Interview: Jacqui Oatley – the saviour of women’s football?

By Phoebe Cooke

A football enthusiast and amateur player, Jacqui Oatley's own football-playing career came to an abrupt and painful end when she ruptured her knee ligaments in a match for Chiswick ladies aged 25. She used this experience to turn her pipe dreams into reality, retraining as a journalist in her spare time, and eventually giving up her full-time job and flat to gain experience in sports journalism. She is now one of the most prominent women in sports commentary, and was the first female commentator on Match of the Day in 2005. Her new show 'Women's Football Show', co-hosted with Faye White and Sue Smith, aired for the first time on Monday 20th May 2013. So this is the third year of the Women's Super League, and the women's game seems to be increasingly gaining recognition.

Jacqui Oatley: I think the key is that the women's game is better. There's no doubt that the standard just wasn't as good a few years ago. Which is why television has taken an interest, why we've started televising matches, having women's highlights, and the reason I got the programme I had on the other night [Women's Football Show] – because the product is just so much better than it used to be. It's worth watching, and I think that's been highlighted by the fact that the Olympics were so popular – women's football at the Olympic Games was a real shot in the arm. One of the main reasons for that is that we won right from the very first stage group match, whereas in previous years we haven't been European champions in World Cup matches, we tended to see them [other European teams] at the quarter-final stage. Unfortunately Team GB was out before the Final, but their performance hugely helped the profile of the game. Not just for Team GB, but for the whole sport. We were up against Canada at Old Trafford. That was the most incredible game of football, unbelievable drama and just fabulous, and I think that match in itself opened a lot of sceptics eyes really, people like Sir Bobby Charlton for example.

What did he say about it?

His words were, "I have to admit I thought women's football wasn't that great, but having watched this Olympics, I have to admit I was wrong, the standard's so good". I think he spoke for a lot of people when he said that women's football is a lot different to how it used to be. The coaching's a lot better, the technique's a lot stronger. Obviously there are still improvements to be made over the years, and there are a lot of barriers to becoming a full-time professional. But the less that women have to work alongside the training and matches, the better the standard will become.

So women's football only become professional when the Women's Super League was introduced three years ago?

It became semi-professional across the board then, because before that obviously they didn't pay their players at all. It dragged the standards up really, supporting people to reach those standards of semi-professionalism, and if they didn't, they didn't get a franchise for the league, simple as that.

And now that's going to stepped up again next year, when there will be two divisions, promotions and relegation, so teams will go up and down. Again that's progress, again that's only going to improve the standard. In 2003 Muhamed Al Fayed decided to make a team semi-professional, because they thought they were going to make a head-start on everybody else. They got the one trophy, and they soon realised it wasn't going to happen and stopped being professional. But now it's starting again.

In your opinion, what are the main differences to men's football? To what extent do you think women's football is being taken seriously, not only by fans, but also by corporate sponsors and TV broadcasters?

Well those are three separate questions really in terms of men's and women's football. People involved in women's football tend to get annoyed by the comparisons made between the sports, and I suppose what they mean is that of course there's not the same amount of money in the game, nor should there be, because it's a young sport, relatively speaking. Without dredging up the history of the sport, women were effectively banned by the FA from playing in England for nearly 50 years up until 1971, it wasn't seen as 'lady-like'.

So we've just got to get on with it now. The FA this year is celebrating 150 years, whereas the women are celebrating 20 years of being under the FA umbrella. Because of all this these comparisons are not really welcomed, because there are such differences, and the women's sport hasn't had the same advantages: football in this country has been traditionally dominated by men.

But in terms of the actual play, there's no difference in skill – if you have a five-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy they'll be exactly the same. Of course there's a difference in patent power, like you'd get in the men's 100m final and the women's 100m final – it's all relative. But it's just as exciting, the race is just a second or so longer…there's no difference in skill, and the way they train. Women focus more on the skill and men on the actual pace, but equally some girls are extremely fast. When people are watching men's football and then start watching the women's game, they're not going to be like: "It's the same game". Of course it's not, women are different physical specimens and some of the women they're watching are having to work in a care home for the rest of the week, or doing other jobs – so it's just not a level playing field.

But in it's own right, in my opinion – and I watch both – it's just as exciting as a sport. It's still football! It's about getting the ball in the back of the net and there there's no difference.

So going back to what we touched on before, obviously women's football has only been under the FA umbrella for around 20 years. But in the fullness of time, when the men's and women's game might gain equal coverage on TV and so on, do you think that women footballers will be paid as much as men?

No, no, no. Again, there's no point comparing men's football to women's football. It's not about the money in women's football, it's about the enjoyment of watching it. It's more of a family-orientated sport, the tickets are so much cheaper, it's seen a bit more as a sanitised version – it's very much more family friendly. A lot of people wouldn't take their kids to see men's football games because of the kind of words they'd hear in the crowds, whereas women's football is very much more aimed at families, it's a good day out for a tenner! For example you can have two adults, two kids, it's a fun way to spend a Sunday. So it's just clearly not about money.

It seems a bit unfair that women aren't paid the same as men, if they're ultimately just as good.

It's that market though, isn't it? It's supply and demand. If people want to watch Wayne Rooney score fabulous goals or Gaz Bale win match after match in theory in the Champions League, which they've just missed out on, there's so much more money in that because they're going to pay a lot more money to stay at Spurs. It's just basic market forces and women's football is nowhere near that level. But the aim of the Women's Super League is for the FA not to have to fund it, to get women's football into such a good state that they don't need it. The product is so much better now, the standard is so much better, and hopefully media coverage will get the game into people's minds, I think the next step is getting more people through the gates and getting more finance into it.

