At the weekend, Liverpool added another touch of magic to Marine’s fairytale FA Cup third round against Tottenham, in loaning out one of their Kirkby training pitches to their minnow neighbours to help their preparations. And yet, as heartwarming a gesture as it was, football fans could be forgiven for wondering where that same generosity is for Liverpool’s women’s team.
Due to Marine’s usual public training location being closed in lockdown, they had nowhere to train ahead of Sunday’s historic Cup tie, so both their Premier League neighbours Liverpool and Everton jumped to help out. It gave Marine’s part-timers access to the new £50 million Kirkby ground, which opened its doors in November to much fanfare.
In promotional videos plastered all over their social media, Liverpool said goodbye to Melwood and hello to shiny new weight rooms, expansive training fields, tennis courts, beach volleyball courts, an indoor pool and basketball courts in Kirkby. “You have everything you need for now and the future,” Jürgen Klopp said proudly, as the state-of-the-art facilities put the first team and Under-23 squad under one roof for the first time. There was one glaring omission though: their women’s side were nowhere to be seen.
Instead, Liverpool Women will continue to train and play at League Two side Tranmere Rovers’ The Campus ground until at least the end of this season.
While the men topped the Premier League in May, the women were relegated to the Championship, a mere six years after they were crowned champions of the Women’s Super League. On Tuesday, they also found themselves without a manager after head coach of two years Vicky Jepson’s departure was announced. Many have pointed to a lack of investment and care shown to the women’s squad as the reason behind their downfall. While before they counted England stars like Casey Stoney and Lucy Bronze in their ranks, last season departing players like Scotland’s Christie Murray hinted at their displeasure with the playing environment.
The club are said to let the women use an academy pitch when their Tranmere base is water-logged or to use 3G pitches for specific match preparations, and reports have suggested the women moving to Kirkby is one option being considered for next season, after their three-year deal at The Campus ends. But to applaud Liverpool on those minor or belated signs of progress, would be to ignore the root of the issue: why the women were contracted to other second-rate facilities in the first place.
Though the campus has had recent refurbishments, including a new gym and physiotherapy rooms, and are set to add a 3G pitch to their grounds, they are not comparable to Liverpool’s Kirkby base. The club’s approach runs in stark contrast to the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea for example, who have integrated their teams at their respective club grounds, helping to attract world class talent. Tottenham Women also recently made the full-time move to Hotspur Way, and Everton has overtaken Liverpool as the top women’s team in Merseyside while sharing the club’s Finch Farm facilities with the men.
Liverpool are not the only club to omit their women’s team from their facilities and it is not the only measure of how a club treat their squad. Players’ standard of living is said to have improved since they moved to luxury riverside accommodation in 2018 – reportedly because their previous student digs were below par, some with rat problems. The club’s salary spend is also higher than some WSL sides who survived relegation, like Birmingham City. And they now have a strength and conditioning coach, something they could not say for a few months early last season, despite being a professional WSL team.
But leaving out their women’s side from the biggest move in the club’s history does carry a message. When they said an emotional farewell to Melwood and moved into a new era at Kirkby, their women’s team was not along for the ride. There was no mention of them in the club’s history or in its future. To then publicly support Marine by gifting the use of the Kirkby facilities this weekend, even if only for one session, was just another kick in the teeth.
Indeed the entire FA Cup third round weekend was a reminder that the women’s competition remains on hold. To watch the likes of eighth-tier Marine – who fall well outside of the Government’s ‘elite’ sport definition – be given coronavirus testing provisions in order to ensure the men’s competition can go ahead, is to see the disparity in football play out in real time.
Last week the FA floated the idea that one solution they are considering for the women’s cup, is flipping a coin to decide the winners of the second and third rounds. The news was met with understandable outrage.
To pinpoint the work being done to ensure a club like Marine could play on Sunday is not to say they should have been denied their moment in the spotlight. They fought through seven rounds to get their match against Spurs, and their participation brought joy to football fans watching around the world – though the crowds ignoring lockdown rules outside the ground were less welcome.
But the privileges Marine were afforded work as a stark reminder of those not afforded to Liverpool Women. Sadly, it seems that the magic of the Cup is only alive right now if you are a man.