Amid the swathe of criticism that ‘football got it wrong’ last weekend by postponing all fixtures following the death of the Queen, it was perhaps the women’s game that had the greatest cause to grumble.
The Football Association’s reasons for calling off Premier League and EFL matches - those being the numbers of police required and the worry that sections of fans may tarnish the sport’s reputation as has happened in the past - do not apply to the women’s game. Euro 2022, held across England in the summer, was the perfect example of a tournament that can run without issue.
Record audiences at stadiums and at home watched the Euros, and the sport has seen growth like never before in this country during as a result of the Lionesses lifting the trophy. Last weekend was set to be the launch of the new Women’s Super League season, which had accumulated so much promise and attention.
No more so was this true for Kelly Chambers’ Reading side, who were scheduled to host newly promoted Liverpool at the Select Car Leasing Stadium on Sunday afternoon. A club-record crowd for a women’s game of over 4,000 was expected. As of last Saturday, season ticket sales were at 510 - an increase of over 420% on last season’s 98.
Instead, the Royals’ season opener is now away from home at Manchester United on Saturday lunchtime. The first home game is a League Cup tie against Tottenham Hotspur at the start of October and the first league fixture at the Select Car Leasing Stadium is a 6:45pm kick-off on a Sunday evening against Arsenal. The pieces of the jigsaw are not quite as perfectly placed as they would have been last weekend.
“Postponing was something we had to do to show our respects, but for us it would have been the biggest crowd we had ever had and barely any of them were free tickets,” Chambers admits.
“People like Mitch [Parris, marketing manager] and Brooke [Chaplen, general manager] have worked really hard to grow that, so it’s definitely a missed opportunity just to get people in to see the game. I just hope that people who bought tickets for that day will come to the next game and see it for themselves and hopefully fall in love with it like we do.”
The domestic game is riding a wave off the back of England’s historic triumph in the summer, as record audiences in stadiums and at home watched the Lionesses bring home the country’s first major senior honour since 1966. The task now is to capitalise on the increased interest and ensure that the buzz around women’s football in the UK does not disappear.
Season ticket sales have hit unprecedented levels around the WSL. Tickets for individual matches are also being snapped up and next weekend’s North London derby at the Emirates Stadium is expected to set a new record crowd for the league of at least 45,000.
All clubs have committed to playing at least one home game at their men’s stadium in a bid to increase engagement further. For what it’s worth, Reading became the first WSL club to use the same ground as their men’s team on a permanent basis when they moved to the then-Madejski Stadium in 2020.
“The Euros were magnificent for the game,” says Chambers. “We want to grow fanbases, we want more crowds in stadiums and that is high on the agenda for every club in this league right now. I think that’s been the immediate impact from the Euros and when your country wins in a competition like that, we’ve got to use that and try to really grow the game.
“It’s made people in this country more aware of the sport and the quality of the sport. Everyone I speak to about it, they’ve fallen in love with women’s football. It’s great now for us as clubs to see the benefit of that.”
Reading perhaps have the hardest challenge of any team in the WSL. Following Birmingham’s relegation last season, the Royals are now the only side in the division not connected to a Premier League club. That means less exposure, a smaller core fanbase from which to build from and less financial resources.
But for Chambers, it is a sign of just how well her team have performed. Since promotion to the WSL in 2015, Reading have never been truly threatened by relegation and have achieved three top-half finishes.
“For us there’s a real sense of pride at that [being the only non-Premier League affiliated team in the WSL], we’re proud to be where we are. Some might say that we’ve always punched above our weight.
“We know every season is going to be a little bit tougher, when you start adding the likes of Manchester United and then Leicester. Clubs like Chelsea and Arsenal are always going to bring in the best players but we’ve always competed with teams like that and we want to keep competing.
“We know it’s always going to be a challenge for us and we’ve got one of the smallest budgets in the league, but that’s been the case nearly every season so it’s nothing new to us. I feel like I’ve got the right people around me, staff and players.”
