Months – no, years – of toil on and off the field by an awful lot of people involved in women’s football will hopefully reap their reward on Sunday when the two best teams in the women’s winter game meet for the right to become the first to gain promotion to the Super League.
Portsmouth and Sheffield FC, the winners of the FAW Premier League’s Southern and Northern leagues respectively, meet at Stratford FC for the Premier League championship and the opportunity to join the country’s female footballing élite.
Victory on Sunday will not guarantee entry – the clubs still have to meet the WSL licensing criteria – but both are on course to win approval, according to FA representatives, who have been in talks with the clubs for several months.
Both have been working hard behind the scenes to ensure the proper facilities are – or will be – in place and that the investment in personnel, equipment and accommodation is identified, should they be successful in the Premier League play-off on Sunday.
A year ago it was something the players, coaches and officials could only have dreamed of as the nascent second tier of the Super League got under way.
With the emphasis on consolidation after the introduction of WSL2, whose composition was decided not entirely on playing merits, the Super League was still a closed shop.
But the FA had always indicated it was a fluid period, with promotion from the winter pyramid an eventual goal.
And following a period of campaigning by a number of bodies, notably representatives of Lewes and their then manager, Jacquie Agnew, the authorities came up with a plan to permit access on merit to the Super League for the first time.
How much of the move can be ascribed to the campaigning and how much was down to the administrators finding a way to fast-track the process is difficult to gauge.
Each has different views on that.
Suffice to say the FA held a series of meetings with Premier League representatives and came up with the two-year plan for potential promotion, which could swell WSL2 by two teams by the time clubs’ WSL licences come up for renewal in 2017.
On Sunday, though, it’s down to the 22 players on the pitch and the handful of replacements on the bench to do their bit to ensure the question of the Super League is not academic.
Portsmouth and Sheffield each lost twice in the league – to the teams who finished third and fourth in their division
It has hardly been an ideal build-up for Perry Northeast, with first-choice goalkeeper Sadie Blakely suspended and her natural replacement, Michelle Beazley, ineligible.
After scrutinising the fine print of the FAWPL Handbook, Northeast has now left the off-the-field nightmares to club officials to focus entirely on preparing his squad for Sunday’s game.
He told Sent Her Forward: “My attention is absolutely on the players.”
His opposite number, Helen Mitchell, has also had plenty to occupy her since Sheffield clinched the Northern League title just over a week ago in rather bizarre circumstances after rivals Coventry City were docked six points for over player ineligibility.
She said: “It will affect us in different ways, but it’s a rule that both teams have to abide by. We’ve got players who are devastated to be ruled out of such a big game, and I particularly feel for Sadie, as she’s been Portsmouth’s number-one-choice goalkeeper all season and has played almost every game.”
Both sides can be proud of emerging triumphant for their respective divisions in what has been a captivating, hard-fought season for the Premier League, both north and south of Coventry.
Portsmouth won an incredibly exciting Southern Division campaign in which four clubs were in with a genuine chance of the title until the final weeks, when West Ham United – who were a little behind the pack – threw the campaign into chaos.
With the lead rotating between Pompey, Brighton and Cardiff City for much of the season, the Hammers suddenly wrecked Cardiff’s hopes with a league double over them on successive Saturdays.
They also took a point off both Brighton and Charlton Athletic – who, because of cup commitments, were a few points behind but still realistic title contenders.
By the time Portsmouth met them, on the final Sunday, the Hampshire club needed only a point – and any chance of a topsy-turvy last day of shifting fortunes were wrecked when Brighton, the only team who could have pipped them, were forced to sit it out after Keynsham Town called off their game, saying they could not field a team.
In any case, Portsmouth rendered that match academic, easing to a 3-1 victory over Julian Dicks’ side to take the title with only 10 points dropped all season.
Yet it had all started so badly for Pompey when they crashed to a 7-3 home defeat by Cardiff on the opening day. They had been leading until Lucy Quinn was sent off – a decision that was subsequently rescinded on video evidence – and although it spared their key free-scoring winger a suspension, it could not undo that first-day defeat.
But with Gemma Hillier in such fine form, Portsmouth soon made up ground, and even when Hillier sustained an injury, which kept her out for several months, Ini Umotong stepped in and fired Pompey’s multiple trophy quest.
Portsmouth suffered only two league defeats all season but conceded 13 goals in them – 3-7 v Cardiff City and 3-6 v Charlton Athletic
The club survived their new striking sensation’s call-up by Nigeria, with Hillier returning and hitting the ground running, while there were major scoring contributions from Quinn, captain Charley Wilson and midfielder Sarah Kempson.
Meanwhile, the defence, with Sadie Blakely in fine form in goal, was holding up well, with Leeta Rutherford, Jess Frampton and Nadine Bazan all having fine seasons, while player versatility meant Northeast could rotate his midfield without compromising result or performance.
The club also retained the Hampshire County Cup and reached the semi-finals of the Premier League Cup, where they were defeated 2-0 – by Sheffield, in a game in which the club felt they never really showed their true capabilities.
Manager Helen Mitchell does not read too much into her side’s cup victory over Portsmouth in March – the only direct opportunity the two sides from different geographical leagues have had to measure their quality against each other.
