On Sunday, Everton will have the opportunity to upset the applecart of women’s football. In the past eight years, only Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester City – the ‘top three’ of the Women’s Super League – have lifted the FA Cup. If Everton were to beat Manchester City, it would be the culmination of a remarkable turnaround for a club that just two seasons ago narrowly avoided dropping out of the top division altogether.
Back in the 2018/19 season, Everton were a peculiar side. Up until 2015, they had played in the top flight of women’s football for 21 years. But as interest and investment grew from the teams around them, Everton struggled to keep up. They looked set to become a yo-yo club: relegated then given a new license to play in the top division before being relegated again. Their clinging to the bottom of the WSL gave the odd impression of a team aware that they should have a women’s team without wanting to offer it any support.
The Premier League giants survived a second relegation thanks only to the misfortune of relative minnows, Yeovil Town. When Yeovil went into administration they were handed a ten point deduction. Without it, they would have finished a point ahead of Everton. As it was, Yeovil ended up relegated to the third tier of women’s football and Everton remained in the WSL.
Despite their lucky escape, the seeds of what was to come lie in that season. Willie Kirk arrived at the club in December. Kirk’s time at Bristol City had demonstrated him to be a savvy manager when it came to sides with small budgets. Yet it seemed as if Everton were already rethinking whether limiting resources was the correct strategy. Farhad Moshiri took a majority stake in the club in 2018, and soon after, signs of investment began to appear.
Australian international Hayley Raso and England international Izzy Christiansen joined in January of this year and more signings from abroad were added over the summer. A fee of around €100,000 was rumoured to have been spent on bringing in striker Valerie Gauvin from Montpellier. In men’s football that is chickenfeed, but in the women’s game, paying any fee for a player is a statement of intent.
Upon joining, Kirk said that both himself and the club had “ambitious plans about where we think we can take this”. It sounds like standard managerial cliche, but the results have been undeniable.
The wage bill since Everton last appeared in the FA Cup final in 2014 has almost tripled. Their run to Sunday’s match at Wembley saw them knock out Chelsea in the quarter-finals, demonstrating how they have become a team capable of beating the best. In less than two years, Kirk has turned Everton in a team who are hard to break down and absolutely breathless in attack.
It is appropriate that it is Manchester City who Everton will face at the weekend. As Everton’s own time at the top was declining back in 2014, Manchester City’s was just beginning. In preparation for their first season in the WSL, City pinched both Jill Scott and Toni Duggan from Merseyside.
Since then the two clubs have had contrasting approaches to reaching the top.
Where Everton looked for a manager experienced in the women’s game, Manchester City chose to appoint a novice in former Academy boss Gareth Taylor. Whilst Everton scouted high quality but under the radar players from abroad, Manchester City bolstered an already deep squad with World Cup and Champions League winners. And in an echo of what came before, City even persuaded Everton’s top scorer Chloe Kelly to snub a new contract offer and move to Manchester.
Everton will feel confident that they can demonstrate that their method has been superior on Sunday. Manchester City have been unusually erratic this season, with unexpected draws in the league to Brighton and Reading hard to qualify when compared to their confident win over Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. There is no doubt that the City of this season are still finding their feet. Everton have more than enough quality to exploit that.
Regardless of the result, Everton have shone a light on how much room there is at the top of women’s football. Other clubs have cottoned on too – Manchester United are challenging for a Champions League spot this season having not even existed three years ago – but Everton provide a blueprint for something not just created out of nothing.
Instead, the past two years have felt like an apology to a side who were left to be part of the club in name only. The women’s leagues are littered with teams like these. Teams who might wear the same badge but share little else.
Everton’s appearance in the FA Cup Final shows that it is possible to change that attitude, and turn that change into success. It cost them less to do so than the average annual salary of a Premier League player. As a club, they are richer for it.