Fishlock: Fundamental change needed in women’s football in the UK

Jess Fishlock. Image Matthew Lofthouse

By Joe Mansfield

WOMEN’S sport has taken many strides forward in Wales in recent times but there is still progression needed and the pandemic has proved to be a stark reminder of where women’s football is in the UK. Those are the views of Welsh international Jess Fishlock.

The midfielder has plied her trade in the world’s most established female leagues, from America and France, to Holland and Australia. The Welshwoman has experienced it all and believes the game in the UK is fundamentally flawed.

“I think one thing this pandemic has done for the women’s game is expose it for what it is. Expose the fact that it is not built on solid foundations.

“It is built by 0.5% of clubs and players and they try to build it from the top down, and you can’t do that.

“You have to build it from the bottom upwards as any kind of foundation is.

NEWPORT, WALES – Tuesday, June 12, 2018: Wales’ Natasha Harding leads her side in celebration after beating Russia 3-0 during the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 Qualifying Round Group 1 match between Wales and Russia at Newport Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Fishlock, the most capped Welsh player of all time, is well versed in the female game and would like to see the footballing authorities re-evaluate how the game is currently viewed.

“It has exposed those who think about the game and plan about the game and who organise the game.

“It has exposed perhaps their lack of awareness of what the game actually looks like.

“So, we should be quite thankful for it because it means we can make it better, but we have to accept it for what it is right now and it’s just not where we think it is.”

Speaking passionately about how she currently see’s the game in the UK, Fishlock added:

“It’s so hard because the women’s game is just not as advanced as we would like to think or as we like to portray in interviews or in the media.

“We like to say ‘oh the WSL (Women’s Super League) is this and the WSL is that’ but the reality of it is that when something like this happens you realise just how fragile the game actually is.

“That it’s not this and it’s not that. We have clubs that can’t play because they can’t field a team. That is not elite. That is not a professional kind of league really.”

Manchester United vs Everton in the WSL was postponed after Everton were unable to field a team. This has led to widespread criticism of the depth of talent in the league and reiterates the point that the women’s game isn’t where we think it is at the moment.

The most elite level of the Women’s game in Wales is the Welsh Premier League yet the competition has been brought to a halt due to it not meeting the government’s elite-sport threshold. This means that some international players are forced into inactivity.

Fishlock resignedly accepted why the League is deemed not to be elite but hopes that it will progress to elite status in the future.

“In Wales it is different, because our league is not elite. There is no money in our game, our girls are not professional.

“As hard as that is and as much as the FAW (Football Association of Wales) try to get elite football going we just have not been able to do that over the last few decades. We have to try to come up with another way of doing that.”

The break in play means that some international players are forced into inactivity and Fishlock has called for the FAW to step up and take care of the Welsh national team players who are out of action.

“It’s hard when some of our national team players are still in Wales. Our association has to step up then and allow them facilities to train and allow them to keep working.

“You can’t ask an athlete to be out for 8 weeks and then go on international camp in the middle of February and train for six weeks. You just can’t do it.

“I do think in this current climate, that the thought process of those who are in charge has to be better, they have to think more proactively and productively when it comes to the women’s game.

“I don’t think it’s through not wanting to I think it’s an unprecedented situation and they perhaps have not been able to think that far ahead.

“I have nothing but really good words to say about FAW, in truth, in the way that they are with us, but absolutely I think that when they know that some of their elite players and some of their national team players can’t train for six to eight weeks, they have to provide them with somewhere to go and train, they have to.”

Wales’ leading goalscorer of all time, Helen Ward, is one of the players deemed not to be elite as her club side Watford FC do not play in an ‘elite’ tier.

It is the likes of Ward who need to be supported during this time if Wales want to be successful.

It is often said that it is easier to point out flaws than it is to provide the solutions, but Fishlock did provide a potential solution, highlighting better funding channels as a way to improve.

“I would like there to be far better structures with academies and making sure that they are elite and in the elite bracket.

“I would like tiers to be better with more elite tiers. I would like more funding for academies and the lower-level elite tiers, rather than just throwing funding at the same 0.5% that has all of the funding anyway.

“So , yeh, just to build it from the bottom up and make it more competitive. How can you make your league one of the best in the world if you don’t even have tiers that make your league competitive?”

Jess Fishlock in action. © Photo Matthew Lofthouse – Freelance Photographer

The Cardiff-born midfielder explained how funding systems can influence societal perceptions, citing the way that Title IX has swayed American views towards gender in sport.

“Decades ago they (America) brought in title IX where, at a very young age at college level, everything the men get, the women have to get. It’s split 50-50.

“With sports, every scholarship and investment has to be equal. What that has been able to breed through society and America as a whole is the outlook that women’s sports and women athletes are equal to male athletes.

“This forms a thought process and an acceptance that women athletes exist.

“There is still a way to go with money, sponsorship and investment, but from a mindset perspective they see a woman athlete and they don’t get offended by it. They actually support it.”

The attitudes and opinions voiced by many men on social media disappoint Fishlock as she expressed sadness that the male gender often fails to treat the women’s game with the respect it deserves.

“We have a great relationship with our nation but in general terms you just have to see the social media with regards to women in football in England to see that the attitude is just not there yet.

“It doesn’t get to me anymore I’m just over it. It’s just pathetic. I just really don’t understand why it seems to offend men so much.

“It doesn’t anger me per say, because like I said I’m over it. The masculinity is so fragile evidently that they just can’t seem to want to let football be for everybody which I don’t understand.”