“It was three months ago. This is a different situation in all respects,” she said. “The League Cup semi-final match was a very close game, with very little in it, so I expect exactly the same sort of contest on Sunday.”
Sheffield lost only twice in the league all season and reached the final of the League Cup, only to lose on penalties to Charlton. They also won their county cup.
While Coventry’s points deduction might have made their job easier, Sheffield eventually won their league by eight points, with a considerably superior goal difference to their rivals. They also completed a league double over the Midlanders during the season without conceding a goal.
Mitchell said: “Last season, we had nothing to really play for – ie no promotion – so there was very little pressure on the team. This season, with the potential to move up a level, then of course that adds a different dimension.
“This season’s success means an awful lot more, given the quality of teams in the Northern Division this season, and having to play under pressure and expectation each week.”
Much of the credit for Sheffield’s third successive Northern Division championship goes to a player who keeps banging them in and the one who has been keeping them out.
Striker Jodie Michalska, their top scorer for a fourth successive season, has more than 30 goals in all competitions for the South Yorkshire side and a career club tally of 200, while goalkeeper Claire Wallhead has been in inspired form at the other end.
Only four teams in the Northern Division had a positive goal difference; Sheffield’s – with 57 – was the best.
This year’s was the sixth league title for the 12-year-old club in the past eight seasons.
Mitchell said: “Individuals don’t win league titles. It’s always a team effort. Over the course of the season, every player in the squad has made an important contribution at key times.
“We’ve had a large number of injuries to contend with this season which has ruled almost everyone in the squad out at some time or other, some of them for three-to-four months at a time. So we’ve had to rotate people, pull reserve team players in, play players out of position. But everyone has got on with it and done a vital job.”
How they finished
*Awaiting disciplinary ruling on Brighton v Keynsham Town fixture
* Deducted six points for fielding an ineligible player
What happens next
Sheffield and Portsmouth have already gone through several stages of hard work, even before knowing which of them will be promoted.
They were among a dozen Premier League clubs who attended an initial briefing from the FA and five (along with Brighton, Charlton Athletic and Coventry City) who went on to submit licence applications.
Those applications have already been vetted by FA experts, and both have had subsequent contact with the FA over overcoming some of the potential problems.
But Katie Brazier, the FA’s head of women’s leagues and competitions, told Sent Her Forward: “At the moment we have absolutely no concerns over either of the clubs being able to meet the licence criteria.
“Obviously, there are a number of things that they need to get in place from a staffing point of view – we wouldn’t expect them to start recruiting until they know whether they’ve got the opportunity to take the spot in WSL2.”
The winner of Sunday’s game will meet FA representatives at their home ground next month to present a more detailed account of how they propose to meet the licensing criteria (see below).
And then starts the process of welcoming the Premier League champions into the world of the Super League.
“They will come along to our WSL Development League agm… and they will form part of the constitution of the WSL Development League,” Brazier explained.
And that – subject to any unforeseen problems – is where Sheffield or Portsmouth will have their first taste of Super League football, playing in the development league’s 2015-16 season, beginning in September, before joining WSL2 for the 2016 season next March.
The squad – which can contain a maximum of 40 players – will continue competing in the development league over the traditional winter season.
While the Super League aims to become a fully professional league, only a portion of WSL players currently get paid – and a much lesser number make a living entirely from the game.
Brazier added: “There are a handful of players now in the Super League who are able to earn a living just from playing football, but there are still a large proportion of players who, while they’re being paid to play, they are supplementing their incomes by coaching or other roles within the club, or externally.
“In both divisions we still have players who are registered on a non-contract basis – there’s a larger proportion of non-contract players in WSL2.
“I wouldn’t want you to think that the club that comes up has suddenly got to find lots of money to pay every single one of their players.”
Portsmouth or Sheffield will receive the standard club development fund allocated to WSL2 clubs – currently £35,000 a year – to be divided strictly among the categories for which each portion is intended, and which must be at least matched by the club’s own investment.
And Brazier says both clubs have already satisfied the FA about where that funding is coming from.
The successful club need to satisfy WSL licensing requirements in four main areas:
Financial and business management
All clubs need a general manager and/or business development specialist and qualified accountant and be able to demonstrate their viability and spending plans.
Commercial sustainability and marketing
Club promotion and marketing is seen as a key element in the WSL, with a need to drive up attendances. Ability to capture and nurture local talent is emphasised. There are even targets for minimum attendance at games.
Grounds have to satisfy minimum requirements and pitch-maintenance standards, and clubs have to meet training-ground criteria.
Players, support staff and youth development
Coaching staff must have reached the required standards, and requisite medical and physiotherapy staff must be in place, as must links with local colleges.
What the winners can expect
The first Premier League champions can expect a culture shock when they move into the rarefied environment of the Super League, according to the man who helped pilot Yeovil Town’s entry into the WSL.
David Mills, the Somerset club’s president and former chairman, says there’s a lot to learn – and by no means all of it involves playing football.
“Obviously, in playing terms the standard is higher, but I think the biggest challenge is off the pitch,” he said.
“I like to think that Yeovil were a pretty well organised Premier League club, but the move up, in terms of off-the-field organisation for us… in every aspect of how you run the club there was change.
“In many ways the challenge off the field is a lot greater than it is on the field.”