The cancellation of football last weekend was a particular blow to the women’s game, delaying the WSL’s bumper opening round, which was set to be a celebration of the sport and England’s history-making Lionesses.
Chelsea, Tottenham and Brighton were all planning to play their opening game at their men’s stadiums, and clubs had reported record ticket sales after a breakthrough summer for the sport.
The WSL have not just lost a round of fixtures but a valuable chance to build momentum at the start of a domestic season which is all about harnessing the emotion and interest from England’s historic win at the European Championship Finals.
The Euros proved the popularity of women’s football in this country (more than 17 million people watched the final against Germany), but the challenge remains to turn the sport from a seasonal attraction during major tournaments into a national preoccupation.
There was encouraging interest in last weekend’s opening round, but maintaining support over the course of the campaign is a tougher challenge.
The return of the Lionesses to their clubs should help to keep eyeballs on the league, however, while the summer clearly opened the door to new supporters, who will have found a welcoming atmosphere and high-quality sport. There may even be a trickle of fans from the men’s game.
The disrupted men’s calendar also offers a unique opportunity to the women’s game, with the Premier League on hold for six weeks from mid-November to accommodate a winter World Cup in Qatar.
There will be three rounds of WSL matches during the hiatus and, while there are obvious challenges to attracting attention in the midst of the biggest show on earth, breathing space from the Premier League could be a boon for women’s football, particularly with pragmatic scheduling from broadcasters.
Rearranging the opening games at the men’s grounds during the break would make sense, even if a November match may be less appealing for families.
The most pressing question on the pitch is whether anyone can unseat champions Chelsea, who claimed their third successive title under Emma Hayes last season.
The Blues, who now begin their defence at newly-promoted Liverpool on Sunday, have strengthened over the summer, with former Lyon defender Kadeisha Buchanan the pick of their new signings, and a front-two of Fran Kirby and Sam Kerr makes them difficult to contain.
Perhaps the best hope for their rivals is if Hayes is distracted by the Champions League, which remains the manager’s white whale after last season’s disappointing group-stage exit.
A much-improved Arsenal ran Chelsea close last term, but they have been more restrained in the summer, with forward Lina Hurtig their only notable addition to a squad which includes Euros Golden Boot winner Beth Mead and England captain Leah Williamson, now household names.
Crucially, Jonas Eidevall’s side kept hold of one of the world’s best players in Vivianne Miedema, who signed a new contract despite interest from the continent. The Gunners face Brighton tonight, with their intriguing trip to Manchester City, scheduled for last weekend, now on ice.
City, who travel to Aston Villa on Sunday, are perhaps the most vulnerable of the established big three and facing a season of transition under Gareth Taylor.
They have lost Ellen White, Jill Scott and Karen Bardsley to retirement, Lucy Bronze and Keira Walsh, the world’s new most expensive player, to Barcelona, Georgia Stanway to Bayern Munich and Caroline Weir to Real Madrid, leaving Taylor facing a rebuild.
They have clearly recruited some exciting talents, including teenager Mary Fowler, regarded as one of the best young players in the game, and their domestic ambitions may be aided by an early Champions League exit in August’s qualifier against Real Madrid.
The likeliest contenders to gatecrash the top three are Marc Skinner’s Manchester United and Rehanne Skinner’s Tottenham, who were due to meet on the opening day in what should have been a revealing contest as to which is best-placed for a breakthrough campaign. Spurs now travel to Leicester on Sunday, while United host Reading tomorrow.
Spurs’s Skinner (no relation) has been backed impressively over the summer with eight new additions, but United boast two of the England’s stars of the summer in Ella Toone and Alessia Russo, and have also recruited cannily.