Left to right: Rangers’ Jane Ross, Celtic’s Shen Menglu and Meikayla Moore of Glasgow City.Composite: Rangers WFC/Shutterstock; ProSports/Shutterstock; Grizzly Bear Media/Alamy
Almost two years have passed since the clubs involved in the top two tiers of women’s football in Scotland elected to change course. Since separating from Scottish Women’s Football and moving under the auspices of the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) in 2022, the domestic game is showing encouraging signs of progress.
The SWPL, the country’s top division, is attracting record attendances, experienced players and investment. Now in its second season, there are two match days remaining before it enters its mid-season split when the 12-team league divides into two after 22 matches – the top six then play each other home and away while the bottom six do the same.
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Things are shaping up for a dramatic race to the finish. Rangers, under the guidance of Jo Potter, are having an eye-catching season. They are the only unbeaten team and had opened up a comfortable lead as they look to win the title for a second time. They suffered a blow last weekend, however, when they dropped their first points since August in a draw with Partick Thistle. With their closest challengers, Celtic and Glasgow City, winning, it piles on the pressure for Sunday’s mouth-watering Old Firm derby. Celtic travel to Ibrox knowing a win would bring them within a point of the top. Glasgow City, the country’s most successful team, are lurking just behind. It is even tighter at the other end where four teams – Spartans, Montrose, Dundee United and Hamilton Academical – are separated by three points in a relegation battle.
This increase in competition has driven interest and follows up on an electrifying finish to the inaugural season under new leadership. Celtic had one hand on the trophy on the final day until an injury-time winner from Lauren Davidson secured Glasgow City their 16th title. Fiona McIntyre, the league’s chief executive, was arriving at Celtic Park, trophy in hand, before having to make a hasty U-turn.
It is a stark turnaround from 2020 when some feared the sport was facing an existential crisis as a result of the pandemic. The league was voided that season and Scottish Women’s Football needed donations from the philanthropist James Anderson to help it stay afloat. This was potentially a catalyst for the decision by clubs to choose a different path under its own separate board within the SPFL. The rest of the pyramid remains under Scottish Women’s Football.
There has been improvement across the division with some clubs turning professional. Glasgow City, an independent club founded by Laura Montgomery and Carol Anne Stewart, have blazed the trail for many years and turned full-time at the start of the 2021-22 season. They continue to buck the trend of needing an established men’s side for support. Rangers and Celtic seriously entered the picture in 2020 when they transitioned to professional setups, providing resources to challenge City’s dominance. A three-horse battle for the title has emerged, with Rangers wrenching the title away from their neighbours in 2021-22 before City returned to the summit last year. Further down the table, clubs have increased investment and strengthened ties with their men’s sides, but disparity remains.
Increased support has led to players arriving from abroad. The China internationals Shen Mengyu and Shen Menglu are at Celtic, Jamaica’s Vyan Sampson plays for Hearts, and South Africa’s Linda Motlhalo spent last season with Glasgow City before recently signing for Racing Louisville. In a notable transfer from within the UK, Wales’s Rachel Rowe moved to Rangers after eight years at Reading.
The positivity was reflected in the statistics that emerged from the 2022-23 season: 106,781 fans attended an SWPL, SWPL 2 or cup game, the highest figure for a campaign, and the attendance record was broken on three occasions. Payments to clubs from the governing body almost quadrupled to £344,154, with £85,000 distributed as prize money in the Sky Sports Cup. Multi-year partnerships have been signed with brands such as Scottish Power, Puma and Sky Sports, which is a broadcast partner with BBC Alba and BBC Scotland.
There is plenty of work still to be done in a young league and challenges remain. An imbalance in resources persists between full-time and part-time clubs and a fully professional league is required. After Graeme Hart was sacked as Dundee United manager this month, he voiced concern that some clubs were not taking women’s football seriously enough. The national team’s failure to reach the past two major international tournaments hasn’t helped the sport to get the kind of boost experienced in England. Hopes will be pinned on Pedro Martínez Losa leading his side to Euro 2025 but their recent relegation to League B in the Nations League has made the task more difficult.
In the immediate future all eyes will be trained on an appetising weekend ahead, one that could have a big impact on the second part of the campaign. Rangers are in the driving seat but those behind will not give up without a fight, knowing they still have time to alter the outcome.