Welcome to this, the last column of 2017. And what a year it’s been! Instead of the usual news this week, I thought I’d review the year – in terms of heroes and villains! Everyone loves a listicle, particularly at Christmas, so here’s mine. I’m sure the majority of my choices will come as no surprise to regular readers of the column.
So, for the final time this year, let’s crack on.
1) Women’s Cricket World Cup Final
No prizes for guessing my number one in the heroes department this year. The Cricket World Cup was a fabulous event from start to finish and I’m privileged to say I was at the final at Lord’s in July. The media coverage was pretty good, the organisation at the group games was excellent and, of course, the standard of cricket was generally superb. But the actual day was something else. Twenty-eight thousand cricket lovers (MCC members not included) packed into Lord’s to experience the game, the occasion and the atmosphere. And the game had everything; great batting, bowling, fielding (and that drop from Jenny Gunn), the threat of rain, competition down to nearly the last ball…..
It was a brilliant game between two well-matched teams, which leads me on to number two:
2) Indian Women’s Cricket Team
They’ve made fans and friends wherever they go. They’re on a massive upward trajectory and are set to get even better. Captain Mithali Raj is rightfully considered one of India’s outstanding sports personalities. One of the moments of the World Cup was when it was reported that a little girl in a Nike store asked for her Indian cricket shirt to have the name “Mandhana” (as in opener Sriti Mandhana) on the back. And if that isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.
India will be out for revenge in the New Year when they face England again in the Women’s Tri Series.
3) Rugby union – heroes and villains
Rugby union is on the up. And while it is, I’m reluctant to stick it in both the heroes and villains categories so, on balance, it’s in the heroes. The Rugby World Cup was a fantastic tournament rounded off by a spectacular final. Laurel wreaths all round to New Zealand and England for such an outstanding display, with the Black Ferns worthy winners.
But it’s not all plaudits for the administrators and organisers. Before the tournament started we had the announcement that the RFU was not going to re-issue contracts for the 15s, but instead would concentrate on the Sevens squad ahead of next year’s World Cup. Then the tournament itself threw up some strange scheduling that meant people missed out on seeing matches they wanted to see. And this was followed by the announcement from the Irish Rugby Football Union that its new women’s head coach would be employed only on a part-time contract – it hosts a World Cup, then cuts its commitment to women’s rugby? How does that work?
World Rugby has since redeemed rugby’s hero status with its new World Rugby Women’s Plan 2017-25.
So, as I say, some hits, some misses in the rugby department, but, on the whole, it’s heading the right way.
4) Mica McNeill and Mica Moore
When British bobsleighers Mica McNeill and Mica Moore had their funding withdrawn, their Winter Olympic dream could have been over. But they were not going to give up that easily. McNeill launched a Crowdfunding page to raise the £30k needed to field a team. They did it with time to spare and will now be in Pyeongchang in February.
5) Advocates, volunteers and campaigners for women’s sport
Last, but by no means least, I’d like to celebrate the legions of people out there working tirelessly (and sometimes it’s the original thankless task) to promote women’s sport. I’m going to name a few, but I know I will have missed a lot so apologies as there’s not enough room to mention you all. If we could only become “mainstream”, how amazing that would be. So here we go, in no particular order, three cheers for: Women in Sport, Women in Football, Suzy Wrack, WiSP, Scrumqueens, Women’s Elite Rugby website, England Netball, FAWSL website, CricketHer, Martin Whiteley, Martin Woodward, Tracey Neville, Shelley Alexander, Kieran Theivam, 4TLOS, Jen O’Neill and She Kicks, Girls on the Ball, Eleanor Oldroyd, The Magenta Project, Darren Gilham, Sarah Williams (Tough Girl), Female Coaching Network, Coach Annie Zaidi, The Offside Rule, Natalie Germanos, Jane Martinson and so it goes on…
Apologies to those I missed out.
I’ve not included the links to the individuals and organisations above, but if anyone would like any more information, just message me.
1) The FA
As we all know, some sports governing bodies are better than others. But the nadir of the governing body world has to the Football Association (FA). It easily makes it to the top of my villainous tree this year. First we had the scandal surrounding Mark Sampson and his behaviour towards Eni Aluko and Drew Spence in particular. Its attempts to sweep the “problem” under the carpet backfired spectacularly and when asked to account for its actions by a House of Commons Select Committee, was unable to come up with the faintest useful answer. So much for the organisation’s duty of care, vetting process and grievance procedures.
