At the launch of the 2017 Scottish Women’s Premier League (SWPL) earlier this week, there was a real sense that this year’s competition is shaping up to be the best ever. Glasgow City are going for their eleventh consecutive title but Hibernian, who won both cups in 2016, will provide considerable resistance. Add to this the fact that the national team will play in their first major tournament this summer at the European Championships, 2017 will be the most prosperous year ever for women’s football in this country.

However, things are not perfect in the world of Scottish women’s football. This close season highlighted the stark reality that if any Scottish women want to have even a stab at playing football professionally, they must leave the country. Glasgow City have been particularly hard hit by this as, in the wake of their 2016 league win, they lost two of their best players, Erin Cuthbert and Fiona Brown who signed for Chelsea and Eskilstuna United respectively. The pair join the likes of Kim Little, Jane Ross, Jenny Beattie, Lisa Evans and a raft of others Scots who have moved down south or overseas to pursue a football career.

This is a huge issue for women’s football in Scotland. The standard of the SWPL is consistently rising but as long as there remains a steady stream of the best players out of the league then the level will only rise so far. The next step for the women's game in this country is to move towards professionalism but this appears to still be some years away. Currently, Glasgow City run themselves as a professional team in every respect, the only thing missing is the finance to allow their players to train full-time. Similarly, Hibs punch above their weight but when you consider that within 12 hours of playing Bayern Munich at Easter Road in last season’s Champions League, many of the team were back at work, they are swimming against the tide.

Small steps forward are being made. A funding deal announced last month will allow the national team to train full-time in the lead-up to the Euros. And late last year it was announced that significant funds will be invested into the women’s game by the Scottish Football Partnership, sportscotland and SSE. However, until the league is professional, the flow of talent out of the country will continue. There is optimism, though. “We would love to have a full-time, professional SWPL set-up – I don’t know when that will happen but that is absolutely the vision,” Vivienne MacLaren, chair of Scottish Women’s Football, told me at the SWPL launch earlier this week. “If you look at the level that these girls play at despite working full-time, it’s amazing. It makes me sad that the players have to leave Scotland to go professional so our main objective is to bring investment into the league and improve things there. We’re looking at other countries to see how their income is generated and given to clubs. I would love to say to the clubs 'right, you’re in SWPL1, here’s a cheque'. I can definitely see that happening at some point although I’m not going to predict when.”

The SFA do provide some backing for women’s football but it is arguable whether the governing body does enough. An oft-used argument against women’s football is that it doesn’t generate significant income so why would a governing body be willing to fund it? In comparison to men’s football, the money generated by women’s football pales into insignificance. Yet there are mitigating factors for this. Women’s football remains a much younger sport than men’s and has had far less time to develop. And anyway, should potential revenue be the only thing on which decisions are based? I would argue not. If the SFA really wanted to help develop the women’s game at the top level, it would invest more than it currently does. Promoting women’s football should be more than a mere box-ticking exercise. It should be something that is recognised as being of significant value by the national governing body. If the SFA really wanted to keep some of this country’s best players here, they would make more money available than they currently do. It cannot be left up to the SWPL to be primarily self-financing.

Aside from the professionalism issue though, women’s football is still struggling to break into a sporting landscape which is saturated. The issue of credibility is far less relevant nowadays yet it remains a huge challenge for women’s clubs to attract sponsorship or sizeable fan bases. So, with no gaps in the schedule, maybe a change of thinking is what’s required. Would a league set-up like rugby’s PRO12 work? Or a European Superleague? Possibly. But it seems disappointing to have to consider these options before the SWPL has had the opportunity to go professional. The Scottish league has proven that it can breed numerous players who are truly world class, which is more than can be said of the SPL. So wouldn’t it be exciting if they had the option to stay here?