To what extent is it more difficult for women to get into football commentary, or indeed any sports commentary? Do you think it's a lot harder for women than men? In general, despite the likes of Clare Balding and yourself, sports commentary is still dominated by men.

Well that's another traditional thing. People are used to hearing men's voices. Boys grow up wanting to become commentators because that's the done thing and girls don't because it's not the done thing. And I think there's a huge element of confidence or lack of confidence in doing that kind of job, because you know you're going to be under a huge amount of scrutiny, as of course I have been. People will kind of think: "What is the point? Why would I put myself through that?" There's not a great financial reward. There are hundreds of aspiring female sports journalists – okay, maybe not hundreds, but lots of them – and I hardly ever read that females say they want to be commentators. They all want to be TV presenters, or newspaper reporters – and that's great, but I just don't see a lot of women desperate to commentate.

And I just think partly it's because they don't have the role models, and they don't see it as sustainable. Maybe they see it as exhausting and frightening. They don't want to be criticised for doing their job, and yeah, I just think they should be encouraged more. If they do have that kind of passion and that kind of knowledge, then they should know it is an option for them. I don't think that sports editors and bosses are saying: "Oh no, we've got to make sure we only recruit male commentators for tennis or cricket". I don't think that at all. I think people are quite keen to have diversity, different types of commentators. They just need to be able to do the job well and if there's a female who can do the job well, I think they'd be welcomed with open arms. But I don't think they're necessarily being encouraged to believe that commentary is something they should aspire to, and that's something I'd like to see changed.

So we've got a massive weekend of women's football coming up. It's the Uefa Final on Thursday and the FA Cup Final on Sunday. For the FA  match – Arsenal or Bristol Academy?

It's not actually a straight-forward pick at all! The obvious favourites would be Arsenal because they've won it so many times – eleven times – and they've won 38 major trophies. Bristol have never won one – they're a younger club of course, so that accounts for it, but it's been the year of the underdog! There's nothing to stop Bristol Academy from winning it this year. If I had to choose a favourite, I'd go for Arsenal, purely on the basis that I'm so used to seeing them win trophies, and they have that mental edge, but it definitely wouldn't be a big shock at all if Bristol won.

So in your view, who's the UK's most inspiring women's player at the moment?

Katy Chapman. She's about to give birth to her third child, she's going to give birth in June, and is going to be playing again in August. So yes, my inspiring woman is Katy Chapman, about to give birth to her third child, who's going to be playing at the top level in a few months. Just amazing.

Moving onto your new BBC football show, which aired for the first time on Monday. Is that the first show of its kind in the UK?

Well it's the first of its kind on the BBC – there's one on ESPN on the Women's Super League. That's a round up of the league. That's a different kind of set-up, there are lots of highlights and interviews, they go to the games, whereas this is more studio based, it's more about analysis, a chance to actually debate issues, which is something we haven't done before. And that's actually something that's so welcome, I think, because we can talk about players and issues, and the fact that we actually have a chance to debate, and chat, and ask questions. That's something that people have been calling out for. It's something between Match of the Day and Football Focus.

It's really nice to be able to have the chance to ask questions of the players and to really analyse the strengths and weaknesses of certain teams. It's just something that hasn't been done before. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive – I was actually quite surprised, I thought there'd be a few negatives. But it just shows that there is clearly an appetite for that. It wasn't just for people who watch women's football regularly, but anyone with a personal interest in football really! What kind of form we're in, what table we're in. It's really based around opening people's eyes.

How much is women's football being nurtured on a grassroots level? Presumably the 'Olympics-effect' and the WSL are having an impact on all clubs across the country?

I'm sure it is having an effect in terms of people getting inspired by role models. There aren't really too many well-known key sports women, are there? There are the individuals, the Jessica Ennises and what have you, but not so many in team sports, whereas men do have so many male role models in men's football, cricket, all sorts of sports. In women's sport we just don't have those kind of role models. With increased coverage there's an opportunity there for women also to make names for themselves.

Do you think you'll be getting male commentators on your Women's Football Show, as well as women?

Not so much on this specific show, just because we've got Faye White and Sue Smith [Jacqui's co-hosts]. They're the regular pundits. But I think in the Euros there will be male pundits too, yeah. There aren't so many at the moment, but there will be.

And finally: does an underlying misogyny still exist in the game? Do men go to women's football games more with an eye to their legs, rather than their skills?

Yeah, I think people who were misogynistic twenty years ago are not going to have changed their minds now! But then again I do think the attitude is changing – I think firstly people are realising it's not acceptable to make those kind of comments publicly, as Stephen Graham found out. You're not going to change people's views necessarily, but I think they know they can't make them publicly. And some people are changing their views. Some of the feedback on Twitter we've got for example has been from people who hadn't realised that women's football is as good as it is and that's really satisfying to see. I think generationally, with young boys playing football alongside their sisters, they'll be brought up for it to be equal, like it is in the United States. They just don't have that issue there, because they don't have the history and tradition we have here in football. Whereas here, traditionally, men grow up to play football and women don't. So men have grown up with sisters and mums not necessarily into football and only talked about football with their dads, whereas now if their sisters are just as much into it they might talk to their mums about it. So the attitude's changing I think. Football's growing up. There's not the same prejudicial belief, they know that women can know just as much about football as they do.

The Womens Football Show is on BBC2 at 11:20pm on  Monday nights