Opinion: FAWSL restructuring plans a disaster waiting to happen
FAWSL restructuring plans a disaster waiting to happen

Opinion: FAWSL restructuring plans a disaster waiting to happen

The FA have planned a huge shake up of the FAWSL, but is it a disaster waiting to happen?

Lisa Higgins

It has been rumoured for months that the FAWSL could be radically changed next season. Putting an emphasise on restructuring the entire system, from creation to a fully licensed full-time tier 1 to a part-time tier 2. With those only financially capable of sustaining a fully licensed club to participate in the FAWSL elite. Home-grown players prioritised over foreign players in order to benefit the England national team.

Financial Fair Play put in place to curb overspending and promote fairness. Those core facets of what the Football Association want the FAWSL to burgeon into are admirable but short-sighted, with the very real potential to undo the positive steps taken in the women’s game in the UK.

Clubs have already reportedly signalled their unease of the FA’s grand plan for domestic league football. Their concerns should not be discounted, on the face of it the FA’s plan seems progressive. Look further into the restructure of the entire pyramid system and the plan looks positively cavalier. Further creating a football disparity, unlike any other in women’s football, fresh on the back of a change to a winter leauge system, which has not been fully assessed of its impact. The FA have rushed hastily in trying to solve multiple problems without due process.  

Driving away investment from grassroots football

Step away from the metropolitan hubs of women’s football, you will find clubs all across the country from the North East and the South West struggling to balance their budgets. Inward investment harder to find as sponsors gravitate to the top echelons of the FAWSL. Job losses and coaching development stifled a steady decline in grassroots football. That is the potential course ahead for many of the branch root clubs up and down the country.

The FAWSL under the new framework set out by the FA for would increase the likelihood of a concentration of footballing wealth, that could take years to overcome. Making lower league football less attractive, offering no opportunity for those clubs not fortunate to have high operational budgets to use top tier status. To use it to offer sponsors a real prestige outlay for their investment. Despite Katie Brazier FA Head of Women's leauge and competitions heralding, "It will provide an elite performance environment that will produce more and better players. Increase interest and excitement via a more competitive leauge, attract a greater number of fans in turn deliver improved commercial viability."

Aspirational football of clubs wanting to progress further up the pyramid stopped due to lack of funds. Not even given the chance to reap the rewards for success forcing fans and supporters groups to try and fill the gaps in financial short-falls. Whilst those same clubs trying to lure supporters through the turnstiles seeing a potential haemorrhaging of fans, gravitating towards the FAWSL elite clubs. Fan loyalty on the verge of the ultimate test. 

Newly promoted Yeovil Town have expressed their deep concern over the plans releasing a heartfelt statement laying bare the reality for their club, they said, "We have the structure, facilities and ambition to become a full-time professional club given time, but we currently do not have the financial support to do this. We do not have the budget to allow our players and coaches to become full-time athletes, unless further investment comes our way soon. 

We have set out our plans to the FA, but it seems that there is a clear desire by them to impose off field financial criteria immediately as a condition of WSL membership."

Adding "With the rapid growth of our club in such a short space a time, we urge all fans, businesses, media and the community, to continue to support us.Our club has worked extremely hard over many years to get to the top flight and we wish that journey to continue."

Yeovil general manager Trevor Jenkins confirmed it would take the Somerset club £350,000 to meet the new T1 criteria. The reality of football is very different in the board room to the grassroots struggle faced by clubs. In creation of a full-time only league creates a football inequality financially that will impact hard down the football pyramid, with no safety net. 

There is a very real possibility that teams who are not currently in the FAWSL system, able to buy a place on the top table of the game. With the likes of Tottenham and Southampton potentially feasting on its prestige and sharing the spoils of all the riches it may bestow. Very much at the expense of clubs who have rightly earned their place on merit. Those clubs perennially consigned to a framework that does not reward aspiration or development, on the back of lack of fiscal clout. 

Case in point Doncaster Belle’s controversially not offered a place in the FAWSL 1, their place ultimately filled by Manchester City. Was in respects as Arsenal said at the time as “morally scandalous” this move by The FA would far surpass the Doncaster case by some distance. Romanticising the beautiful game, underdogs can firmly buck the rational convention if given the platform to succeed. Not placing them on the trap door to spiralling gate figures, sponsorship and reduced prize money.

That's before we even get to the potential revolving door in the make up of the FAWSL T1. Will clubs need to renew their licenses on a yearly basis? Will clubs deem it a vanity project and up sticks and leave, when they automatically don't see success on the pitch? Will clubs be able to sustain the financial commitment into a multiple season stay in the FAWSL top tier? Important questions but at this junction there are very few answers to them. It's a journey into the unknown a leap that may still be too far.

Out the football exit door 

As FIFPro’s survey into player working conditions revealed players are  struggling to receive a living wage or even being paid at all. Put T2 clubs further under financial pressure it will undoubtedly lead to players forced with the choice. Continue with a club in the lower tiered leauge on reduced wages or leave the game entirely. It's a stark choice already faced but in some respects it will potentially be enforced upon them quicker.

For some clubs they face the prospect of T1 teams poaching their very best talent. Whilst this isn't exactly uncommon in football loosing key figures in T2 has a consequence. Again further creating a football inequality chasm, a footballing cliff-edge.

In the terms of the new T2 structure it would give clubs the option to cut crucial development pathways with no strict requiement to run an academy. It is counterproductive to the FA's aim of giving homegrown players the chance to progress into elite pathways. Despite the compulsory requirement of T1 clubs running an academy set up. The formative years of any players development clouded in a mix of "the have and have nots" to coin a political phrase. Is profoundly disturbing it's not just the on pitch matters that should draw concern. 

Clubs often are a beating heart of the community they represent that far goes beyond football. It provides communities with a space to evolve to grow. As a by product of these changes clubs in lower tiers effectiveness to offer social projects through football are reduced. As funds are drawn towards sustaining a team, community initiatives could be put on the back burner.   

Devoiding the game of those locally based football initiatives clubs carry out on a weekly basis. further pushes away fans and reduces football engagement, counterproductive to the FA's main goals. Clubs and fans who have given everything just to stay afloat from those volunteers on the ground, painting stands or cleaning facilities see their concerns ignored. Their place in the football landscape under threat through no fault of their own. That is the human impact or face of this change.  

FAWSL culturally worse off  

If football could clash with current politics, then the FA plan to restrict foreign players within the FAWSL could not be more revelant. If there was any attempt to limit foreign players, it would have a knock on effect that will undoubtedly cause constonation. Foreign players offer more than just being marquee names to enhance the prestige of the FAWSL.

They offer a rich learning opportunity for experienced players and developing talent, far eclipsing tournament and international competition could ever hope to achieve. The loss of that learning opportunity is in effect counterproductive, to the FA's aim of driving up standards for England and FAWSL club success. As if to suggest there is little to learn from the cultured football sphere.

There is every reason to be optimistic about the growth in the women's game. However any attempt to further create football inequality will cause irreparable damage, will increase the likelihood of clubs going out of business.Clubs potentially not been able to sustain T1 status, FAWSL unable to attract world class players, decreasing standards not improving them.

There is already a concentration of football wealth in the FAWSL these plans will further deepen it. It seems as if the FA cannot make their minds up, offering a vision of an utopian future filled with silverware for England and UWCL success for FAWSL clubs. Without acknowledging that what they have put forward has all the hallmarks of not recognising the mistakes that the game in the UK has painfully had to learn in the past.This may just be a FA experiment gone to far!