Helen Ward at home with her family

Credit: PAUL GROVER

Wales international Helen Ward echoed the plight of working mothers everywhere when she tweeted in response to Boris Johnson’s lockdown announcement. “

I’m seriously considering retirement,” the Watford player wrote in despair, “not sure I’ve got it in me to keep training alone, homeschool a six-year-old and entertain a three-year-old. No chance I can do all three effectively.”

When school closures were confirmed on Monday night, the 34-year-old was left facing a minimum of six weeks homeschooling her two young children, as well as working at her day job as a marketing officer at Watford and trying to maintain her fitness at home. 

Data from the first UK lockdown showed that one in three mothers felt homeschooling was affecting their well-being, and a third of all parents felt it was negatively affecting their job. With three roles to juggle, it is small wonder that Ward felt overwhelmed.

“I didn’t want my tweet to appear as attention-seeking,” Ward says of her emotional message. “But, unlike in March, my husband will be going to work, [so I’ll be] homeschooling my six-year-old. She loves school, but it’s a totally different environment being at home and being expected to ignore the TV and all her toys and playing with her brother.”

Alongside the homeschooling woes that so many working parents will relate to, Ward feels her football career is being put on hold while the rest of the game plays on. Watford play in the third division, falling just outside of “elite” sport, so Ward is unable to train or play in the current nationwide lockdown, nor in the previous Tier 4 restrictions.

While 158 men’s clubs are con-sidered “elite” and permitted to continue competing, just 23 women’s teams are afforded that luxury. Parity is clearly missing as Watford men’s team sit below Watford women’s in the football pyramid – 26th versus 24th – but the men are able to play and train while the women must stay at home. 

That a Wales international with 93 caps such as Ward’ – who has enjoyed spells are Arsenal, Chelsea and Reading – is considered “non-elite” is indicative of the imbalance that exists.

Ward in action for Wales last year

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“I feel like I’ve lost a year of my career almost, and at 34 I’m not sure I can afford to lose much more. But it’s not just me, it’s about the whole of women’s football,” Ward says. “I never thought we’d be at this point questioning whether the season can finish after what happened last year. That’s the biggest worry.

“Last time all the football was stopped, so everyone was in the same boat. This time the most difficult thing is some of my team-mates from Wales are able to carry on [because they play for WSL or Championship clubs]. A few have already checked in on me, which is amazing, but it is difficult to watch on. Because I know as a club, other than testing, Watford were probably doing the same as every other club in the country that is able to play [in the WSL and Championship].

“When you consider that our league and those below us are regional, we’re limiting the travel anyway. So it’s frustrating, but you have to draw a line somewhere – it’s unfortunate that we fall just below that line.”

In the days since tweeting her frustration she has received dozens of supportive messages from team-mates, such as Wales and Reading’s Jess Fishlock, as well as from fans. She will not be retiring yet, but she fears that the next few weeks are looking far more difficult than the first lockdown with female footballers having again drawn the short straw in this pandemic. 

Ward's situation is indicative of the difficulties facing female footballers

Credit: PAUL GROVER

As former Wales international Laura McAllister, who is running for a spot on Fifa’s Council this year, tweeted of Ward’s situation: “This says it all about the structural disadvantages faced by women athletes. A top, top international player understandably finding this load impossible to manage. Just a reminder to us all that women’s sport might have come a long way, but there’s an even longer haul ahead.”

Ward worries other women in the game will also see early retirement as an option amid so much uncertainty and adds that there are wider implications of locking down lower divisions. She fears that the women’s pyramid from tiers three to six will struggle to complete the season if this goes on much longer – risking another voided season.

“Watford hoped to be promoted last season, the likes of Southampton and Wolves too. Suddenly, if you don’t finish this season, that’s two seasons worth of growth, where you could potentially have put yourself at least in a semi-professional environment. How long do you keep waiting? Do [clubs] think, how much can you keep putting into this when there’s no stability around the game? Hopefully those sides keep betting on their teams.”