Football, players, contracts and COVID-19: The Perspective of an out of contract Professional Female Footballer during the Pandemic.

By Becky Easton

Covid19 continues to cause unimaginable and irreparable suffering and damage to lives, families and communities across the globe. The world is a changed place, football and sport are insignificant entities right now, but they continue to be much discussed.

Football, certainly in the UK, is a way of life for some, an escape for others, pays the bills for many, and is adored by most. The world football economy is undergoing its most critically testing time, the black swan that is the coronavirus, is wreaking havoc at all levels of the game, in all places.

English football is set to lose millions, some clubs likely won’t survive, and maybe the game as we know it will never be the same again. Recruitment may shift dramatically, with a reduction in transfer fees, increased player loans and player swaps, greater opportunities for youth, and some creative scouting required, ably assisted by technology.

Globally football leagues and associations appear to be acting very much independently, there is no uniform thinking. The leagues of France, Belgium and Holland have been cancelled, in Belarus the football never stopped, the K-League in Korea started last week, this weekend saw the return of the Bundesliga; Italy and Spain propose to recommence mid-June, meanwhile the English Premier League continues to discuss ‘Project Restart’.

The current state of Women’s football has suitably been a topic of discussion and debate by members of the Football Collective recently, with some valuable insight, facts and opinions aired. Many questions though remain unanswered:

  • What will the eventual impact of the crisis be?
  • Will women’s leagues be completed?
  • Will clubs survive? (we’ve already sadly lost Fylde Women)
  • Will there be a huge rise in mental health and player welfare issues? and who will support this?
  • Will players’ contracts and wages be affected? (so far, we have seen Reading Women and some Championship clubs furlough players).

Much has been deliberated about those whose contracts are due to expire in the summer of 2020, such as high profile male players Adam Lallana, David Silva, Willian and Jan Vertonghen; but what about the free agents, currently in between clubs with no contract, eagerly awaiting the next transfer window, whenever that may be and whatever that may look like…..and what if that player was female?

Natasha Dowie is a 31-year-old, well-travelled, professional female footballer. As well as representing England, Natasha has plied her trade in the leagues of five different countries, covering three continents. Those leagues being; the FA Women’s Super League, the NWSL in the United States, Sweden’s Damallsvenskan, the Toppserien of Norway, and five seasons in the Australian W-League. Being the top scorer at every club she has played for, Natasha’s time in England saw her win all three domestic trophies with spells at Everton and Liverpool, she has also competed in the UEFA Women’s Champions League and the inaugural Asian Champions League in 2019.

Tell us about the most recent part of your football career, and how you came to be currently out of contract?

For the past 5 years I have spent the winter months playing for Melbourne Victory in the Women’s W-League in Australia. The W-League is only a short 12 game season that runs from November to March, so for the rest of the year I work around that, and play in another league that fits in on the calendar. The Scandinavian leagues probably fit best, as they usually run from April to September, so last year I was playing in Norway for Vålerenga for most of the year. I left Oslo in September, was home in England for a couple of weeks, and then off to start my pre-season with Melbourne Victory, in total, I was out in Australia from October until the middle of March.  By ending a contract in March, it automatically limits my transfer options, the January window has been and gone, and it is pretty much play in Scandinavia, the States, or wait for the June window for the major European leagues.

So right now, I am out of contract and a free agent, and the plan is to sign for a club in the summer transfer window, beginning June 30th. Because of this pause in football due to the pandemic though, my future is unsure right now, there is uncertainty about whether or not the leagues are finishing, or if they’ll start back again and therefore extend the season, or whether the transfer window will be moved or not. So, I could really be without a club till who knows when, in the short term, I think I will be able to cope without a club and income, but not indefinitely.

The UK went into lockdown on March 23rd, where were you then, and as a professional athlete how are you coping with the lockdown?

In Australia we were aware of the virus around January time, there were some changes made regarding use of disposable cups and cutlery, no cash payments only contactless, hand sanitiser and hand washing advice prevalent, and some face mask wearing. Noticeably, the large Chinese community in Melbourne seemed to go into a kind of voluntary lockdown, Chinatown was immediately emptied and restaurants were closed. We thought this was a sign that something serious was on its way, and we were right.

To complete the season, on the 20th March the W-League Grand Final was actually played behind closed doors. We left Melbourne on March 22nd and they were just beginning to enforce more strict rules and restrictions then. Luckily, we managed to get away a couple of days before flights were getting cancelled and airlines were shutting down. It was a bit of a rude awakening arriving in England on March 24th, the country was just declared in lockdown, and I was unable to see any family or friends. I had been away since October and couldn’t see anyone, my Mum and Dad, my Grandparents who are in their 80’s, my Sister who’s just had a baby, I’m an Auntie for the first time and haven’t seen my niece yet. We literally landed at Heathrow, came straight up to Liverpool, have been home now around seven weeks and haven’t had any contact with anyone, other than by phone.

