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Member Insights: Carney’s determination deserves more credit

October 10, 2023

In this week’s Member Insight piece David Alexander, MD of Calacus PR, spotlights on how women’s football is facing a number of obstacles as it fights to gain some semblance of parity with the men’s game.

Notwithstanding the Luis Rubiales scandal that dominated international football news for a month after the Women’s World Cup, issues of access to playing for young girls, equal pay and prize money, and sexism in all its forms keep cropping up in the news.

Alex Scott, the former Arsenal star, had also suffered when she started working as a pundit on national television, underlining the challenges female sports journalists have faced, such as instances that saw then-Sunderland manager David Moyes threatening to slap a female reporter 

Very recently, the sexism in the game was exposed again when former Newcastle United and England coach Kevin Keegan told an audience of fans that he does not like listening to “lady footballers” talk about the England men’s team.

According to The Times, the 72-year-old said: “I don’t like to listen to ladies talking about the England men’s team at the match because I don’t think it’s the same experience. I have a problem with that.

“The presenters we have now, some of the girls are so good, they are better than the guys. It’s a great time for the ladies. But if I see an England lady footballer saying about England against Scotland at Wembley and she’s saying, ‘If I would have been in that position I would have done this,’ I don’t think it’s quite the same. I don’t think it crosses over that much.”

One person who has experienced more than most of these challenges is Karen Carney, the former Arsenal, Chelsea and England midfielder.

After a stellar career, Carney’s profile has increased since she became a pundit as the popularity and broadcast of the women’s game has increased.

She faced the ire of Leeds United fans two years ago after giving her opinion that Leeds’ high-energy style may lead the team to burn out as the season progresses.

The Leeds social media team, which should have distanced itself from criticism or even gone so far as to back Carney’s right to a reasonable opinion.

They got it very wrong when they mocked Carney’s comments and then failed to realise the gravity of the error.

Then-club owner Andrea Radrizzani then chose to compound the problem by defending the tweet, despite the widespread criticism the club received in light of the abuse Carney was suffering as a consequence, which even led her to having to delete her Twitter account.

Carney inadvertently found herself embroiled in another sexism storm as she was sitting alongside Liverpool legend Graeme Souness when he described football as a “man’s game” live on Sky Sports in the post-match analysis of a fixture between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.

Any search for Carney’s name on social media unearths a vast number of trolls and bigots attacking her, something that has led her to needing therapy to cope with the abuse and death threats she has received.

It’s crazy that in modern times Carney would have to face such issues.

Her career spanned more than 100 England caps as well as spells overseas, while she has also earned a degree and a masters, underlining her expertise beyond the football field or studio. 

So it was no surprise when Carney was invited to participate at the UEFA Football Board in Geneva to discuss the challenges and opportunities for the women’s game across the whole of Europe.

Some may wonder why she would put herself back in the firing line after the consistency of the abuse she has suffered.

Her insistence that the review would “leave no stone unturned” set a clear precedent for the task at hand.

“I want the women’s game to be the best,” Carney stated in February. “I don’t want to put a label on where it could be. A lot of people have told me: ‘Don’t settle. Don’t settle, keep pushing.’”

Her passion and ambition was undeniable, and she combined this with the views of a panel of experts, including former Lionesses head coach Hope Powell and former men’s international Ian Wright, to assist her in the research at both the elite and grassroots level of the English game.

Carney highlighted the challenges prior to the publication of the report in July, suggesting that the women’s game was akin to “Instagram vs reality” when you scratch beneath the top level.

A clear example of this disparity came earlier in the year when Lewes FC faced Manchester United in their first-ever FA Cup Quarter-Final. The Women’s Championship club wrote an open letter to Carney ahead of the tie, calling for her to recommend the equalisation of the FA Cup prize fund between men and women.

Carney’s ‘Raising the Bar’ review was published a week before the start of the Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, which highlighted the potential of the women’s game to be a “billion-pound industry.”

A key suggestion was also that the men’s FA Cup prize money should be redirected to the women’s teams, showing that Carney was not just talking a good game, but listening to the opinions of stakeholders and implementing them into her recommendations.

Carney’s messaging throughout the past 12 months has been grounded and relatable whilst remaining ambitious about the positive impact that her findings could have on the development of women’s football, culminating in a comprehensive and poignant 128-page report that has been greeted with widespread praise.

Senior organisations like the Football Association and the Football Supporters’ Association immediately welcomed the findings of the review.

Maheta Molango, CEO of the Professional Footballers’ Association, described the review as “a brave, ambitious and detailed plan for the future of the women’s game.”

The clarity of the ten strategic recommendations makes it difficult to believe that Carney’s efforts can be ignored by senior sports executives and politicians alike.

Her invitation to speak with UEFA is hopefully proof that this is just the first step towards improving the women’s game both at home and abroad.

At the Football Board in Geneva, Carney said: “Everything is moving really fast but we have to build the sport on a solid foundation. Today has been getting people together to understand that there are so many countries and everyone is at different parts in their evolution of women’s football, so to understand and hear everyone’s side is really important because we all want the same thing.”

Again, her message remains the same. Great strides forward have been taken, but the authorities are not in a position to pat themselves on the back or rest on their laurels.

The timing of the review’s findings is apt. English women’s football finds itself at a decisive juncture with the current broadcast agreement between the Women’s Super League (WSL) and the BBC and Sky expiring at the end of the 2023/24 season.

A new deal will need to be struck, and with financial investment being so fundamental to enacting the changes that Carney has recommended, to continue the growth of the women’s game it is essential that the WSL latches onto the tide of positivity and popularity created by the success of the Lionesses in recent times.

Despite all of her success thus far, Carney certainly isn’t preparing to slow down her efforts now, regardless of the criticism and abuse she faces on a regular basis.

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