Speed of change in women’s football is leaving some clubs behind

Deadline for teams to stay in the revamped top two tiers has passed, with Watford and Sunderland announcing that they are not even applying

The deadline for Women’s Super League clubs to apply to stay in the top two tiers next season closed last Friday. Less than 50 days after announcing the controversial plans to restructure women’s football, clubs have had to submit details of how they will meet the new strict criteria set out by the Football Association that will see the establishment of a fully professional top tier and semi-professional second tier. The changes have brought a mixed response from clubs and now we have the first glimpse of their effects.

Last Tuesday the WSL 2 club Watford announced they would not be applying to remain in the new semi-professional league, instead choosing to drop down into the amateur Women’s Premier League. Two days later the WSL 1 side Sunderland, who reverted to semi‑professionalism this year, revealed they too would not meet Friday’s deadline, instead choosing to launch a “joint bid” (presumably with the WSL 2 side Durham or in partnership with a university) for the top flight in March alongside applications from the lower leagues.

Then last Friday Yeovil, vocal opponents of the changes who have fought their way into WSL1 on a shoestring, announced they had submitted their application to stay in the top flight following weeks of campaigning, including crowdfunding. It is not clear whether they have reached the minimum investment level required.

At the first hurdle, clubs are beginning to fall by the wayside after concerns from the outset, and voices from across women’s football, that this would be the case.

A petition against the restructure by Tony Farmer, the founder of Chelsea Ladies in 1991, who has started the group FA WSL Fans United posed 19 questions to the FA and elicited a written response from Katie Brazier head of women’s leagues and competitions. However Farmer is critical of the reply. “If you listen to the radio interviews that Katie Brazier gave, her answers are almost identical to those in her reply to my letter, even though the questions are different,” he said. “It feels like a script.

“A year ago Yeovil were WSL 2 club of the year and applauded by the FA; a year later the FA are writing criteria that could rule them out of the league they won promotion to – it’s wrong. Promotion and relegation should be decided on the pitch not changes.”

Farmer’s passion is evident. These plans have pulled him back into the politics of women’s football even though he no longer works in the game and is “just an interested spectator now”.

He contrasts Brazier’s boast of the hugely speedy development of women’s football since 2013 with the collapse of Notts County to illustrate how fragile this growth is. The effects of the switch to a winter league this season, pitting women’s matches against men’s and in less favourable weather, also hasn’t had time to be gauged. It was expected this move would hit attendances and that is proving to be the case. Clubs at the top are struggling as a result too. Arsenal attracted a crowd of 400 to their game at home to Sunderland on Sunday, compared with winless Yeovil’s 683 the previous day.

Brazier drew a funding comparison with the Netherlands in the letter, saying: “Many other national associations have chosen not to invest in developing a strong domestic league (for example Holland) and this has resulted in their players playing overseas” But Farmer described that as “bizarre”, saying: “I’m pretty sure they won Euro 2017.”

Farmer and others have also been riled by Brazier’s statement that “the FA could, in theory, have chosen to withdraw its support to the top tiers of the domestic game at that point [the end of this season when the WSL licenses expire]”.

As Farmer points out: “Women’s football in Europe has been dominated by Germany, France and Sweden, yet they don’t have fully professional leagues. If we’re lagging behind it’s for one reason, because the FA banned women’s football for 50 years.”

The concerns laid out in Farmer’s reply to Brazier’s letter are felt by many. The statements of clubs teetering on the edge of the WSL have added to these concerns.

Five clubs currently have professional set-ups – Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City – and Reading are almost there. Their fellow WSL 1 sides Bristol City and Birmingham have probably joined Yeovil in applying to continue at the top. That would leave Sunderland as the only WSL1 team to have opted against a top-tier place next season.

West Ham, Derby County, Tottenham and Brighton have welcomed the changes and have likely launched bids to leapfrog into the top flight, which will expand from 10 to 14 teams. If these clubs are willing and able to commit to full-time professional set-ups that is to be welcomed. As Brighton’s manager, Hope Powell, said, more clubs being in that position is “fantastic”.

Rumours abound that this change will finally prompt Manchester United to join the party, though suggestions of a change of heart at Old Trafford have been far from the mark in the past.

A belief in the professionalism of women’s football is what unites all who have an interest in the game. As Farmer says: “I would like to stress that I totally support women’s football being professional. There’s no reason on this planet why it shouldn’t be.” In addition, all will agree with Chelsea’s manager, Emma Hayes, who, while supportive of investment and the increasing commercialisation of women’s football, told Sky Sports: “We have to support every team including our smaller counterparts.”

But the speed with which these changes are being executed, which is leaving some clubs behind despite their efforts, has sown the biggest seeds of discontent. Forcing some clubs to promise unrealistic investment and commitments in such a short space of time won’t create a more stable pyramid.

Talking points

Manchester City pulled clear at the top of the WSL 1 table with a 4-0 win against Bristol City. A late Magdalena Eriksson own goal against Reading meant Chelsea dropped their first points of the campaign after Karen Carney and Eni Aluko turned around a one-goal deficit and looked to have secured the three points.

Abi McManus celebrates scoring for Manchester City.
Abi McManus celebrates scoring for Manchester City. Photograph: Tom Flathers/Man City via Getty Images

• Interestingly, criticism of Eni Aluko‘s form and consistency as a result of the Mark Sampson debacle has again proved wide of the mark. With two starts and six substitute appearances this season, the super-sub has scored five goals in all competitions, making her Chelsea’s joint top-scorer alongside Fran Kirby.

• Glasgow City secured an 11th straight Scottish Women’s Premier League title with a 3-0 win over their nearest rivals, Hibernian. Lauren McMurchie opened the scoring in the 16th minute and Hibs were punished for defensive indecisiveness as goals from Abbi Grant and Hayley Lauder wrapped up the game before the half-hour.

• The extremely popular former Arsenal manager Laura Harvey has left the top job at Seattle Reign to fuel talk linking her with the England manager vacancy. The 37-year-old has two NWSL titles from her five years in the US and has also been linked to the US women’s national team.

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