney says she did not have doubts in the role of chair, counted on a “vast” team and drew upon “previous failings as a leader” in her football career to guide her. She always tried to focus on solutions, rather than being problem-oriented — a mindset instilled from role models throughout her life.
“That’s when you lean on your team,” she says, speaking at a Women in Football entrepreneur mentorship programme event supported by Xero, an official partner of England football and the England senior women’s team. “‘How do we fix this? Where is our information coming from? How do we improve it?’.”
In December, the government backed every one of Carney’s recommendations to raise standards in domestic women’s football. An implementation group, consisting of key decision-makers across the industry, will be responsible for taking forward the review’s recommendations and will meet in March and again in July.
There were concerns, however, that the work of Carney and her team would go to waste, with nobody holding stakeholders to account.
Thangam Debbonaire, the opposition Labour party’s shadow secretary of state for DCMS, criticised the Conservative government this month for “failing women’s football with a complete lack of detail” about how the implementation group would work, and asked the secretary of state for DCMS, Lucy Frazer, if she would chair the group to fulfil the recommendations from Carney’s review.
On Monday, it was confirmed in parliament that Frazer will chair that first meeting in March, which should help drive accountability to deliver the recommendations. It is still unclear how the meetings will work and who will be involved in them.
“I said it from the very beginning — I didn’t want this to sit on the shelf,” Carney says. “All the work, all the people that took their time to speak to us, all the evidence that we’ve collated, all the people that have gone before and are going to be the future of the women’s game, we have to make this work.
“It takes an army to keep things moving. It shouldn’t rely just on me.”
(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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