Manchester (Neo Web Desk: Two hundred metres from Manchester City’s Etihad stadium is a baby stadium. This is the City Football Academy, and there is no sporting equivalent in Britain. It is small, perfectly formed, and may just hold the key to the future of British football. This is where the club’s under-21 team play but, more significantly, it is also the home to Manchester City Women, MCWFC. City is the first professional club to allocate a custom-built stadium to its women’s team.
Until last month, the club averaged little more than 1,000 spectators, which didn’t go far towards filling the 7,000-capacity ground. But in the first match following the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada last month, the crowd doubled. This was replicated around the country.
At a time when there is much cynicism about the men’s game at the top level in England (overpriced, over-sold and overrated), women’s football seems to be facing a new dawn. This is partly down to England’s women’s team’s success at the World Cup – their third-place finish is the second-best result an England football team of either gender has achieved in footballing history, only outshone by the men’s victory of 1966.
But this is just the latest development in a bigger story: one that suggests the women’s game is finally being taken seriously. In 2011, the FA created its Women’s Super League (WSL), and for the first time in England women footballers started making a living from their sport. Last season, an audacious volley scored by Ireland’s Stephanie Roche was runner-up in Fifa’s world goal of the season. The BBC now has a television show dedicated to the WSL, while BT Sport screens live matches. And today, the women’s FA Cup final will be held at Wembley for the first time.
The Manchester City Academy is umbilically linked to the Etihad by a bridge, but it could not be more different from Britain’s old-fashioned, beaten-up football stadiums. It feels more like the home to a high-end global corporate. And in a way it is.
Above the reception of City Football Academy HQ hangs a series of crests to remind you that Manchester City is, well, not just Manchester City – there is now a family of clubs that belong to the franchise: New York City FC, Melbourne City FC and the part-owned Japanese club Yokohama F Marinos. Walk a few steps farther, and you come across a smart glass cabinet displaying two mannequins in Manchester City shirts. One is male, and on the back of the shirt is written Kun Agüero (City’s star forward and last season’s top scorer in the Premier League). The other mannequin is female, and on the back is Steph Houghton. Houghton is the City and England captain, an inspirational defender who played a huge part in England’s success at the World Cup.
Down in the club gym, the women weight-train. Five of the England squad are here – Houghton, goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, right-back Lucy Bronze, midfielderJill Scott, forward Toni Duggan. If you want a symbol of how quickly the women’s game is changing, this is it. Two years ago they were all at different clubs, and City Women didn’t exist. Now MCWFC is fully integrated into Manchester City – indeed, the women train regularly with the under-18 boys. I’m watching them work out from a level above, and their camaraderie is striking. They applaud when a player lifts a heavy weight, help each other with stretches, high-five and work, work, work.