The South could have its first Super League club as soon as two seasons’ time following the latest concessions by the FA.
The governing body has agreed to accelerate the linking of its élite summer Super League and the pre-existing Premier League, which runs from autumn to spring.
The FA had already relented following a determined campaign against its initial proposals to drop FA designation of the Premier League and ring-fence those elected to its élite competition from relegation.
But its women’s board has now agreed to the concept of promotion to the second tier of the Super League from the start of the 2016 WSL season.
It means that the champions of this coming season’s Premier League Northern or Southern could be playing in WSL2 in the summer of 2016.
The two Premier League winners would have a two-leg play-off to determine which of them were promoted – subject to FA criteria regarding ground facilities and the way clubs are financed and run – a year later.
There would be no relegation in that initial season, nor in the following, when once more, the two regional champions would play off for the right to join the élite.
The development has been warmly welcomed within the mid-levels of the women’s game, but scepticism remains over those qualifying criteria, which conceivably could deny both leagues’ champions promotion.
And no decision has yet been made on what happens after 2017, when the current licences ensuring WSL teams a place at that level, expire.
However, Lewes, who have been at the forefront of the campaign to force the FA to soften its initial hard-line stance, are putting a positive spin on the developments.
The club issued a statement describing the changes as “significant progress” and seemed heartened by the FA representatives’ promises regarding Super League eligibility.
They said in the statement: “As with any League structure, it is understood that reasonable governance and ground-grading criteria will need to be met for promoted clubs.”
And they added: “The FA has stated that it will work very closely with all clubs to make sure that those clubs who have the ambition of playing in the WSL are ready to do so when the time comes.”
Crucially, Lewes, and their head of women’s and girls’ football, Jacquie Agnew, believe the introduction of promotion at least two years before initially envisaged means Premier League players “now have their ambition back”.
“[The players] can once again set their sights on playing at the highest level with their own clubs, and the clubs themselves can start building a sustainable future in the knowledge that promotion into the WSL will be based on sporting merit,” the club statement added.
There still remain some question marks – not least over the disproportionate distribution of FA funding between the WSL (£35,000-£70,000 per club per season) and the WPL (£90,000 shared among the 72 members of its expanded domain), which threatens to create a vicious circle in which ambitious Premier League clubs struggle to generate the extra cash required to meet Super League conditions while those already members of the élite receive more.
And there is the practical challenge of a transition for successful WPL sides from a winter-oriented season to a summer league that currently begins in mid-April.
Lewes suggest the 2015/16 WPL League season would have to be brought forward to the beginning of August, with some games played midweek to ensure an earlier finish to the season.
They would also need the help of county FAs with regard to cup games.
But Lewes fear the availability of pitches could prove a bigger problem.
They want the WSL mid-season break to run from mid-May to mid-July so that clubs who share grounds with men’s teams – who play the traditional “winter” season – can treat and repair their pitches.
Moreover, they point out that many clubs within the FAWPL family – including former Combination sides – do not have access to pitches during the summer.
A number of the South East’s clubs have already instituted moves that will help ready themselves for Super League football if they are successful on the pitch.
Brighton, who are part of Brighton & Hove Albion FC, are creating a girls’ academy to provide a link between their Centre of Excellence and the senior sides.
Lewes, whose community club also includes men’s teams, are introducing female under-18 and development sides to address a similar gap between their under-16s and the first team.
And Gillingham have now been taken under the wing of the the town’s professional men’s club, and are setting up their own academy to provide a continuous route from the existing Centre of Excellence at the Priestfield Stadium to the newly-acquired women’s sides.
Portsmouth already have a flow of teams from youth level to Premier League reserves and first team.
Lewes acknowledge that Premier League teams need to invest time and resources to make themselves eligible for a Super League licence, but they point out that at least now, clubs and players have something to aim for.
What’s more, the danger of Premier League clubs being denied the chance to offer players contracts – thereby deterring long-term planning and ambition – seems to have dissipated.
On top of that, clubs playing in the country’s four Combination Leagues – the tier immediately below the Premier League Northern and Southern – now have FA backing and will be redesignated FAWPL Division One South East, South West, Midlands and Northern.
Kelly Simmons, FA director of National Game and Women’s Football, said on the FA’s website: “When we launched the FA WSL in 2011, it was always our aim that the élite women’s division would be supported by a viable, sustainable pathway from the winter football pyramid.
“Expanding the FA WSL was one of our longer-term aims. We made a commitment to FA WPL clubs in January that we would look at the possibility and potential timescales of doing that, and it’s great that we have been able to confirm this for the start of the season.
“The new bigger FA WPL will provide a strong, sustainable structure for clubs. This is a real milestone in the development of women’s football in England and we’re looking forward to an exciting, competitive FA WPL season.”
* This article was updated on June 25 to reflect the fact that Kelly Simmons has now made clear that the clubs competing to join WSL2 in 2016 will be the winners of the coming season’s Premier League Northern and Southern, not the 2015/16 season. More details in this story.