Soccer

Changes on and off the pitch as a new era approaches for Women’s Super League

Champions Chelsea face Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the new Women’s Super League season (John Walton/PA)
Champions Chelsea face Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the new Women’s Super League season (John Walton/PA) Champions Chelsea face Tottenham at Stamford Bridge on the opening day of the new Women’s Super League season (John Walton/PA)

After a summer in which the England team took another historic step forward, the Women’s Super League returns this week with the next major phase in its development on the horizon.

New ground was broken by the Lionesses once again as, a year on from claiming their first major trophy with Euros glory on home soil, they reached a maiden World Cup final.

While they ended up being edged 1-0 by Spain on August 20, the exploits of Sarina Wiegman’s side at the tournament in Australia and New Zealand only further strengthened the sense of momentum surrounding the English women’s game.

The WSL has been a key contributor to that as well and, as the start of the 2023-24 season draws near, there has been much talk about the division – which has been fully professional since 2018 – entering a new era.

An independent company currently being referred to as ‘NewCo’ is set to take over the running of the league and the second-tier Championship from the Football Association from the start of 2024-25 onwards, and WSL chair Dawn Airey has spoken about the ambition to create the first billion-pound league structure in women’s football.

Indicators of the growth the WSL has enjoyed to this point include its broadcast deal with Sky and the BBC that started in 2021 and runs to the end of this coming season, and attendance figures, with the FA reporting the average rose by 170 per cent in 2022-23 compared to 2021-22, and a record 47,367 watching Arsenal v Tottenham at the Emirates Stadium last September.

That high mark may well be surpassed on the first day of the 2023-24 campaign this Sunday, when Arsenal are back at the stadium to kick-off with a clash against Liverpool – ticket sales hit 48,000 with a few days still to go in the build-up to the match.

A general view of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium (Zac Goodwin/PA)
A general view of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium (Zac Goodwin/PA) Arsenal have committed to playing five WSL matches at the Emirates Stadium this season (Zac Goodwin/PA)

The season will see a number of matches taking place at Premier League grounds, with three of those coming in the opening round.

Arsenal have committed to Jonas Eidevall’s Gunners, who came third last term as well as winning the League Cup, playing five WSL games at the Emirates across the season.

And the number is four for champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, starting with Sunday’s meeting with Tottenham as Emma Hayes’ side – also FA Cup winners last term – open their bid for a fifth league title on the bounce.

The runners-up to the Blues in both the league and FA Cup last season, their best finish in either competition, were Manchester United, who begin on Sunday by facing Aston Villa at Villa Park – minus Alessia Russo, after the England striker left in the summer and joined Arsenal.

It has also been confirmed that Marc Skinner’s United will play their WSL derbies against Manchester City this term at Old Trafford (November) and the Etihad Stadium (March).

Manchester City’s Deyna Castellanos and Manchester United’s Ella Toone battle for the ball (Tim Goode/PA)
Manchester City’s Deyna Castellanos and Manchester United’s Ella Toone battle for the ball (Tim Goode/PA) The WSL Manchester derbies are set to take place at Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium this term (Tim Goode/PA)

Elsewhere on the opening day, Gareth Taylor’s City, seeking to bounce back after finishing outside the Champions League berths in fourth last season, are away against West Ham, who have a new boss in Rehanne Skinner.

Skinner, successor to Paul Konchesky, was previously at Tottenham, where Robert Vilahamn has replaced interim Vicky Jepson in the division’s other summer managerial change.

Everton host Brighton at Walton Hall Park, while newly-promoted Bristol City start their top-flight return by taking on Leicester at Ashton Gate, the ground set to be the venue for all the Robins’ WSL home games this term.