The WSL restructure: The cost of progress

With the teams granted tier 1 and tier 2 licences announced earlier on today, we look at some of the problems of progress.

No shoes, no shirt, no millions in the bank, no service.

It’s a simple criterion that needs to be met for teams wishing to play in the newer WSL, you have to set up a professional environment with a minimum of 16 hours of contact time a week. Or to put more basically, you need to be able to make it rain enough for Doris to say, “Ooh, best take my ‘brolly with me before nipping down to the shops.” A light shower probably wouldn’t suffice.

Of course, what that means is for the smaller clubs who’ve been around for decades, far longer than the league (even remembering its many restructures) is they get squeezed out. Without a sugar daddy, women’s football can’t exist in a world of professionalism. Whether that’s because the clubs is, A. an independent, B. not financially supported by their men’s side and C. can’t rally enough in sponsor fees. Whatever the reason, it comes back to money.

Whether it’s right or wrong of The FA, they want their top tier to be fully professional, so even a Sunderland who’ve performed well enough in the season just gone on a shoe-string with a semi-pro environment, can’t play with the big boys.

Sunderland are a special case, as they saw their funding slashed and were forced to revert to a part-time model not so long after going full-time, the team having earned back-to-back promotions. Even in their first season in WSL 1, the Lady Black Cats looked sustainable, memorably handing Chelsea a home loss, though the northern side tapered off at the end of the year, it was a storming first season. The club went through it’s ups and downs on the pitch as most do, especially those adapting to a new league with things that do and don’t work, a change of manager saw the ship steadied despite the reversion to part-time. The news today, whilst predictable given the finical affairs of the club and their reluctance to bid for T1 during the first round has still hit football in the North East hard. The area know for producing countless England internationals, Sunderland where so many of the current crop of Lionesses cut their teeth.

The name of progress could see women’s football in the NE dealt one of the biggest blows since the football ban in the 1920’s but it’s the domino effect in action.

Similar elsewhere

When speaking to Milena Bertolini earlier this year, the Italian national coach had no remorse over the new rules put into place by FIGC. The Italian football federation keen to grow women’s football at home by forcing every pro men’s team to have a women’s set up and if that means Inter or AC will acquire Bertolini’s former charge, Brescia then so be it. There have been similar moves in South America, if you want to participate in the Copa Libertadores, CONMEBOL insists from 2019, you’ll have to have a women’s team.

The rules are controversial ones and run the risk of turning women’s football into something that’s dependant on the fortunes of their men’s teams – although it’s clear, this is already happening. We’ve already seen Notts County disappear due to mounting debts that the new owner didn’t want to see grow, Fulham and Charlton casualties before the WSL era and that’s in one of the richest footballing countries in the world.

The problem isn’t so much the rules in place as simply the fact that Manchester City and Chelsea have set off a chain-reaction in England. That is certainly not to place any blame on the top two teams in WSL but the growing disparity has given rise to a bout of, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So, whilst in Germany and France, the move to professionality has been a slow burner that has seen mixed results, in England there’s been no option, if you wish to compete, you need the financial clout to do so.

France not so much, but Germany’s Frauen-Bundesliga is one of the greatest arguments for the fact that teams don’t need to be full-time to be able to compete with those with the means and facilities. Whilst Wolfsburg have run away with the German title this season and Munich have all but secured second, the league has remained one of the most competitive in the world. Yes, there have been drubbings and a team like Wolfsburg has always had its nose in front, but they’ve consistently been run close on the pitch. Smaller teams with lesser known players, smaller budgets and less resources have shown their mettle.

So too in Sweden, the richest club isn’t at the pinnacle of the table but sits five points behind one of the teams with a micro budget, Piteå, another side that can’t boast a budging wallet, Kristianstad are just one point further back. Six weeks in and no one would have been able to predict the top three, teams don’t rely on millions in the bank but can build strong teams, nurturing young talents and overcoming more powerful opposition. Yet in England, it’s once again money that talks.

Early complications

Again, we find ourselves reaching for the justification not to have maximum caps put in place, afraid to mention such things in fear of looking as if we want to restrict the sport. The rules for men are mostly lax, bar Financial Fair Play, but put firm goalposts in place for women’s football seems unthinkable.

However, with a full-time Manchester United given the nod to play their first season in the second tier, the only team who’ll be running a full-time model amongst part-timers, something just seems off, askew. In a world of promotion and relegation, Yeovil Town with two points and two goals all season would have been downed as Doncaster Belles claimed rightful promotion. But that’s not how things have played out, Blackburn Rovers and their bid for T2, with back-to-back play-off losses have been kept out of the top two division as second-placed Leicester City have been granted promotion. The strength (or lack thereof) of the football hasn’t taken centre stage but once again it’s the strength of the bid and the backing.

It’s a similar state of affairs in the Southern division of FA WPL (the current third tier), Charlton Athletic have been promoted through the play-off after coming from behind to best the Rovers yesterday. Third-placed Crystal Palace had their bid rejected as fifth-placed Lewes received the nod for T2 and seventh-placed West Ham have been fast-tracked to T1. There is no sign of a Southampton team most assumed would be welcomed with open arms however, fourth tier Sheffield United will be playing in T2 next season, the side, like Lewes having put a deal of effort it their bids.

Whilst there are some teams and fans left to question, “now what?” there remain wider problems, there are seven London teams, three Yorkshire sides and four in the Liverpool-Manchester area whilst Durham remain the only side in the north east. Teams will invariably end up pinching players from each other, some areas over diluted with options for younger players, some with little to offer and long trips to the nearest clubs with limited pathways already clear.

But yet there are further problems, as we’ve already seen scheduling is a persistent problem in WSL, with more teams comes more matches and more potential postponements and harder run-ins for weary teams. Furthermore, despite wanting to have fourteen teams in T1, the FA have ended up with 11 insuring one team will always sit out a round of fixtures, a situation similar to the Belles’ from 2016 not too hard to imagine.

Going back to Bertolini’s lack of outward remorse, a club is only a badge, maybe it becomes a community, but the absorption of an independent team by a successful men’s side is the mark of progress. If players are good enough they will always find a club and if professionalism is the norm’, then those players will be given the chance to be bigger and better players, the backroom staff will too be given the chance to find new jobs with other clubs. It may be ruthless, and it’s certainly something felt by the fans but if it is a Brescia becoming AC Milan or the Wembley Ladies eventually becoming the London Bees after a spell as Barnet FC Ladies then it is a badge that’s lost. Maybe too a home ground, players and staff a long the way but those who remain are given another chance in the same area, the dominos long since having started to tumble behind.

As it stands, women’s football in England is in continual flux, only those with big bucks in the bank are the ones who seem able to ride out the storm, surfing over the rolling waves, rather than being pulled under.