Gillingham have become the latest Premier League club to position themselves for Super League football after agreeing to a takeover by the town’s men’s club.
The women’s side – currently without a manager – will move from their base at Chatham Town FC to the League One side’s Priestfield Stadium, and – along with their reserves – will enjoy equal use of the professional club’s training, physiotherapy and other facilities.
The takeover, together with the creation of a girls’ academy for 16-to-18-year-olds, will also provide a potential unbroken football career route for girls from as young as nine to the women’s first team, who narrowly missed out on the Premier League title last season.
The men’s club chairman, Paul Scally, who will have ultimate responsibility for the women’s club, hopes the deal will help fulfil their mutual ambitions of achieving Super League football – something he says he has wanted to add to his Priestfield cv, as well as the professional men’s outfit.
But publicly at least, he is not burdening his latest acquisition with the pressure of a deadline for achieving that.
Super League criteria
Access to the two divisions of the Super League is currently barred to non-members, although campaigners are hoping some form of promotion could be introduced within a couple of seasons.
WSL2, which came into being at the start of the current Super League summer season, features teams who produced acceptable business and sporting cases to the FA rather than necessarily finished highest in the Premier Leagues (Northern and Southern) that might one day feed it.
Even those clubs who oppose the FA’s current non-meritocratic policy have come to accept that in order to qualify for Super League status – even by dint of promotion – they will need to satisfy certain criteria.
And formal links with men’s clubs, established, measurable youth set-ups and good ground facilities will be among them.
Mr Scally told the club’s website: “I would like to gain entrance to the WSL 2 at some stage in the future but we will take one step at a time and enjoy the journey. I’m looking forward to seeing some games.”
In fact, it would seem the quality of the ladies’ set-up came as a bit of a surprise to the Gillingham chairman, who watched the team’s final game of the season – a disappointing 3-0 defeat to eventual champions Coventry City, at Chatham Town.
It’s not clear whether Mr Scally, who revealed he had harboured ambitions of creating his own women’s team at Gillingham before agreeing the deal with the WPL outfit, had watched them before.
But he confessed to being “pleasantly surprised by the quality of the game and the players’ technical ability” – something that may have helped persuade him to opt for the existing outfit rather than create a separate entity.
The club says there had been previous attempts to amalgamate, which had “proved unsuccessful for different reasons”.
The news has sparked excitement among Gillingham Ladies, who now have the prospect of top-class facilities in which to hone their fitness and skills, as well as a brighter prospect of higher-grade football in the future.
But first they need a manager, following the departure of James Marrs earlier this month for Premier League rivals Brighton.
The club is currently seeking a replacement for Marrs, who admitted his decision to move was swayed partly by the impressive facilities at his new club, which is part of Brighton & Hove Albion FC.
However, the new incumbent will inherit a fine set of players – even though some are expected to follow Marrs to Brighton – who play passing football on the pitch and have forged excellent links with their local community off it.
Whether all that community will follow the Gills the couple of miles up the road to Priestfield remains to be seen – there were some cautious responses to the news from fans with limited transport options and who relish the close physical connection with the players at Chatham.
However, there is a potential new fan base to be tapped into in the town whose name the club bear – and on the face of it, the benefits surely outweigh the disadvantages.
Moreover, the creation of an academy at Gillingham, providing a logical progression from Gillingham FC’s existing centre of excellence for girls, offers genuine hope for the future of women’s football in that part of Kent.
Darren Hare, director of youth development and community trust at the Priestfield, told the club’s website: “We have a strong centre of excellence programme for girls from the age of under-nine to under-17, with some girls achieving international recognition.
“This year we will be running a full-time girls’ football/education academy in conjunction with Bexley College for 16-to-19-year-olds, from Priestfield Stadium.
“Ultimately for any young player it comes down to progression opportunities, and in female football this isn’t always straightforward. But now a nine-year-old girl joining Gillingham FC, if talented and committed, could follow the pathway we are creating all the way to senior football at a top level in a few years’ time. That’s an excellent vision.”
A spokeswoman for Gillingham Ladies told Sent Her Forward: “The key thing about the partnership is that it’s mutually beneficial for both clubs, but importantly, for the landscape of women’s football in Kent.
“We make no secret of the fact we harbour ambitions for the WSL in the not-too-distant future, and the backing the men’s club are giving us will help us put together a bid which will, fingers crossed, be hard for the FA to ignore.”