WOMEN TAKING FOOTBALL IN NEW DIRECTIONS

THE WEDNESDAY FEATURE

There is often talk about how women’s football can close the gap with the men’s game but for the players it is more a question of evolution than revolution.

There was much to celebrate when it was announced that Sky and the BBC had agreed a £24million deal to show Women’s Super League matches over the next three years, a landmark deal that showed just how far women’s football had come.

But while this sort of cash injection will inevitability lead to better deals for the game’s top players, there is a strong consensus that a good part of the windfall should be invested in the development of women’s football as a whole.

A quarter of the cash is to be allocated to clubs in the second-tier Championship with the idea that more of the “poor relations” can become more competitive against those teams with big-club backing. Money will also be spent on structural elements such as training facilities, quality of pitches, improving refereeing and promoting the game at grassroots.

It is, said the FA’s Kelly Simmons, a “step-change” moment.

ICM Stellar Sports recently negotiated the transfer of Martha Thomas from West Ham United to Manchester United and the 25-year-old striker is very clear about how she feels the women’s game should grow.

“I think things are going in the right direction and as society becomes more cultured, you’ll see women’s football keep on growing and there will be bigger deals,” she says.

“The WSL is one of the most competitive leagues now. A lot of the bigger names internationally are looking at the league and they will want to be a part of that but I don’t think we will ever get to the situation where there are £100million transfers. The growth will be sustainable and sensible.

“We as players know where we have come from and where we are going and there is deep love of the game. We want to see more fairness. Good reward for those at the top of the game but also filling the gap when it comes to the pay discrepancies.

“We have a situation now where there are good players, especially in leagues like the Championship, who have to hold down second jobs on top of their football just to make ends meet. Hopefully we will see a change there as the support grows and the money-flow improves.”

Martha comes to Manchester United following a rollercoaster of a career so far. Born in England (although she plays for Scotland, her mother’s birthplace), she moved to the United States as a child.

While Europe was still pretty backward in attitudes to girls playing football, Martha found the US full of enthusiasm for a game basking in the success of its women’s national team.

“Lots of players of my generation in the UK will remember back to the time when they were the only girl on the boys team. It was completely different in the States – women’s soccer has been big decades and the players on the national women’s team are better known than the men’s. That gave me the opportunity to play.”

And play she did! Martha quickly established herself as one of the top names in college soccer. Scoring 47 goals for the Charlotte 49ers of North Carolina, she was voted Most Valuable Player in all four of her seasons and is still ranked as the school’s all-time leading goal-scorer. If you ever visit the club, they have a wall devoted to all her achievements.

Then, with the professional draft looming and the future looking bright, disaster struck.

In her final game of the season, she suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury, putting her out of action for at least a year.

Rather than give in to despair, Martha healed up and worked hard on her rehabilitation. The chance of a glittering career in the US seemed gone but she was not going to give up and sought new opportunities to play, eventually ending up with French Ligue 2 side Le Havre.

“The timing of the injury couldn’t have been worse,” Martha recalls. “ACL are the three letters no footballer ever wants to hear. With the draft coming up I knew I would be out for a year, so I had to come up with a plan B.

“Playing in the French second division was not exactly where I had pictured myself but it enabled me to get back into playing. I didn’t have an agent at the time so I had to organise everything myself and just have the belief in myself and work hard.”

Martha Thomas in action for Scotland in a EURO 2022 Qualifier against Finland

Through a family friend, Martha was introduced to the head of ICM Stellar Sports’ US soccer division Patrick McCabe, who instantly recognised the footballing talent she possessed.  

Martha was starting to make a name for herself again with her performances and, with Patrick’s help, she secured a transfer to West Ham United and scoring eight goals in 26 appearances before moving this summer to WSL rivals Manchester United.

“I’m really enjoying being at United, it is a very competitive environment, well structured, there has been some great additions to the squad and Marc Skinner is a great choice for coach,” she says.

“For the season ahead, I am looking to play with a smile on my face, to get goals, and assists – and make an absolute nuisance of myself in the opposition’s territory.

“It’s a great time to be playing. Women’s soccer in the UK has really built on the legacy of the last world cup. I think this was the first time a lot of people had watched women’s football and, even the most sceptical, could see what a skilful game it was.

“The respect is deserved and the players are ready to entertain.”