LIVERPOOL, England — Some of the changes were minor, so minor they were imperceptible, at least from the outside. This summer, Everton hired someone special for the first time to look after the uniforms of its women’s team. It’s the kind of thing that reminds me that in women’s football there are still a lot of small battles to be won.
However, those small changes still have an impact; they still offer a marginal profit. The laundry no longer has to be done by another staffer, someone who has to analyze video or plan coaching sessions, or even the players themselves. All that time saved can now be put to good use. Everything could be just a little bit better.
And some of the changes have been significant, such as the nine new players who have joined the Everton team in recent months. There’s Toni Duggan, an experienced England international, German defender Leonie Maier, Italian midfielder Aurora Galli and three players signed by Sweden’s champion Rosengard, dubbed the Swedish House Mafia by their new teammates.
The most significant change, however, is as far as the club’s coach, Willie Kirk, is concerned, the one that is most difficult to describe. He noticed it most clearly when he was with his team at a pre-season camp in Scotland last month. He could see that something had clicked.
“Maybe it’s confidence,” he said, trying to put his finger on it. “Maybe it’s the feeling of seeing another player walk through the doors and thinking, yes, that’s another quality buy. Maybe it’s the knowledge that no player can be sure they’ll start in the next game, and that competition is the norm.”
Kirk may not be able to name it exactly, but he likes to talk about it. The first time Izzy Christiansen, the club’s vastly experienced midfielder, sat down with Kirk – in the winter of 2019 – her lasting impression of a coach who had absolutely “no fluff”, she said. He didn’t try to tell her why she had to sign with Everton.
“There was no pitch,” Christiansen said. He just bought her a cup of coffee – “That’s one way to persuade me to join a club,” she said – and explained how he saw her as a player, what he thought she would bring to the team , and what he and his club were trying to do. “It was a fact,” she said.
He is exactly the same when it comes to his intentions for his team. “We’re not shy about being ambitious,” Kirk said.
Tellingly, when asked if the plan for the season is to challenge the England Women’s Super League Big Three – Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal – when the season starts on Saturday, Christiansen has recalibrated the question. “That’s what we plan to do,” she said. “To compete and surpass. We want to bring the club back to the Champions League, where it belongs.”
Of course, the landscape of women’s football has undergone a landslide, both domestically and in Europe, in the decade or so since Everton last graced that league. In the early 2010s, Everton’s rivals for a place were Arsenal, Birmingham City and Liverpool. They were teams mainly populated by British players; few or none, trained in the same facilities as their respective men’s teams.
The 2021 WSL is very different: dominated by the polyglot squads built at great expense by Chelsea, City and Arsenal. The former features not only the most expensive player of all time, striker Pernille Harder, but also the highest paid player in the world, Sam Kerr.
Manchester City can draw on the backbone of the England national team – captain Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze, Ellen White, half a dozen others – and have the financial clout to support one of Everton’s best players, Australian winger Hayley. to seduce. Raso, to Manchester this summer. Arsenal, meanwhile, can lay claim to possibly the best player in the world: Dutch striker Vivianne Miedema. On Friday it grabbed one of the American stars Tobin Heath.
Those three teams have been almost undisputed at the top of the WSL for a while now. They have won the last five titles together – Chelsea claim three – and have been responsible for every English place in the Champions League since 2014. They are, as Kirk admitted, a formidable barrier.
And yet the club thinks it can break that stranglehold. “I made it clear to the players that we have to go above our budget for that,” he said. “Finances are coming in, but we feel we’re there.”
He credits the club’s “clever” recruitment led by its sporting director, Sarvar Ismailov – a cousin of Alisher Usmanov, the business partner of Everton’s majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri, who has now been appointed to the club’s board – for much of that growth. “We need to be flexible and smarter,” Kirk said.
Within the club, Ismailov is credited with both a keen eye for talent and the ability to pick up a bargain: There are, Kirk has said before and approvingly, “not many women who like him.” It was Ismailov who led the campaign to bring in perhaps Everton’s most notable summer recruits, 18-year-old Swedish midfielder Hanna Bennison, the club’s record signing.
But that’s just one element. Looking back at the club she joined nearly two years ago, Christiansen now sees ‘something special’, something Kirk doesn’t just trace back to the roster of new players.
“We’ve improved our working practices,” he said, a category that no doubt includes hiring a unified attendant. “We have drawn many previous winners. We have always had a positive environment, but that breeds a winning culture.”
It’s a trend he sees throughout the club. Everton is building a new stadium (mainly) for its men’s team. The last two coaches of the men’s team, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafa Benítez, are both Champions League winners. In Kirk’s view, the ambition for the women’s team is no different from the ambition for the men’s team.
But maybe that relationship doesn’t quite work out the way it’s often imagined. Everton have been condemned – by sheer economics and by everything else – to life in the Premier League’s top middle tier. It would cost the club hundreds of millions of dollars in transfer fees to even hope to overhaul the Manchester City and Chelsea men’s teams.
However, in the women’s game, it may now consider itself a force. It can speak of winning a place in the Champions League, and it can, not in vain, think of winning a championship. It may consider meeting clubs that exist at a different tier in men’s football as something approaching peers in women’s football.
That wasn’t cheap — Bennison alone cost a “considerable six-figure sum” to persuade Rosengard — and it wasn’t easy. But unlike many of his peers in the no-man’s-land among the elite in the Premier League, Everton now has the reward: a chance to compete, challenge and perhaps surpass. That impulse didn’t flow from the men’s team to the women’s team, but rather the other way around.
That’s what all those changes, big and small, have delivered: a club with a stage to be really ambitious again and a team that isn’t afraid to talk about it.