News   |    July 21st, 2021

No Longer Just A Man’s Game!

Charlton Athletic’s Ciara Watling shares her views on women’s football.

This is a great time for women’s football (before Covid 19 anyway) and the Women’s World Cup in 2019 really helped the women’s game, not technically or tactically but it helped to promote and showcase the game.

Over 20,000 fans attended each game and a worldwide audience of 993 million people watched it. It was summer and everyone was missing football, so people who had never watched women’s football before were just putting it on and then couldn’t stop watching! The USA won with Holland runners up.

Holland were in my qualifying group with Northern Ireland and it was a great experience. It was my time experiencing something like this and I really couldn’t believe what was happening. We were escorted by Police from the hotel to the stadium arriving as normal around a hour and a half before kick-off.

The closer we got to the stadium all you could see was a sea of orange. The streets and roads were congested with other fans, all in kits, tops, hats, face paints and it was incredible to see.

I was sitting at the back of the coach looking out of the back of the window at everyone as we drove past. We arrived at the stadium and once again all you could see was orange everywhere. There were so many fans surrounding the stadium and coach. As I stepped off the coach they were all clapping, cheering and taking pictures. The stadium by the way was PSV’s and it was spectacular.

I walked into the changing room, which was already set up by the kit man. I put my bag down under my kit and we all went outside to the pitch, which we had trained on the night before. The stadium right now was empty with just us and the Dutch players walking around listening to music and getting in the zone. We went back into the changing room and got ready and came back out for the warm-up and at this time the stadium was half full – it was mental!

They were announcing the team line ups on the big screen and your picture and number would come up. This was a first for me and nothing like this has ever happened to me before. We went back to the changing rooms after the warm-up and got into our kits and our anthem jackets. Lining up in the tunnel I remember being so nervous and it felt like a dream but the whole experience was all a bit surreal. There was a countdown from 10 and then at 1 explosions and lights were everywhere. It was crazy! We walked onto the pitch and lined up ready for the national anthem and it felt amazing. The whole PSV Stadium full, and I think it was around 30,000 fans. I was standing next to Rachel Furness who plays for Liverpool and she said to me – “Just take it all in” and that’s what I did. When we started playing you couldn’t hear anything! Not the person next to you or behind you, not the manager, nobody – all you could hear was the fans. The ball went out of play and I remember seeing a Mexican wave going around the stadium and even that impressed me. I was playing against Lieke Martens who was UEFA and FIFA Women’s Player of the Year at the time, just to add to my experience. We lost the game so that put a downer on it but the experience as a whole is one I’ll never forget and that is when I really thought women’s football is going somewhere!

The whole of the Women’s Super League are full-time with a few teams also in the Women’s Championship being full-time. Hopefully within the next season or two the whole of the Women’s Championship will be full time. My schedule at Charlton Athletic is basically full-time, training four times a week and a few gym sessions before training too. We are in from7.30pm to10pm and obviously it’s not ideal but most players have normal jobs so this is the only time we can do.

Most players are working all day and then rushing to training without even having time to have dinner. Charlton is great and they understand, we have a players’ room where they always have food and snacks which we can grab before training. We have a player Wellness App to track everything for us too, from sleeping to how your body feels etc. It would be amazing for football to be our sole jobs, to wake up and focus just on football and train and go home and get enough sleep. Some players have to travel 2 hours back home so getting home after midnight and then having to eat and shower and then getting up for work the next day and repeat this day in day out. Things are changing though and as I said teams in the Championship like Aston Villa, Durham, London City Lionesses and Leicester have all basically gone full-time and paying the players good money to focus just on football. A few of my Northern Ireland teammates are also playing full-time in Scotland with Rangers. I really believe in the next couple of seasons the game will excel with a lot more teams training full-time.

During the current lockdown  it has given us all a lot of time to think about things a lot more and one thing I’ve been thinking about is which female manager will be the first to transfer over to the men’s game. It would need to be someone who could gain the trust from the players straight away. Someone with a fantastic knowledge base and someone who would have an immediate presence when they walk into a room.

To my mind the only candidate around at the moment is Emma Hayes. I really think and believe she will be the first woman to take charge of a men’s professional team. She has everything needed to be a success.

I also have a few friends who have played under her and they all have great things to say about her, how professional and demanding she is and the competitive environment which she creates. I’ve played against Chelsea myself a few times and she always has nice things to say about the clubs and teams I’ve been with. The male managers I’ve played under have always also been blown away with her as a manager and in particular her experience and knowledge. I can name various occasions she has changed her game plan mid-game to suit the circumstances at the time. To me this shows tactical agility as well as humility. Emma has shown in her appearances on Sky TV that she can more than hold her own in robust environments on shows like “ The Debate “ and I am in awe of how she articulates her point under extreme scrutiny from the male co-hosts and guests. As per usual her class shines through and this further backs up my view of her ability to adapt to the male game. Any coach who can share the traits of Emma Hayes has an amazing chance in any form of the game, so I see no reason why Emma can’t make the transition. With the impending formal announcement of Phil Neville leaving his role as England Manager next year Emma is bound to be a leading candidate to replace him, but it might not be her preferred next move.

Watch this space!!

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