‘There is this sort of apprehension’: Professionalism and pathways in women’s football

"It’s always important to know that there is that top level. But if on the ground your experience is very different, I don’t know how much of a difference it makes."

Cambridge University FC celebrate and lift a trophy
Credit: Izzy Poles Sports Photography

With the stream of record-breaking attendances and abundance of visible stars in the women’s game today, it is easy to forget that the scope of professionalism remains somewhat limited. 

The Women’s Super League only became fully professional in 2018, and the Championship continues to comprise a mixture of professional and semi-professional teams.

For aspiring female footballers, these professional horizons are important. Doubts about the level of opportunity can contour footballing journeys, like those of Fran Steele, 27, and Lalini Colas, 19. Both decided to prioritise academics following promising spells at Arsenal reserves and Tottenham U21s respectively. 

Personal factors shaped these decisions as well as the footballing context, with a passion for what they are now pursuing being an important factor. Both are students at the University of Cambridge, with Fran in her final year studying medicine, and Lalini entering the first of a history and politics degree.

“I think I’ve combined my passions a bit,” says Fran, who is hoping to become a sports and exercise medicine doctor. 

“Cambridge gave me a very big opportunity to do something else,” adds Lalini. 

Nearly a decade separates the two, but concerns about professionalism influenced both footballing trajectories. Despite coming either side of the Lionesses’ transformative victory at Euro 2022, their stories show aspects of continuity as much as change. 

Fran Steele: Medic, midfield maestro

In a balancing act of seismic proportions, Fran finds time to boss the midfield for Cambridge United alongside her studies. 

However, she no longer aspires to play professionally as she did while in the youth set-ups at Ipswich, Arsenal, and England. Former teammates including Leah Williamson have reached the highest level, but Fran was reluctant to fully commit to football. 

“I didn’t want to sacrifice any academics back then. Many teams didn’t even have a full-time, professional setup,” she tells Her Football Hub.

In 2015, she left Arsenal’s Centre of Excellence to study molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and play Division I football at Yale University. This married her footballing and academic aspirations. 

“Even if you want to go pro eventually, that’s what people do. They go through the college system, they play for the university whilst getting a degree.”

Credit: Izzy Poles Sports Photography

It was at Yale, though, that she came to terms with not playing professionally. 

“I think my mindset just switched a little bit. And that’s a personal thing. I think I wanted to prioritise medicine,” she says. 

Fran does not regret her decision and is excited to contribute to the women’s game as both a player and a medical practitioner. Nonetheless, she will always have unanswered questions. 

“If I had given football absolutely everything, would I have gone pro? I don’t know, maybe not. I think the women’s game now, especially since the Euros, has come on so much. Maybe if someone’s in the same sort of position as me things would be a little bit different for them.”

Lalini was in that very position. At the time of Chloe Kelly’s famous winner, she was signed to Tottenham U21s.  

“On the ground, your experience is very different”

Fran is right to point to areas of improvement, but Lalini’s story shows that many issues persist. She celebrates the growth of the WSL, but questions whether this has translated to improvements in academies and the lower tiers. 

“It’s always important to know that there is that top level. But if on the ground your experience is very different, I don’t know how much of a difference it makes.”

Lalini started out at Barnet (now London Bees), before moving onto Crystal Palace, and then into Tottenham U21s at 17 years old. 

Going full circle, she joined London Bees’ first team this summer, but has since left to focus on university. Reflecting on her journey, she identifies a culture in which professional opportunities seemed unobtainable. 

“There’s a very strong attitude of apprehension amongst coaches that filters down to players. There’s always [the idea that] you can’t commit to this too hard. In men’s football, the idea of backing yourself is really encouraged. In women’s football, there is this sort of apprehension,” she says. 

Read: Inside FIFPRO’s Women’s World Cup player survey

This cautious culture became clear when she informed Spurs’ coaches that she intended to apply to Cambridge, amongst other high-ranking universities. 

“They were like, ‘we don’t want your football to get in the way of your academic career.’ I understand that, but I’m equally very committed to football. Whether that would’ve happened in men’s football, I don’t know. I don’t think there would’ve been that caution.”

Mustering the self-belief to pursue a professional career was made difficult by feelings that women’s football was an afterthought within some clubs. Disparities in the quality of equipment and healthcare can be disheartening. Lalini recalls lacking women’s fitted kit and a dedicated physio while at Crystal Palace.

“Of course it’s going to impact how people view themselves, and whether they think they’re going to become professionals,” she says.

In her view, kit manufacturers must show the same regard for women at the lower levels as the more visible footballers in the WSL.

“They [WSL players] wear kit that actually fits them. When you go down the lower leagues, you’re just getting offloaded men’s kit. Even though it’s the same suppliers, they are less inclined to look after players’ needs.”

Training environments also reinforced feelings of being overlooked. At Tottenham, a separation of facilities made the first team seem out of reach.  

“There was a slight disconnect between the U21s and the first team, compared to what it would be in men’s football. They didn’t give enough players a chance to really adapt to that first team environment,” Lalini recalls.

Both players may always wonder if things could have been different. Their stories are a stark reminder that clubs, investors, and football associations must support a continued, sustainable growth of the women’s game. Until professional cultures are upheld at all levels, we will continue to rue lost talents. 

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