Last month the Women’s Super League (WSL) in England secured a lucrative television deal with Sky Sports to establish itself as the premier women’s professional sports competition in the world. This seemed light years away when the league kicked-off on a sandy pitch in South London ten years ago.
West Ham United defender, Gilly Flaherty will go down in the record books as the scorer of the first WSL goal on April 13, 2011. Then playing for Arsenal, Flaherty’s 35th-minute strike was the only goal of a match away to Chelsea but speaking to me ahead of the 10th anniversary of that day, she reveals to me the players could not imagine where the league would be today.
“For us, as players, even then, we never once thought we’d be professionals later on down the line. We just thought that it was going to be a chance for us to grow the women’s game, get more fans and more people watching. There was the excitement of the unknown as well.”
After initially delaying the launch of the Women’s Super League by a year in 2010 – “a prudent measure in the current global financial downturn” – the English Football Association (FA) aimed to give the women’s game the same commercial shot-in-the-arm created by the advent of the men’s Premier League in 1992 with the FA Chief Executive Ian Watmore describing the formation of an “elite league” as a “top priority” in February 2010. Sixteen clubs applied to take up the eight places in a summer league which sought to exploit a perceived gap in the English soccer market as Flaherty recalls. “We knew that they wanted to change the league format and go to a summer league as well. It was exciting, it was interesting to see how the league was going to grow.”
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The first match was broadcast live on ESPN and Flaherty remembers the media drive ahead of the game. “There was a lot of promotion work. We had FA shoots as well that we went to at the start of the season. I think if the league were to be started now, there would be a lot more media and a lot more publicity about it. I don’t think back then the players really had an idea how powerful the league was going to be for women’s football.”
2,510 fans attended the first match on a Wednesday evening at Imperial Fields, the home of men’s non-league side Tooting & Mitcham. It was the sort of crowd figure Flaherty and Arsenal only witnessed at Cup finals. “There was a big hype, it was also a London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea. The FA really pushed, giving out complimentary tickets to schools, I think a singer performed. It was a fantastic atmosphere.”
Despite the big build-up, playing at the end of the men’s season created new problems for women’s players such as the poor standard of the playing surfaces as Flaherty explains, “I remember walking out and there was this group of us standing around a big pile of sand in the middle of the pitch. We thought “oh!”, everyone’s hyped this game up and this is what people are going to see us playing on, it’s not going to be a great advertisement for women’s football”.
Defender Flaherty was an unlikely candidate to create goalscoring history but her moment for the ages came from a set-piece. “We went up for a corner and I was at the back post. Kim Little was on the ball, I don’t think she caught it properly. It come in really low, Ellen White just opened her legs and it went through her. To be brutally honest, I wasn’t paying any attention at the back post. Before I knew it, the ball was in front of me, I remember just sticking a foot at it, the outside of my foot, and it went back across the goal into the top corner.”
“I ran off, I had Jennifer Beattie next to me and we all ran to Kim and Ellen. I didn’t understand the significance, I don’t score a lot, so for me it was just seen as a goal. I remember coming off the pitch and going to see my mum and dad, they were down the opposite end and they didn’t even know it was me who scored!”
“It wasn’t until I was interviewed after the game that someone said, “you know this could be a quiz question in years to come in the pub?” As a defender, it was probably wasn’t something that I dreamed of, getting the first WSL goal. Now, years down the line, you realize how significant that moment was.”
Aged just 19 at the time, Flaherty was remarkably already the winner of four National Premier League titles (the pre-cursor to the WSL), 3 FA Cups and the UEFA Women’s Cup in a previously all-conquering Arsenal side. “I was playing regularly in the starting eleven” she recalls. “I was obviously surrounded by incredible talent. It was coming towards the end of captain Faye White’s career when I sort of got into the team. Before the Women’s Super League, Arsenal were winning the league year in, year out, there wasn’t much competition. It was expected that we would win, it was only about the scoreline. The introduction of the WSL brought a lot more competitiveness to the league. It made it a lot harder for us a team.”
After Arsenal won the first two WSL titles, Flaherty contributed to this greater depth in the league by joining Chelsea in 2014 and winning two more championships with them. Alongside Gemma Davison, who made the same journey, the pair share the record for winning the most titles in the first decade of the league. Flaherty is also the only player to make appearances in all ten seasons of the Women’s Super League.
Following four years at Chelsea, Flaherty joined a third London Women’s Super League club, West Ham United, who back in 2011 were playing in the regional fourth tier of the women’s soccer pyramid. At the end of her first season at West Ham, Flaherty captained the side at the FA Cup Final in front of 43,264 spectators at Wembley Stadium. In the aftermath of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, West Ham were one of a number of women’s teams who played matches at their men’s Premier League stadiums before five-figure crowds.
“I never thought about things like playing in men’s stadiums” said Flaherty. “It would be nice to get to the point where it’s not spoken about as much, us playing at the London Stadium would be a regular occurrence. I would also love to see it where referees get the option to do this full-time too. We’re asking for players to be full-time, we’re asking for clubs to have certain standards and we’re still expecting referees to do it on a part-time basis around other jobs.”
Last July, West Ham unveiled a new state-of-the-art women’s training base at Chadwell Heath as part of a £22m ($30.2m) outlay from the club on infrastructure. The Sky Sports deal should ensure even greater investment in the women’s game. “It’s incredible the growth that we’ve had” believes Flaherty. “It’s huge, especially for clubs like West Ham. That extra money, whether it goes towards facilities, for all those little extra add-ons like nutrition, when you go on away trips, all those costs that people don’t think about, they probably just think about wages and that’s it.”
The summer league experiment was abandoned for a more traditional winter season in 2016, three seasons later the WSL became fully professional and Barclays became the title sponsor of the competition in a deal worth in excess of £10m ($13.7m). In Flaherty’s opinion there has never been a better time to be a women’s soccer player. “For anyone coming through now, 16, 17 years of age, they have such an incredible, exciting future within the women’s game. The growth that we’ve seen in ten years, it’s thrilling to think what the next ten years are going to look like”.