Football and training wise, it’s probably not the worst thing for me to have a little bit of time off from playing right now, I’ve been playing back to back seasons for a few years so I rarely get much of a break. I’ve been ticking over and doing my own training sessions at home, in the back garden and in local fields with my partner to keep in good shape. That’s been quite hard, because without a club you don’t have that off field support or guidance on what training to be doing, or what strength and conditioning is needed. Players who are at clubs have programs to follow, are monitored, given equipment and resources like bikes and treadmills to train with, whereas really, I didn’t have anything, a couple of cones and a ball. It’s been tough but I’m also trying to see the positives, stay well and healthy, to just have a bit of down time, reflect on the season just gone, and work on my individual game, but if this goes on for the rest of the year then it’s not going to be an ideal situation for me.

It’s concerning times for all sportspeople right now, how do you think this pandemic and subsequent lockdown will affect your career?

I think it’s very hard to tell if it will affect my career or not because we don’t know the extent of it yet, we don’t know timescales or the actual impact on women’s football. On a personal level, my plan was to come back from Australia to have 2 or 3 months off at home and to sign for someone in the summer window, so right now, this was my plan. But obviously now football is at a standstill and we don’t know how long for, there is huge uncertainty around everything, so for me really, it’s just a waiting game, day by day, watching the news and waiting to hear back from my agent. He is in discussions with clubs but they are in a difficult position also, things are changing for them on a daily basis and understandably they can’t commit to signings. Most clubs don’t know their financial status and how that will be affected, can they afford to recruit players or not, and a lot of clubs can’t really look to plan ahead because they have seasons to finish off. A big concern is what will happen with the transfer window, and the impact on recruitment, that’s before you begin to even think about things like length of contract and terms of contract and the effect on those. It’s definitely not ideal but it could be a lot worse, and I hope like everyone, the impact on my career will be minimal.

And what about the level of support you may have received, from clubs, your agent, the PFA, FIFPRO maybe?

I am a member of two PFAs, in England and in Australia, and over the past couple of weeks I have reached out to both of them. The English PFA had no clarity regarding what is happening with the leagues and transfer windows, and they informed me of a PFA hardship fund for personal loans in extreme cases. There have also been some generic emails to members regarding mental health support and financial advice. Similarly, the PFA in Australia were unsure about the future and they have also frozen their education grants for which I was a due a re-payment from them in May. So, to be honest, not a great deal of support, a lot of uncertainty and no real answers, which you have to understand and respect I suppose. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen and everybody has their own concerns and priorities in a crisis; I have to say when I’ve needed either of those PFA’s in the past they’ve been excellent.

I made contact with FIFPRO enquiring about mainly the future of the transfer windows, they suggested that the current thinking, but nothing concrete, was that the June window would go ahead as planned, and there would be a kind of roster freeze until the current seasons had been completed or voided, so if a player signs for a new club in June, they can’t play until the 2020/21 season.

With regards to my agent, he is in regular contact with me, he is aware of my position and my plans and he’s working towards that. He is very well connected with clubs around the world particularly Europe, and again, he is unsure of what is happening, it’s also an extremely difficult time for agents right now.

I am fortunate to have a strong home life and family support, and I believe if I wasn’t so secure in myself, and the kind of belief I have in myself as a player, and trusting that I’m going to get a contract it could be quite a daunting place to be. I am clubless, and when you are clubless realistically nobody cares about you, you don’t have that team around you. If I dwell on it and look at the bigger picture it’s quite a scary thought, that really, I’m not a professional football player right now, I am someone that has no income, no job, no club, and is pretty much just playing a waiting game day by day to see what happens.

What would be the best outcome for you through this?

Ideally, I would like to have a new club arranged for a summer move as soon as possible, to be able to commit to someone and know what the future holds. I’d like to start preparing, planning and training and getting excited about my next move. On the flip side of that as well, the prospect of moving to a new club, which maybe abroad, is also a little daunting. I would be going from a couple of months of isolation to somewhere new and interacting again as part of a team and a club, where training might be different, the environment could be changed if social distancing is still in place, there could still be travel bans, it’s unforeseeable right now.

The ideal situation for me would be that, the 2019/20 season is wrapped up sooner rather than later, whether the leagues are cancelled or restarted and completed quickly, so that the knock-on effect, and impact on the transfer window and next season is minimised, so I can commit and sign for someone as planned, and play football again.

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