Chambers readily admits that last season was one of the most difficult to date. Reading finished eighth in the 12-team league - their lowest placing since 2016 - and ended the campaign with a winless run of 10 matches. There were high points, most notably beating eventual champions Chelsea at the Select Car Leasing Stadium in the middle of a five-game winning run, but ultimately it was not a year that Chambers will look back on fondly.
“Last season was a tough one for us. As much as we had our winning streak, it was tough as you only had to look at my bench when we played Chelsea. As much as we got the right result, you’re looking around and thinking ‘I’ve only got academy players sitting on the bench’.
“To chuck them in at the deep end, it just wasn’t the right time. The injuries we were picking up, were trying to force people to get through little niggles and then pick up the pieces after. That’s not a nice routine to be in.
“The one thing I’ve definitely done this season is to get a competitive squad. I’ve got quality and depth to make sure that every game that we step into, we’ve got enough to compete and to challenge.”
That seems a fair assessment based on the club’s transfer activity. The only players who departed in the summer were captain Natasha Harding who joined Aston Villa and the long-serving Brooke Chaplen who was forced to retire after undergoing surgery to remove a bone tumour in her leg. Chloe Peplow is at Championship side Crystal Palace for the season on loan.
Six new faces have come through the door, including internationals Jacqueline Burns, Lauren Wade and Diane Caldwell. Goalkeeper Burns was a standout performer at the European Championships in the summer for Northern Ireland. Full-back Becky Jane is back at the club for a second spell and Brooke Hendrix and Charlie Wellings both have WSL experience.
Then there is Emma Mukandi (nee Mitchell), who has been appointed as the new club captain. Chambers describes the Scottish international as like a new signing too, as she has spent the last 12 months away from the pitch due to giving birth to her baby girl Innes last November. A reminder of the unique nature of women’s football.
“They’ve all settled in really well,” Chambers says. “They’re very humble, they work hard and they’ve built really good relationships with the other players on and off the pitch.
“They kind of feel like they’ve been here for many years and there’s been a real family feel around the place where we’ve all been looking after each other. But we also won’t rest on our laurels. We want to push and develop every day.”
Chambers believes the structure is in place at the club to do just that. When Mark Bowen returned to Reading in May in the new head of football operations position, one part of his ‘multifaceted role’ was to oversee how the women’s team was run.
Bowen himself admitted that his focus was more heavily weighted towards the men’s senior team during the summer as they recruited while under strict EFL restrictions, but Chambers has nothing but praise for the Welshman’s impact.
“Before Covid, we were building every year and then the pandemic hit the club quite hard in terms of finances. That became a bit of a fire that we had to fight for two seasons. But now we are back in a place where we’ve got a great new director of football operations Mark Bowen, who has come in and is really supportive of us. The same with Paul Ince, who has been great with us. We’re around those types of people every day which is nice.”
Ince is the eighth permanent men’s manager at the club since Chambers took over from Jayne Ludlow as women’s boss in 2015. Among the current WSL sides, only Chelsea’s Emma Hayes (168) has taken charge of more games in the competition than the 36-year-old (120).
It is an under-appreciated longevity and she has achieved more than is probably recognised both at Reading and in the wider football world. But Chambers is always thinking to the future, both on and off the pitch, with bold ideas.
“This is my 20th year at the club,” she says with a smile. “I love the club and I’ve been part of the development of the women’s side and building it to where it is now. I just love football! I love working with the girls everyday, I want us to be better every game, every season. The last two seasons have been really challenging on and off the pitch, but now we’re in a really good place with the squad.
“We have to look at the business side of things now and we know that at some point the women’s team have to stand on their own. It’s not going to happen anytime soon, but for us it’s about how we can grow commercially and keep getting fans into stadiums.”
After a summer of such magnificent success, there is no better time to make that happen.