Sussex scraps under-18 league as youth crisis deepens

SENT HER FORWARD EXCLUSIVE

Action from Crawley Town v Portsmouth in the U16 League Cup final 2014 (Photo: Beckie Kirkham)

Many of Crawley Town’s U16s, who won the League Cup last season, may have to move to Surrey for U18 football (Photo: Beckie Kirkham)

Sussex’s under-18 girls’ league has been scrapped because of a lack of clubs.

For the first time since it was established in 2011, there will be no league in the county dedicated to an age group that football administrators all over the country are desperate to foster and encourage.

It is potentially a massive blow to the development of women’s and girls’ football in Sussex, although some believe it is merely a blip and that there are encouraging signs that plenty of young girls are playing the game at levels further down the age pyramid.

There had been misgivings among coaches since the Sussex Women and Girls Football League published the proposed set-up for the coming season.

Only four teams were in the Under-18 Division, and with the initial plan that teams should play each other only twice, there was concern that the enormous gaps in the football calendar would drive some teenagers out of the sport.

But as uncertainty over the participation of some of the remaining four teams grew, the league took the decision to scrap the division altogether.

Two of the clubs – Crawley Town and Horsham Sparrows – are expected to switch to the equivalent division in Surrey, while Lewes, last season’s under-16 champions, will take the leap to the Women’s Division as they attempt to preserve the pathway from the club’s youngsters to adult football.

Where will they go?

Crawley Town Expected to join Surrey Girls’ U18
Horsham Sparrows Expected to join Surrey Girls’ U18
Lewes Will play in Sussex Women’s Division
Worthing Town Will play in Sussex Women’s Division

Those team members who are not yet 16 cannot play in adult football and will need to find other clubs.

The situation with the fourth side, Worthing Town, is more complex.

The club, whose first team disbanded at the beginning of last season after winning Division One West of the South East Counties Women’s League the year before, had already declared their intention to field a new first team, as well as their reserves, this coming season.

Both were due to play in the SCWGFL Women’s Division – itself unusual enough.

But now that the club’s third side – the under-18s – no longer have a youth division to play in, they are set to move up into the Women’s Division and Worthing’s new first team will leapfrog their rivals back into the SECW League that their predecessors won two seasons ago.

It means there will still be two Worthing Town teams in the county league, but they will also have a side playing at the higher, regional level.

We can’t afford to lose these girls, so we have had to find viable alternatives – Clare Nichols, SCWGFL chairman and Sussex FA women and girls development officer

Worthing Town chairman Tony Lelliott acknowledged the situation was not ideal and that it might attract criticism from other clubs.

But he said: “The main aim is to try to make sure that everybody who wants to is getting a game.”

In a frank interview with Sent Her Forward, Mr Lelliott, who is also the Sussex league’s deputy chairman, admitted he was shocked when he discovered how few teams had applied to play in the under-18 division.

Tricky position

Even before the demise of the under-18s, Worthing had raised eyebrows by fielding two sides in the Women’s Division, creating the potential for a scenario where one of the club’s two teams might need a specific result against the other, laying them open to accusations of collusion.

And given Mr Lelliott’s second role, with the SCWGFL, he acknowledged his was a particularly tricky position.

He told Sent Her Forward: “It’s difficult, and you can be accused of conflict (of interest). But at the end of the day, I’m interested in seeing girls’ and ladies’ football progress, and if it means taking two roles to do that, then I will.”

He acknowledged it was “unusual” for two teams from the same club to play in the same division, but he said: “We’ve got that many players that we were trying to accommodate, so we just had to make sure everybody’s getting a game.

“Participation is supposed to be the key, and if they want to play for your club, you’ve either got to turn them away and say you can’t play here – in which case, most of those ladies who said they were going to come wouldn’t go anywhere else, because they want the facilities that we’ve got – or you try to put on two teams to accommodate them.”

The lost generation

Number of teams playing in Sussex under-16 and under-18 football in 2013/14: 16
Number of teams playing in Sussex under-16 and under-18 football in 2014/15: 5

Mr Lelliott said the issue of two teams in the same division was “not unprecedented” in the county leagues, although he admitted: “I think there’s actually an FA rule, that there’s not supposed to be two teams from the same club in the same division.

“But at the moment, participation is the key thing, to make sure there are more girls and ladies playing football.”

And he argued that the rise in membership of the Women’s Division from six last season to 10 this was a positive one that would provide more opportunities for women to play.

But none the less, it is a sad reflection on the age group just below the adult game.

Clare Nichols

Clare Nichols: I hope this is just a blip this year

League chairman Clare Nichols, who is also women and girls development officer for the Sussex FA, told Sent Her Forward: “I hope that this is just a blip this year and we can get the Under-18s Division back next season.

“Certainly from a county FA perspective, we are aware that more needs to be done to ensure the under-16 teams of this season have support for their ongoing plans.”

Ramifications

She added: “We can’t afford to lose these girls, so we have had to find viable alternatives. If we had left it with three teams in the league, we probably would have lost them.” She hopes all four teams will compete in the Sussex Women’s Division next season.

Ms Nichols said the league balked at the prospect of allowing all three Worthing Town teams into the Women’s Division, so it approached the SECWL to see whether it could accommodate one of the teams in the higher league.

Its secretary, Greg Petts, told Sent Her Forward league rules allowed it to accept late applicants, and the inclusion of Worthing Town in Division One West would bring its membership up to 10 teams.

Crawley Wasps U18s celebrate winning the League Cup against Worthing May 1 2014

Crawley Wasps won the U18 league and cup double last year but will play in the women’s division this season

But this season’s setback – while possibly only the blip that administrators hope it is – could have big ramifications not only for some young players but also for more senior sides.

Lewes, who are revamping their structure to create an uninterrupted pathway from girls’ football to their adult Premier League team, had hoped their under-18s – last season’s under-16 champions – would develop at the higher age group to provide a breeding ground for talent to be promoted to their reserves.

The reserve side – comprising predominantly young adults and senior players returning from injury – are needed to provide players for the senior team.

Worrying deterioration

The risk of promoting the under-16s straight into adult football is that not only have some of the younger players lost the chance to continue their progress at a big club this season, but those who remain will be competing against players considerably older and more experienced than them – a situation that is likely to make some but possibly break others.

Potentially, the same thing could happen at Worthing, who also fielded an under-16 team last season.

Portsmouth, who were also in the same under-16 division, have switched to Hampshire for the coming campaign.

While Sussex was hardly swamped with youth teams last season – five in the Under-18 league and 11 over two divisions at under-16 level – there is a worrying deterioration this time around.

The Under-18 division is disbanded and there is a single Under-16 Division, containing just five sides, only one of which were represented last season.

While Premier League clubs like Brighton and Gillingham now have centres of excellence, and the likes of Lewes and Portsmouth have set-ups which should ensure the best talent at those ages has a route to develop towards adult football, the dearth of opportunities at 16+ outside those clubs is worrying.

Over the next few weeks Sent Her Forward will be taking a look at some of the issues affecting teenage footballers.

If you would like to contribute, please feel free to comment at the end of this article or contact me directly (details here). If you are one of those who has dropped out of the game at 16, 17 or 18 and would be happy to tell your story, please let me know.

Sent Her Forward is keen to help football administrators in the South East learn from your experiences to ensure this apparent crisis is not repeated.

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