‘Getting maternity rights in players’ contracts is important’

Brighton are flying high in the WSL – and Albion attacker Aileen Whelan certainly feels on top of the world at the moment.

Hope Powell’s team play host to Manchester United Women in a top-half-of-the-table tussle on Sunday lunchtime and before that big game, Whelan and partner Fern – who was Aileen’s team-mate before retiring from playing last year – joined Caroline Barker on Sky Sports’ ‘Inside The WSL’ show.

The location? 450ft up in the air, in a British Airways i360 pod, offering stunning views of the South Coast.

There was one more very important passenger aboard for the ride into the skies – the Whelans’ baby boy Jenson, who is nearly eight months old.

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The proud parents were chatting to mark Rainbow Laces, with the campaign’s annual activation coming to a close this weekend with a strong show of support in women’s football.

Fern now works in inclusion as the PFA’s first-ever Women’s Football EDI Executive.

“We always knew we wanted to have kids eventually,” she explains, reflecting on the decision made by the Whelans last year to start their family.

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“I knew that I was going to be retiring, and it was Covid times as well.

“We’d planned it for a while and we were in a good place in our relationship so we thought, why not do it now?

“We were really lucky to fall pregnant so early on with him, really.”

Fern Whelan won three caps for England under Hope Powell before later playing for the coach again at Brighton

The 33-year-old believes the path they are following is one that will be travelled by more and more fellow professionals in the coming years.

Conversations on parenting are becoming more frequent in WSL locker rooms.

“As the game progresses, people can see that, actually you can take a bit of time out, and the club will be supportive,” adds Fern.

Returning to playing after having a baby is a topic she is raising with clubs too.

“One of the first things going on in the background now is sorting out contracts for female players and making sure that there are maternity rights in there. It’s really important,” she says.

Aileen, 30, recognises that this is uncharted territory for some clubs whose women’s teams have only turned fully professional in recent years.

Aileen Whelan has made over 70 appearances for Brighton since joining the club in September 2017

“It’s just so new, isn’t it? It’s hard for clubs to adapt because it’s never happened before.

“I have to say, Brighton have been really supportive of us, such as when Jenson has got appointments and things like that.”

As one of many LGBTQ+ couples in the women’s game, the Whelans are proud to share their story to help with raising awareness of issues related to Rainbow Laces.

“I think it’s just the understanding behind [relationships],” says Fern. “Sadly, abuse is starting to creep back in.

“The message we want to send is that football is for everyone and it needs to be inclusive as possible

“That’s for people off the pitch, fans coming into the stadium – it’s all about creating that friendly environment.”

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces campaign, currently receiving its annual activation from November 25 to December 12.

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