If ever a week showed the breadth of a football club it was this one. Of course the men’s team is still the star attraction, but the rest of the football operation grows bigger by the day. The Academy has produced yet another England international as Mason Mount joins the recent group of graduates at the very top table. Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Tammy Abraham have all recently made the step to Gareth Southgate’s side and at their ages there are going to be plenty more opportunities for them to shine through the years.
Southgate, like Frank Lampard, is showing extraordinary belief in the current young cohort and it could well be that eventually they finally do what other England teams have not done since 1966: win a major trophy. They are young but what they also seem to have is a cohesive spirit. England has had groups of players in the fairly recent past that have been good enough but haven’t got over that final barrier. There were a number of reasons for that, but among them was the egotism, the self-promotion, and the love of celebrity and fame that partially caused their inability to gel as a group. Even Lampard and Rio Ferdinand have said there were cliques caused by a bunch of alpha males being squashed together and that probably held them back. I have been in dressing rooms like that, and no matter how good any individual player is, it doesn’t usually work if you do not have a team ethic.
People like Southgate and Lampard do not seem to be moved by that superficiality, even though they know a hungry media needs feeding now and again. It is about controlling it, and not it controlling you. Wise people in the game know this and this is why the England team is full of ‘good’ lads. The only way you get this attitude is if they are brought into the game in the right way. Happily our Academy, though it will take all sorts, knows that only the ones who are good enough and are willing to learn the right ethos, are going to get through to our men’s team, and in time the national side.
The Academy is vital but finally the women’s team also got the attention they deserved for a league game at the weekend as well. Almost 25,000 turned up to watch Emma Hayes’ side play Spurs which was a fantastic reflection of the way the entire nation seemed to react to the Women’s World Cup in France. It was a tight match but Beth England’s thunderbolt from her left foot was worthy of winning any game. It was only 1-0 in the end which underlined what a tough league the WSL will be this time. Of all the games that took place over the weekend, none had more than a goal separating the teams. A mature league has to have competition and uncertainty. In the WSL there are no ‘Aunt Sallys’ left who can be thumped without thinking, which is where it had to get to.
The day before I had been along to the Etihad with more than 31,000 others to see Manchester City beat Manchester United 1-0, and it was another glorious sight to see. Yet again it was a single goal win, this time from City’s Caroline Weir and it was another thunderbolt that would have graced any game at any level.
Covering the women’s game is different than doing the media side at any men’s game. It is hard to put your finger on it, but for a start in the press room before the game it was mostly women reporters and pundits. Ten minutes after I arrived in there a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ broke out and everyone joined in to celebrate one of the women’s birthdays. I have been covering men’s football in press rooms for more than two decades, I had never heard that happen before, there is no chance the men would do that or even consider doing it for a colleague.
There was another moment I liked. If you ever watch football on TV, you always see the shot of the players coming off the bus. Now I have to admit I find that mind-numbingly boring, it is just guys walking off a bus, usually with heads down, wearing headphones and trying not to catch the camera’s lens or anyone’s eye. I did that walk a thousand times myself as a player, so it has lost its lustre for me, though I know and understand others like seeing it. Watching the women arrive off the buses at the Bridge and the Etihad was, however, spine tingling. They skipped off, bounced off, danced off, looked happy and very, very excited. They stopped for selfies, smiled at the TV cameras and generally made it clear that they were hyper excited to be right there on that special day.
Everything was in the women’s favour over the weekend to be fair. They were able to use the main grounds, there was no Premier League fixture list to compete with, it was the first day of the new season with fine weather and the warm glow of France was still weighing heavily in the air. On top of that, Chelsea v Spurs and Man City v Man Utd are always good box office at any level. These advantages will not apply throughout the entire season, but it is a great start and it may well be that in time this is seen as a watershed moment.
I certainly hope it is because it underlined that football clubs have to be more than just men’s team vehicles these days. Chelsea haven’t thought that old-fashioned way for years anyway. There is so much more to the club, especially when you consider the ways it works with the community and with charities, but this week felt like an invitation for everyone to join in at every level.
For all that, there is of course a men’s game to look forward to at the weekend and it certainly will not be easy. Wolves have already shown that they fear no-one, particularly at home, and they will not adapt their style for anyone either. In fact I do not think any team going to Molineux in the Premier League this season can be seen as strong favourites to win, they have improved that much. With four home games in a row after this one, a point or three to keep us in the pack would be welcome but I have no doubt it will be one of the toughest games of the season.