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WSL’s awful pitches: From swimming in Tranmere to sandcastles in Southport

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Let’s talk about pitch, baby. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things.

Chelsea Ladies v Liverpool Ladies - FA Women’s Super League - Wheatsheaf Park

All the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And the rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights. And it was at this point, I realised I should have brought an umbrella and that this match was probably not going to take place.

Waterlogged

The pitch at Hive that had been perfectly fine before the country had gone to bed had been lashed with relentless rain, the water descending at a fervent pace and the turf that had hungrily accepted the watering began to drown. Soil turned to mud as the drainage became overwhelmed. The earth absorbed all it could until it was left to swim in the downpour as the rain refused to let up.

Had it been another pitch with better or newer drainage, a pitch that saw less wear and tear (or fewer matches), or a pitch in a drier part of the country, it may have been able to stand up to the torrent that thundered against the surface. The pitch had been fine for Barnet FC the previous day, but after a night of rain, it was in no fit state for Tottenham Hotspur women. Some 200 miles northwest of the Hive, the situation at Prenton Park (home to Tranmere Rovers) was the same; the pitch – that has been heavily criticised in the last two months – was again unplayable, Saturday night’s rain causing the overused surface to give up the ghost.

The condemnation was swift, Liverpool once again left to shoulder the blame, a familiar story given their history with pitches in the area. Their match against Manchester United in January had been called off and their match against Chelsea in December probably shouldn’t have gone ahead. Their previous ground had caused a fall out, the one before that with its own criticisms.

Ground hopping

Liverpool’s former home, Widnes, has been home to the Reds as well as Merseyside rivals Everton, highlighting the dearth of options in the area. It also hosts rugby team Widnes Vikings. But the pitch at the Select Security Stadium (over 11 miles from Anfield) was 3G and by the time Liverpool left, was in a sorry state, desperately needing to be replaced. Several players admitted it wasn’t a pitch they liked to play on, one even refusing for fear of another serious injury. Before Widnes it had been Skelmersdale United FC Stadium – on an industrial estate near Wigan.

It may be worth noting that as Liverpool moved away from Widnes, so did Everton, who have been playing at the equally as problematic Haig Avenue in Southport.

Timing

A piece that had likely been rolling around Athletic Liverpool correspondent James Pearce’s mind (or that of his editors) for some time was the high-tech pitch at Anfield, published the day after the postponement at Tranmere. It was a perfect juxtaposition that featured such delectable nuggets of information like, “Klopp felt that Liverpool’s ageing playing surface was holding them back. It was too slow and inhibited their attacking play. Fenway Sports Group (FSG) took action, sanctioning a multi-million pound investment in the club’s infrastructure that summer.”

Pearce went on to explain the finer points of the state-of-the-art grass (97% organic, 3% artificial), the irrigation system (to speed up drainage and allow for the entire surface to be watered in less than three minutes) as well as about everything else you might ever want to know about it. The pitch had made Liverpool a better team; it was custom made for Anfield and it aided the players and the style that Jürgen Klopp has implemented. It might not have been the reason for their incredible run but is a component and worthy of the millions spent on it.

Pearce even included details on the groundsmen and grounds manager, Dave Roberts, and how the wizz adapts the training pitches at Melwood (Liverpool’s training ground). The pitches can be as pristine as at Anfield or Klopp can ask the grass wizard to adapt the surface his charges play on to ready themselves for different pitches around the league. It’s both an art and a science and is a far cry from the sorry Tranmere pitch that seems to be fast giving up on life.

As Klopp said, “We always have a wet pitch now and that helps the speed of the game so much.” But that is Anfield and a perfectly slicked playing surface, not the threadbare swimming pool the Prenton Park pitch has become.

Liverpool v Chelsea - FA Women’s Super League - Prenton Park Photo by Richard Sellers/PA Images via Getty Images

The ire from those involved in women’s football isn’t without its justification because the players unquestionably deserve more, but just where should the anger be directed? Liverpool as a single entity has historically gotten both barrels with more reserved for The FA, but is that anger misplaced?