If that wasn’t enough it then decides to restructure the women’s elite game once again. Just when we were getting used to the current structure the FA, in its wisdom, decides that WSL1 has to be organised to a “stronger commercial model” to “improve the performance of the women’s game on and off the pitch.” In doing so it immediately put immense pressure on some of the less well-equipped teams, who are currently in their position on merit, to come up with £350k, amongst other things, in order to be able to apply for a licence. Unfortunately, this has meant that Sunderland and Watford (with probably more to come) have taken the chance not to press forward with their investment in the women’s game, but to scale it back. Yes, the teams may have been looking for an “out”, or as they euphemistically put it “becoming more community-focussed”, but the FA needn’t have handed it to them on a plate need they?
2) Neanderthal Man
As ever, ‘Neanderthal man’ is pretty much at the top of my list too. These are the knuckle-draggers who think their views on absolutely everything are required reading – particularly their views on women’s sport. The “Women’s sport will never be as popular”, “women aren’t as fast/strong/good/add your own adjective, as men”, the “the only way women would get equality would be to compete against men”, the “she looks like a man, anyway”, the “get back to the kitchen” comments, even “they’re all lesbians” is still doing the rounds after all these years. I have reported a few in my “and finally” section this year and, I’m afraid it doesn’t look as if I’m going to run out of examples any time soon.
Get over it chaps! Katie Taylor doesn’t have to fight Amir Khan to be a good boxer, Sarah Taylor doesn’t have to keep wicket to the bowling of Jimmy Anderson to be a good cricketer and Nikita Parris doesn’t have score for Manchester City’s men’s side to be a good footballer.
3) The ECB
The ECB was due to be in my “heroes” section, but I’m afraid the news of the last couple of days means that it also makes it into my “Villains” list too.
It appears that the Kia Super League will be no more after 2019. It looks like it will be rebranded in line with the new city-based men’s competition. So no more Western Storm, Loughborough Lightning et al… Each of the current franchises (yes, I have deigned to utter the word) has tried so hard to develop its USP, expand its fan-base and facilities. The tournament is still in its infancy, but the teams are already recognisable and have their own following. It did have a good sponsor and commitment to TV and radio coverage. But we have to start again.
So, yet again, a governing body has seen fit to “fix it” when it hasn’t been “broke”. We’re yet to see the details of what’s to come, but I haven’t yet got past “why?”
4) BBC Sports Personality of the Year
Now, don’t get me wrong – I think the event is a good thing. I find the whole evening a bit cringe-worthy, but the idea is a sound one. But it was beyond disappointing this year that the four women nominated came in the last four places after the public vote. Obviously there has been a lot of mansplaining on this issue – the women weren’t “good” enough, it’s a public vote so people vote for who they want to, some of the women are from minority sports, etc.
But they’re missing the point.
Women’s sport still consistently flies under the radar.
The popularity and media profile of Women’s cricket is at an all-time high, and yet this was not enough for Anya Shrubsole to finish higher than eighth from twelve nominees in the individual category. How do we know these women are so good if we rarely see their achievements celebrated in the media? And if their achievements are denigrated by the “usual” sport-watching public so much, how are we to know that taking six wickets in a Women’s World Cup final is worth rewarding?
How do these women ever raise their profile sufficiently to make a dent in the minds of the general public? I’m afraid to say that at the moment they still don’t. They are coming from such a low level of coverage, investment, support and recognition that it’s still a mountain to climb, all of which leads me on to my fifth villain:
5) Anyone who says it’s been a “watershed year” for women’s sport
Sorry to throw such a dampener on things, but while there’s been so much to celebrate this year (see heroes!), there is still so much work to do that I really don’t think it has been a “watershed” year. There have been countless fantastic achievements, tournaments, records, performances, but in the eyes of the general public it counts for nothing until the “mindset” (ugh horrid word) of the sport-loving public is changed beyond recognition. So while there has been undoubted progress and I personally have loved every minute of it this year, it’s not a “watershed year”.
But let’s not end on a negative note. No, I’m not going to “look for the positives” (ugh again), but there has been so much to celebrate this year and we should ensure that 2018 builds on this. As well as the usual annual tournaments, we have the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast, Rugby World Cup Sevens, the Hockey World Cup at Surrey Sports Park, two teams still in the Champions League, and so it goes on. And we sports-lovers will be there to see it all. So let’s make every week of 2018 Women’s Sports Week and let’s cheer every extra televised fixture, every column inch and every interview.
Thank you for reading the column this year. I’ve loved writing it, which I hope comes out in every word. I’m having a couple of weeks off now, but will back in the New Year with more news, features, reports and interviews and I hope you’ll join me.
I’d also like to wish everyone a merry Christmas and a lovely sport-filled New Year.