On 5 November 2019 Jürgen Klopp looked down a camera lens and encouraged Liverpool fans to pack out Anfield for the women’s Merseyside derby. It attracted close to a quarter of a million views and followed on from a summer of “one club” propaganda which included mixed team photographs and a joint tour of the US.
Fast forward and, on the same day that the Premier League fixtures have revealed the likely dates on which Liverpool men will end their 30-year wait for a Premier League title, the relegation of Liverpool women from the Women’s Super League has been confirmed.
It would be easy to blame the management. A single win and three draws in 14 games tells a damning story. Liverpool have played poorly. The team have kept defeats narrow, but struggled to score. The club also had a 2019 turnover of more than £1m and increased commercial revenue by £44,207 to £831,699. For WSL teams it is not altogether bad. It is not dissimilar to the operating budgets of the teams around them … at the foot of the table.
However, when it comes to the women’s teams of Premier League rivals Chelsea or Manchester City, for example, the figures pale in comparison. Chelsea had a 2019 turnover of £3,334,604 while City’s was £2,048,000.
The Football Association sings about having the only fully professional league in Europe, but Liverpool, a founding WSL side, have only 10 employees listed in their accounts for 2019. Five “players, managers and coaches” and five “administration, commercial and other”.
Why? Because according to their own accounts, “full-time employees are those employed for more than 20 hours per week. The 19 members of the playing squad are semi-professional and as such are classed as part-time staff.”
In the season before a record-breaking financial year for the club (as a whole) was announced, with it posting a turnover of £533m and pre-tax profits of £42m, Liverpool could not, or would not, afford the players in its women team contracts that would amount to more than a 20-hour week.
If ever there was an example of just how hollow the anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone is, this is it. Perhaps alongside the decision to furlough 200 staff, before being embarrassed into a u-turn.
In the weeks leading up to the FA decision to relegate Vicky Jepson’s side, the player exodus began.
The striker Courtney Sweetman-Kirk said it was “time for a change and a new environment that challenges me as a player and a person. Can’t wait to have a ball at my feet, a smile on my face and be excited to train everyday”. The goalkeeper Fran Kitching described the season as the “most challenging” she has had to date. She added: “I can’t wait to be enjoying the game I love again and being truly happy. I am excited to start my next chapter and also enjoy an environment which tests both players and people in the right way and allows them to thrive.”
The Scotland international Christie Murray said she was looking forward to being “in an environment that challenges me, both as a person and as a footballer, and most importantly, to be able to enjoy what I love again.”
The messages were eerily familiar. Two years ago senior players filed out of the club. Casey Stoney left mid season to join Phil Neville’s coaching staff before being unveiled as Manchester United’s first manager. In the summer the two-times title-winning captain Gemma Bonner and Scotland international Caroline Weir left for Manchester City. Stoney raided her former employers for seven players – Siobhan Chamberlain, Alex Greenwood, Martha Harris, Naomi Hartley, Emily Ramsey, Lucy Roberts and Amy Turner. While the club’s top scorer that season, Beth England, returned to parent club Chelsea.
Chamberlain was most overt in her criticism, then, when she said: “It’s important to be in an environment that challenges me every day and one where I can enjoy playing football.
“I also want to know that I am part of a project that is doing the most it can to develop women’s football.”
Neil Redfearn was tasked in 2018 with steadying the ship of a side that had lost their way since breaking Arsenal’s dominance of women’s football to earn back to back titles in 2013 and 2014. Three months after he had joined, and one league game into the season, he quit. Jepson stepped into her first senior managerial role in his place. Blaming Jepson for the poor results would be easy. The real blame lies at the feet of disinterested owners who have allowed their women’s team to implode while their men’s team thrives.
The mess of their women’s team is unlikely to tarnish that first shiny Premier League trophy in 30 years, but it should.