Manchester United and Tottenham both threatened to gatecrash the Women’s Super League top three this season, but ultimately the campaign ended with the familiar trio of Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City at the top.
Outside of those three, Liverpool were the last team to win the WSL in 2014 while the domestic cups have also been largely the property of the league’s dominant forces.
Both domestic cup finals were contested by Emma Hayes’ Chelsea and Gareth Taylor’s Manchester City last season and, since Birmingham City triumphed in 2012, Chelsea have won the FA Cup four times and Arsenal and Manchester City three times each.
The League Cup, meanwhile, has only ever been lifted by one of the triumvirate.
“They are pulling away from the other clubs,” said Reading manager Kelly Chambers, whose team finished eighth in the WSL last season.
“The investment in the women’s game at the top clubs is far superior to what we’re getting.
“We thought the gap was getting smaller – don’t get me wrong I think the league has been very competitive this season – but we’re starting to see that divide again in terms of the top three and everyone else.”
West Ham reached the FA Cup semi-finals this year but former boss Olli Harder, who left at the end of the campaign, said the top three clubs were setting a “benchmark” for the rest of the league.
“This is where all clubs need to go to – they deserve to be in the top three,” he said.
“The top three will have that stranglehold until we – the rest of the league – get to that level.”
But what else can clubs do off the pitch to help close the gap and are current approaches working?
- How did each WSL club do this season?
‘It isn’t always about more money’
Brighton have invested significantly in facilities over the last two years.
In September, the women’s team moved into a brand-new training facility at the American Express Elite Football Performance Centre alongside the men’s academy – a result of an £8.5m investment.
At their disposal is a new gym, a medical centre, changing areas, a recovery facility and swimming pools, as well as state-of-the-art training pitches.
In April, the club released an extensive women’s football strategy, stating their ambition to become a top-four club in the WSL.
The main areas of focus are youth development, recruitment, coaching, medical expertise, player wellbeing and boosting attendances.
“You can see the commitment from the club just by the new [training facility],” Brighton manager Hope Powell told BBC Sport.
“There is a commitment to getting the right people in place and making sure we have a good foundation to strive for that top four.”
As part of the strategy, the club will analyse playing budgets in line with the top three and look to compete in recruitment but Powell added that they have be “creative” and build foundations.
“It’s about being smart and spending smart. It isn’t always about more money, giving you more. There isn’t a bottomless pit and nor should there be,” she added.
“We have a youth pathway and if we’re invested in a pathway we have to try and get some return on it. It saves you money, is good for the club and for attracting young players. Homegrown talent is a big thing of mine.”
‘They are always looking to help us’
Other clubs are following suit.
Tottenham, who challenged for a Champions League qualification spot until tailing off at the end of the season, have a newly refurbished training centre and the women have played games at the men’s stadium.
They were promoted to the WSL in 2019 and manager Rehanne Skinner said they have made “huge strides in a short space of time”.
“When I came to the club, I was very clear in the first conversation that I am only interested in looking up as a coach and at the way that the club should be progressing,” said Skinner.
“We should only be thinking about Champions League. We have to put the building blocks in place to enable us to get there. Obviously, a lot of things have got to happen to get to that point.
“We are all realistic with it but at the same time, we have already shown that we can make huge strides in a short space of time.”
Manchester United manager Marc Skinner said his side would have two new training pitches in time for pre-season.
Work has taken place since March and the club are “investing heavily” on a facility Skinner said would house them for years to come.
Aston Villa have developed a strong academy and have made strides to bring the men’s and women’s first teams together.
Men’s boss Steven Gerrard spoke to the women at their training ground on the final week of the season on his plans for integration, while goalkeeper Hannah Hampton was invited to train with counter-part Emiliano Martinez. Carla Ward’s side have also regularly played at Villa Park.
“The football club look after the women’s section really well,” said Ward. “They are always looking to help us off the pitch.”
On the gap with the top three, she added: “The budget scale is outrageous. But the other side of it – the facilities – sometimes help you with that. Behind the scenes, there is constant communication about where we can improve and what the players need.”
Leicester turned fully professional in 2020 before gaining promotion to the WSL and have since built a new training complex and regularly play matches at the King Power Stadium.
“It’s what we want and it’s what the league needs,” said Chelsea boss Hayes of the development of others.
“It’s great to hear other coaches and clubs talk about the level of investment and growing the right strategies. It’s exactly what we need.”