In many ways, it is an exciting time to be a fan of women’s football in England. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting instability in American sports has led to an influx of talent from the NWSL to the WSL. A number of the league’s best American and international talent will spend the season in England, including new Manchester City players Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis, and West Ham’s Rachel Daly, on loan from the Houston Dash. Tobin Heath and Christen Press are also rumored to join Manchester United.
Because of this, interest in the WSL is naturally increasing in the United States. NBC just announced, to great fanfare, that they are broadcasting 50 WSL matches on their family of networks this season, allowing American fans to continue to follow the progress of their favorite NWSL stars as they play for their new clubs.
It’s a time of promise and excitement for the WSL, but even so, there are clubs that are in danger of being left behind. One of those is Tottenham Hotspur, who thus far have only marginally caught the wave of NWSL migrations with the signings of Alanna Kennedy and Shelina Zadorsky on loan from the Orlando Pride. That’s a shame.
The top talent coming (temporarily) to the WSL is heading to the Big Three — Chelsea, Arsenal, and Manchester City. That makes a lot of sense. Good players want to play for good teams, and these teams have a proven track record of not only success, but investment from their parent organizations. The same cannot be said about Spurs, or other clubs in the top tier of English football. And unfortunately, that lack of ambition appears to have more to do with the way the club is run at the highest level than by anything that’s happening on the pitch.
Take, for example, Manchester United. Only in existence since 2018 and promoted at the same time as Spurs, they finished 2019-20 in fourth, three spots ahead of Spurs. It was a strong first WSL season for United, doing so with a manager on the rise in Casey Stoney and led by midfielder Jackie Groenen, a finalist at the 2019 World Cup with the Netherlands. Interest in Heath and Press is a clear statement of intent from a club that first made its name and money in the men’s game and wants to translate that reputation to the women’s game.
Manchester United is the purest example of what Tottenham could be, but it does not take a club as rich or as well run as United to show ambition. West Ham earned promotion to the WSL a year before Spurs and finished one place below Spurs last season. They will, though, enter the new season with Daly, an England international and the NWSL Challenge Cup’s best player. This is a move from a club run at the highest level by Jack Sullivan, the 20-year old son of West Ham co-owner David Sullivan. Jack was gifted the managing director role in 2017 when he was 17 as a means of getting him “involved” in West Ham in some way, and in June referred to running West Ham Women as “a hobby” in a puff-piece about him printed in The Guardian.
Acknowledging this in the context of an argument about ambition is not in any way a knock on Kennedy or Zadorsky; both are full internationals, solid professionals, and will improve Tottenham’s first team this season. But there’s more talent available in the NWSL and the WSL, and Spurs could very easily take advantage of that. With even slightly better-than-token investment it is not out of the realm of possibility that Spurs could attract a player in the realm of Rachel Daly and really make a name in English women’s football.
A very basic goal of any team is to improve from season to season, and for Tottenham those goals were really easy to define for a couple of years: earn promotion to the WSL and then stay up. Both of those goals were achieved, and a goal for 2020-21 is less easy to define. That said, in a period when the competition — not just the top teams, but midtable sides, too — is showing ambition, even if it is the result of bad circumstances in the U.S., Spurs aren’t.
The amount of money required to vastly improve a club like Tottenham Hotspur Women is a rounding error compared to the money invested in the men’s team. As a particularly astute example of this monetary stratification, Chelsea signed Danish star Pernille Harder this week from Champions League runners-up Wolfsburg for a record transfer fee of ... £300,000. That is £200,000 less than the reported fee for Alfie Devine, who joined the Tottenham U18 men’s team this season from Wigan.
This is not to disparage what Spurs have done recently. This is a club that has, almost literally, bootstrapped their way over the course of a decade from the fourth division to the top tier of English football, through hard work, excellent management, and perseverance. They are doing good things. They are well managed under Karen Hills and Juan Amoros. We would never wish to disparage the commitment and dedication of the Spurs players, and we will continue to root for them this season because they deserve it. They are worthy of our support and interest.
They would also be even better right now if the club were committed to making them so. Frankly, it is a disservice to the players, coaches, and staff that got this team all the way to the WSL not to reward their work and ambition.
Tottenham may finish lower than they did last season, and they may finish lower than teams that finished lower than them. Some of it will be down to the players and coaching staff, but their failures currently cannot only be on-field failures. The players, coaches, and staff put in their all when ownership does not, and when the ownership cannot adequately support its staff, sporting failures are primarily the failures of owners to meet the demands of the job.