Why aren’t WSL teams playing cup semi-finals and finals at neutral grounds?

Manchester City are celebrating reaching the Continental Tyres Cup final – the women’s game’s League Cup, a trophy they won in 2014.

And they had a great backdrop for their semi-final win – their home ground, the Academy Stadium.

When they compete in the final at the start of October, that’ll also be at the same venue, part of the Etihad campus.

So why are WSL teams playing in cup semi-finals and finals that aren’t hosted at neutral grounds?

There isn’t a straightforward answer. Previously, the Continental Cup final has been at a stadium not associated with either team: the Pirelli Stadium, Burton; Underhill and later the Hive, Barnet; Adams Park, Wycombe; the New York Stadium, Rotherham. That’s also been the case with some of the semi-final matches as well, including the Women’s FA Cup.

For 2016, WSL clubs were invited to bid to host the Continental Cup final. The idea was that such a system would mean income from the match going straight back into the women’s game.

When the venue was announced in July 2016, FA head of women’s leagues and competitions, Katie Brazier, said in a statement, “For this year’s competition we decided to try a different way of selecting the venue and asked clubs to apply to host the final.

“We’re committed to developing the women’s game and this is another opportunity to reward our clubs and reinvest in the game.

“We also know that our women’s clubs’ stadiums and staff are experienced in delivering a top-quality matchday experience for supporters of the women’s game.

“The club’s bid also included a number of initiatives, alongside Manchester County FA, which will provide opportunities for young girls to play, helping us work towards our ambitious aim of doubling female participation and we’re sure that Manchester City will be an excellent host for what will be one of the showcase matches of the domestic season.”

It all sounds great. However, the problem here is that few of the WSL clubs own or have first dibs on their home grounds. City are in a unique position, embraced by the men’s club and a fully integrated part of it.

Their ground is an excellent one, well connected for transport, and with great facilities. Their bid sounds like it was fantastic and wide-ranging, and they’ll certainly get a great attendance – they’re very polished when it comes to their marketing.

So it is perhaps ironic that just a few months ago City captain Steph Houghton was less than impressed that her side had to play their FA Women’s Cup semi-final against Chelsea at the Blues’ own Wheatsheaf Park.

“An FA Cup semi-final at Staines doesn’t sit right with me. It should be a neutral venue,” Houghton was quoted as saying.

“I don’t understand the reason, how somebody can get an advantage at home.”

 A general view (GV) of the Academy Stadium, with the Etihad Stadium visible in the background - Photo: Simon Stacpoole / Offside.

The Academy Stadium, with the Etihad Stadium visible in the background – Photo: Simon Stacpoole / Offside.

And a lot of fans agree – for both the elite women’s cup competitions.

“Stoke, Derby, Nottingham – all neutral middle ground for both sets of fans, surely they can book a ground?” asked one supporter.

“Alternatively, it’s a cup final – Wembley or Cardiff should be reasonable expectations too.”

Of course, the FA Women’s Cup final has been played at Wembley for the past two years – and it is hoped that this will be a long-term arrangement. Even so, the semi-finals still aren’t at a neutral venue; this is because the quick turnaround between quarter-finals and the semi-final requires a ground to be booked as swiftly as possible, with arrangements slotting neatly into place.

Using a stadium and its staff all well used to hosting women’s matches makes logical sense – even if supporters feel that it ingrains home advantage.

“Cup semi-finals should have been at neutral grounds and to have a cup final giving one team a home advantage is a joke,” said another, echoing Houghton’s earlier thoughts.

One fan urged consideration of practicalities when it comes to the final, though, saying, “Regardless of team [the Academy Stadium] is the best facility with arguably the best transport links.”

Arrangements for next year have not yet been announced; presumably when it comes to the Continental Tyres Cup Final, that will depend on how successful next month’s final is, and whether this problem of perceived home advantage is really an obstacle.

The FA have previously said that ultimately their intent is to secure live television broadcasts for their cup semi-finals. If that is the case, then it’s likely that those matches will indeed still be held at one of the home grounds – that way they ensure a slickly-run event plus a decent-sized crowd, avoiding the problem of marketing the women’s game to an entirely new local area.

*Carrie Dunn is SHOOT’s Women’s Football correspondent. Her book ‘The Roar of the Lionesses: Women’s Football in England’ is out now – available in all good bookshops.*

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