Whole new ball game: How Chelsea Women kicked off WSL era 10 years ago today

Today is the anniversary of the first-ever Women’s Super League fixture, when Chelsea hosted Arsenal. Here is the story of a historic day for the Blues…

A decade ago, Chelsea Women had never won a major trophy. Most Blues fans would have been unable to pick Emma Hayes out of a line up. Save for a headline summer for England two years previous, when the Lionesses reached the final of the European Championship, women’s football barely made a ripple.

That was all about to change. ‘Welcome to a new era in women’s football,’ was the message coming out of the FA, as the new Women’s Super League began in earnest with a fixture between Chelsea and Arsenal.

One side had long been the dominant force, even winning in Europe, the other was looking to finally make an impact, having failed to break the monopoly held by the all-conquering Gunners. It was a perfect match-up with which to launch a new league that set about finally putting women’s football on the map in this country.

Imperial Fields, the home of Tooting & Mitcham FC, was the venue for this inaugural WSL fixture and a new home for Chelsea Ladies, as we were known at the time, having previously plied our trade at the Met Police Sports Club in East Molesey.

It was billed as a day out for all the family, as Chelsea Foundation coaches led sessions on and around the pitch long before kick-off, while girl group Parade – one UK top-10 hit – were to provide the pre-match entertainment.

All that really mattered though on this beautiful spring evening was for there to be entertainment on the pitch at the launch of the FA Women’s Super League. A big question mark came with his huge investment: could the sport, finally, relaunch itself into the mainstream? It had been a long time coming.

Competitive women’s football had been banned from 1921, only resuming again 50 years later. Almost another half a century on and the FA were still playing catch-up, with this semi-professional league made up of only eight teams just the latest roll of the dice.

Arsenal, Birmingham City, Bristol Academy, Chelsea, Doncaster Rovers Belles, Everton, Lincoln Ladies, and Liverpool were the sides whose bids were successful, from a pool of 16 clubs in the application process. Of those, Chelsea and Arsenal were the lucky two to be involved in the inaugural WSL fixture, a historic occasion for the women’s game which took place on the evening of Wednesday 13 April 2011.

In the event, there wasn’t much that went on to suggest a ‘new era’ was on the way, as the dominant side in the women’s game lived up to their reputation in front of 2,500 spectators, which even now would be considered a big crowd for most domestic women’s games.

Arsenal boasted a starting XI full of players who either were, or would go on to be, capped at senior international level, including three who later played a big role in Chelsea’s success: Katie Chapman, Niamh Fahey and Gilly Flaherty.

The Blues, meanwhile, boasted seven current or future internationals, including Carly Telford, still part of the goalkeeping group at the club today, left-back Claire Rafferty, who would go on to attain legend status, and Leanne Champ, now a member of Emma Hayes’ backroom staff. Drew Spence, who has made more appearances for Chelsea Women than any other player, had picked up an injury in an FA Cup defeat to Lincoln which ruled her out.

The Gunners took the lead through Flaherty, a player who would later be announced at Chelsea Women games as ‘Ledge’, after a corner somehow found its way through to her for a tap-in, but there was little goal-mouth action of note until late in the contest. On this occasion, the pitch came back to haunt us, as the uneven surface contributed to Rafferty and Helen Lander failing to turn in a peach of a cross from Dani Buet.

So, it finished 1-0 to the Arsenal and while the game itself had failed to spark, the evening could be deemed a success for the women’s game in this country. The attendance was virtually unheard of for a club fixture at that time and the media interest meant people were finally talking about Chelsea Ladies.

‘It was a good night for women's football and it was a privilege to be involved,’ said Matt Beard, the Chelsea Ladies manager, after the full-time whistle. ‘There was a big crowd and the atmosphere was electric – I hope that will continue to be the case throughout the season. Hopefully the game can kick on from here and really raise its profile.’

For Chelsea, however, it was a while yet before we kicked on. Beard’s side managed only four wins from 14 league games that term, as we finished third from bottom, while the Gunners lifted the WSL trophy at the end of the season, to go along with the seven Premier League National League Division titles they had won on the spin ahead of the top flight’s revamp.

This was only the beginning, though. More and more clubs got behind their women’s programmes, none more so than Chelsea, as we brought in Emma Hayes as manager in 2012 and gave her full backing to help transform a team with no history of success in the women’s game.

Of course, that has been backed up in the trophy cabinet, with nine pieces of silverware accrued in as many years following the recent triumph in the Continental League Cup final. We are also top of the Women’s Super League with three games to go and in our third Champions League semi-final.

With a lucrative new broadcast deal also recently announced, it’s clear the women’s game in this country has joined us in taking huge strides over the course of the past decade. Who knows what the next 10 years will hold…


Chelsea’s first-ever WSL team – where are they now?

Carly Telford
Signed from Leeds Carnegie, who missed out on WSL selection, Telford made her league debut in this game. Although the goalkeeper left us in 2013, playing in an FA Cup final against us for Notts County two years later, she returned to the club ahead of the 2017 WSL Spring Series, since when she has competed for the No.1 jersey for both club and country. Recently signed a new contract, which also includes a coaching role.

Sophie Perry
The right-back had been with Chelsea since her teens and she went on to play in the FA Cup final in 2012. Perry joined her home-town club Brighton after leaving the Blues and last autumn she moved to the Thai league.

Kylie Davies
Selected as club captain when Casey Stoney left on the eve of the first WSL season, Davies was a wholehearted centre-half who also represented the Welsh national team. Without a club since a brief stint with Lewes a couple of years ago.

Gemma Bonner
Another signing from Leeds Carnegie, Bonner was only 19 when she joined the Blues, but she left us a few months after missing a penalty in the shoot-out to decide the 2012 FA Cup final. Went on to win two WSL titles with Liverpool and now plays for Manchester City.

Claire Rafferty
Raff spent more than a decade as a Blue, witnessing several false dawns before being rewarded during our rise under Emma Hayes. A World Cup bronze medallist with England, representative of Team GB in 2012 and winner of numerous honours at Chelsea – the left-back enjoyed some career. She now works for the club in our commercial department.

Dani Buet
Chelsea fan through and through. Buet spent more than seven years with us, when she never gave less than 100 per cent and could occasionally produce a moment of magic with her sweet right foot. A former England international who made the squad for Euro 2009, when the Lionesses reached the final; now plays for Brighton under the manager during that tournament, Hope Powell.

Hayley Moorwood
Beard found out the captain of the New Zealand national team had moved to the UK with her rugby-playing fiancé, Daniel Bowden, when he signed for London Irish. She was the big-name arrival ahead of the inaugural WSL campaign but after an uneventful season Moorwood departed the club.

Leanne Champ
Champ enjoyed a fine club career, winning plenty of honours during her time with Arsenal and also playing for Millwall before joining Chelsea. Spent time coaching abroad but has been back at Cobham for a number of years now, with her current role split between coaching and analysing the opposition.

Danni Bird
Out-and-out winger, predominantly left-sided, who joined from Birmingham City. Earlier in her career she’d been talked about as a potential England international, but she lasted just a few games with Chelsea before injury brought a premature end to her career.

Ashlee Hincks
Although a prolific stint with Gillingham wasn’t replicated at a higher level with Chelsea, Hincks has enjoyed a fine career in the lower leagues, most recently with Crystal Palace but also during an award-winning spell in Iceland.

Helen Lander
The former Arsenal striker was our leading centre-forward at the start of the WSL and she was always a fairly reliable source of goals, including a strike in the 2012 FA Cup final. She went on to become Wales’ all-time leading scorer and recently signed for London Bees in the Championship, having also played for Reading and Watford.
 

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