Who is to blame?

Starting with the Football Association, there is only so much they can do, with the official statement reading, “We are aware of the issues relating to the quality of some pitches used for Barclays FA Women’s Super League matches. We will continue to work with those clubs affected, and the relevant ground owners, to help identify viable solutions going forward.”

As the governing body for football in England, the rulers of who and who does not get a licence to play in the Women’s Super League, it’s worth remembering that Prenton Park does fulfill their criteria for a top tier women’s ground.

Tranmere Rovers, who’ve welcomed Liverpool Women in and even share their Solar Campus training ground with them – Melwood not available for the Reds’ women’s team – are still just a League One team battling for their own safety. Their funds are limited and the pitch that has seen four matches in the last 12 days – even causing Liverpool to relocate their FA Cup clash against Blackburn Rovers to Bamber Bridge – is due for an overhaul, but it won’t be until the summer.

As for Liverpool getting the sharp end of the stick? Well, it depends on who we’re condemning. There has been plenty said about the historic treatment of the women’s team but they have been brought in-house recently and there is considerable investment going into the team behind the scenes; yet it still feels like CEO Peter Moore has merely broken into his piggybank for Vicky Jepson’s team. Although it’s likely they would jump at the chance to play on a pitch that cost millions and is taken care of with surgical precision, at this point it would be fair to say they just want a safe playing surface.

It’s clear, not just with the problems Liverpool have faced but Everton too, that there simply aren’t viable pitches in the area and going further afield seems like it would be a move that severs the Reds from the last of their dwindling fanbase. In other cases, it might be prudent to suggest that Liverpool look to making their home the men’s training ground – as is more popular around Europe and even something West Ham do in WSL – but remember, their training ground isn’t Melwood. And there is no suggestion that the women will have a place at Liverpool’s new training ground in Kirkby when it opens, the team stuck in familiar surroundings between a rock and a hard place over a suitable home.

There is no simple answer for Liverpool, and with two matches that have been called off due to the pitch in Tranmere, it’s likely that their midweek clash against Arsenal next Thursday will either be called off or relocated with Rovers scheduled to play on the cut up pitch three times before then. The lack of noise over their back-up pitch (rumoured but unconfirmed to be St. Helens’ Totally Wicked Stadium) – a requirement for WSL and Championship teams in the licencing – is enough to suggest that even that isn’t viable.

A familiar story

The idea of playing at Anfield week in, week out, is one that is easily shot down, not just because the stands would unfortunately be laughably vacant, reducing any semblance of atmosphere for the players, but the costs would be astronomical. Women’s football remains a bucket with a gaping hole at the bottom. In England, clubs accept that they’re losing money with some willing to lose far more than others. But asking Liverpool to open up Anfield and lose thousands and thousands of pounds each home game is not one that would look too good on the budget sheet.

Just this season, Casey Stoney admitted she wasn’t looking to move a one-off game to Old Trafford, saying, “It costs a lot of money to open a stadium like that; what I could do with that in my budget, I could spend that money in a better way...”

As we wring our hands across England (and further afield) looking for someone to just be angry at, there is no good answer. A summer league would cause problems despite solving others, rapid investment from the teams with the money would leave everyone else on their last legs, bespoke stadiums require not just money but land – something major cities are light on. Yes, it borders on shameful that Liverpool Women find themselves in this situation when their men’s team fly as any other team in the world but what of all the other women’s teams who find themselves in the same situation? The ground-sharers, those who don’t have the same profile as Liverpool, even those who do.

Women’s football’s curtailed history has fed into the situation we find ourselves in the world over and there is simply no catch-all answer. From the bottom of the pyramid up, teams struggle with sufficient facilities and the question of stadia with playable pitches will rear its head until the sport develops to a point where there is enough money being put in lower down and into the framework for the sport to sustain itself. The chicken and egg conundrum remains; most will argue that the sport needs to make money before more is put in, but to grow enough to turn a profit, it needs more investment. So we find ourselves at this frustrating impasse, hoping for something or someone willing to take a risk on interrupting the lack of funding cycle.