The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England

(A Note to North American Readers: The term football is used here instead of soccer. Soccer, in case you didn’t know, comes from an abbreviation of Association Football the rules of which govern the game. So nothing in this review has anything to do with the game you know as football, which is a variant of rugby. Right, let’s get on with it!)

I am willing to bet that you can’t name my favourite football team. It’s not Liverpool, although I am a passionate supporter of the Reds; it’s not Ireland although I am a whimsical romantic; and it’s not the Canadian men’s national team because I’m not a masochist. No, it’s England’s women’s national team, nicknamed the Lionesses. When there is a story about them in the sport section of the newspaper, I read it first; and when they make their occasional appearances on BBC Two, that’s what I’m watching. As a matter of fact, I can even tell you the exact moment when the Lionesses rose to the top of my fan’s ladder. On June 22, 2015 the England right-back Lucy Bronze (full name Lucy Roberta Tough Bronze) absolutely lashed a twenty-five yard shot into the top right corner to defeat Norway 2-1 in their Round of 16 match-up at the Women’s World Cup. I was off the couch, crisps were spilled, I was cheering the goal and my dog was cheering the crisps. You can see the goal here.  

It’s a frustration that in any sport where both men and women compete inevitably one ends up comparing the latter with the former, with the result of the comparison usually ending with a patronising pat on the head; something like, ‘Oh isn’t that cute? They’re trying to play like the boys do!’ Or, even worse, the opinion gets wrapped up like a turd in birthday paper by a bloviating ass such as the disgraced former head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, who suggested women’s football would be more popular if the (ahem) girls wore tighter shorts.

In the case of the Lionesses though, and I argue for women’s football in general, the entertainment value of their game is greater than the men’s version. Men have three physical advantages over women: the guys are usually taller, usually stronger, and usually faster. While football generally rewards the strong and the quick, none of those three factors is necessarily crucial towards winning football or even attractive football. For instance, the only recently retired Juventus and Italian midfielder Alessandro Del Piero was (and I assume still is) just 5′ 8 1/2 and if he ever broke out into a blistering sprint over his twenty-three year career it certainly wasn’t caught on camera. And yet, Del Piero dinked, dunked and commanded his club and national teams to six Serie A titles, four Champions League Finals (winning one), and a World Cup. Not a bad record.

Women’s football is designed for and showcases the intelligent Del Piero player, more than the cantering horse of an Andy Carroll or the sprinter’s pace of a Michael Owen or a Theo Walcott in their pomp (let’s both of us pretend that Theo Walcott actually had a pomp and move on). The absence of overwhelming size or speed means success in women’s football must be won more with the mind than the body. The ball can always be moved faster than any player, hence positioning is vital. Because center forwards usually do not have a significant height or leaping advantage over central defenders, gallumphing the ball up for a knockdown is not much of a tactic and thank God for that. Lastly, strength is always a relative proposition anyway and in a sport that has no more (legal) contact than basketball, no one really cares how much you can bench press. Endurance, mobility with or without the ball, making smart decisions and accurate shots or passes – those are the elements that go into winning a women’s football match. And I love it.

Thus, when I saw that a book had been published called The Roar of the Lionesses I immediately requested a review copy. Much to my surprise and delight, it is about much more than a narration of the founding and success of the English national team. The veteran English sportswriter Carrie Dunn instead explores the totality of women’s football from the purely amateur sides right up to the relatively luxurious professional teams of Manchester City and Arsenal in the Women’s Super League (WSL).

Let’s stop there for a second, just as you did. You’ve heard of Manchester City and Arsenal because they’re on your television from August to May, in the Premier League and Cup competitions. Well yes, they have women’s teams too and that is one of the issues that Dunn explores as there is both a good and a bad to it. Since the English Football Association (FA) got around to recognising and accepting the existence of the women’s game in 1968 and fully becoming involved in 1993 (the sport had been under a formal albeit not heavily enforced ban since 1921 as the women were drawing larger crowds than the men; no really) it has encouraged women’s teams to affiliate themselves with nearby men’s professional clubs.

While on the one hand affiliation encourages marketing through brand identification and sometimes, but not always, assistance with training pitches or the supply of kits, the level of support is not in the slightest way consistent. The women of Manchester City have a purpose-built 7,000 seat stadium for their home matches; Arsenal though moves a women’s match to an awkward start time of 6PM to avoid any overlap with Arsene Wenger’s team, who were playing on television. The West Ham United women’s team had a last hurrah at Upton Park canceled because the men had played their last ever game at the Boleyn Ground and so that was it. The women would not be allowed the final bow. Oh by the way, the Vice-Chair of West Ham United is Karren Brady. Just thought I’d throw that in.

What truly comes clear in Dunn’s crisp and humane writing is the tremendous dedication the women’s football players have to show in order to continue on in their sport. ‘Well that’s not so unusual,’ you huff, ‘all athletes have to be dedicated.’ Yes, but there’s dedication and then there’s dedication. It’s easier to put in the hours and the training when you’re paid so well that football is your only paycheque; try it while holding down a full-time job, getting to a training pitch or a ‘home’ stadium that might be an hour away, and your paycheque (if it exists) will barely cover your petrol. Now get out there and win!

I wish I had the psychic or persuasive powers to push The Roar of the Lionesses up on to the bestseller lists, but I’m realist enough to know that probably won’t happen. That’s a shame really as there are two passions involved in this journal of chapters written in 2015 and 2016. There is, as I’ve said, the passion of the players towards the game they love to play. But just like those players, Carrie Dunn has written a book that is just as rooted in the joy and pain of sport as Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer or any of the late W.P. Kinsella’s sports-themed novels. That too is a passion and one to be admired, applauded and proclaimed. Know why? Because not only do ‘the girls’ know how to play football as well or better than ‘the boys’; the best of ’em write about it just as well as the boys do too.

Be seeing you.