The joint-chairman of West Ham Ladies looks to be on collision course with the men’s club after reporting them to the FA for alleged discrimination.
But other clubs believe the fallout could yet help speed up changes in attitude and commitment to the women’s game.
Stephen Hunt says his extraordinary action, which conceivably could lead to the Premier League club being punished, was one of last resort after failing to persuade them to offer what he considers to be proper support to the women’s team.
In a blaze of publicity on BBC television and online, Hunt accused West Ham of failing to meet their obligations to help fund the team and provide facilities, and undermining the FA’s ethos on equality and support for grassroots fooball.
Sent Her Forward has been unable to contact West Ham United but has a copy of their statement to the BBC, which insists that the club take their responsibilities to the women seriously and accuses Hunt of being difficult to deal with.
And they indicated that after the long-running wrangle, they intend to take over the running of the side themselves.
— Alex Shilling (@alexshilling) October 3, 2016
As with many teams playing under a men’s club banner, the relationship between the two is complicated.
Hunt says the club that he took over in March 2015, with his father, John, the co-chairman, and brother Tim, chief operating officer, had never been under the control of West Ham United, but was supported on an ad hoc basis by them – including the provision of training facilities.
We now train at a field around the corner for an hour and run up and down the road – Stephen Hunt, West Ham United Ladies joint-chairman
However, the club imply otherwise, saying in their statement that the “day-do-day management was transferred to a third party some time ago”, suggesting the women’s team had previously been under the main club’s control.
Even before the Hunt family took the reins, the club had been at odds with West Ham United over a perceived lack of support which had prompted the players to appeal for funds via a website to pay for kit and pitch hire.
Hunt has been trying to negotiate extra support from West Ham United, including cash backing after his club was instructed, he says, not to seek its own sponsorship.
But he says he has been thwarted with every effort, and the final straw came when the club moved the women’s training times, forcing the players to do the first part of their training, after a day’s work, on public pavements, and restricting their access to indoor facilities.
“We now train at a field around the corner for an hour and run up and down the road. Then they get in their cars and drive to Chadwell Heath to finish the session,” Hunt told Sent Her Forward.
He believes West Ham United’s failure to provide adequate facilities for the women, as well as “reasonable” cash support, breaches FA rules on discrimination – and he also claims that he has been unfairly maligned by the club since he reported them, which he says is a further breach of the FA code.
“There is a positive duty to promote football and clubs, especially for women. While the minimum level of promotion is debatable, where it exists it ought not be undermined,” he said.
West Ham say Hunt has “refused to align with West Ham’s principles throughout his tenure as chairman and has, on a number of occasions, threatened the club” – something he denies.
But it does now look as though the Premier League giant, which has endured problems of its own over its move from the Boleyn Ground to the former Olympic Stadium in Stratford, may well now take the women’s set-up under its wing.
Women’s football at West Ham United will become bigger, better and stronger, as we continue our commitment to the growth and development of the women’s game – West Ham United statement
Their statement added: “The club have been working for some time on plans to take West Ham United Ladies FC ‘in-house’ and in light of Mr Hunt’s most recent deeply concerning comments, we will now be seeking to do so at the earliest opportunity.”
And in a curiously worded phrase, the club said they would “seek to maintain the current West Ham United Ladies FC squad personnel where possible (my italics), and provide them with the best possible support and management moving forward”.
The statement concluded: “As a result of this, women’s football at West Ham United will become bigger, better and stronger, as we continue our commitment to the growth and development of the women’s game, both on and off the pitch.”
Hunt says he hopes his actions might lead to a landmark case, establishing standards of investment and facility provision to which all clubs must adhere.
Whether it leads to a resolution of the ladies’ team’s future or a quasi-legal battle remains to be seen.
Hunt said he did not know what the club had planned.
Already, after a tour – figuratively, at least – of broadcasting and newspaper offices, the publicity from his actions is paying some dividends.
Good news on the travel front. All this publicity has got us transport to Cardiff and a lawyer! Not sure which is more useful…
— Stephen Hunt (@ChairmanHuntJnr) October 3, 2016
Regardless of whether Mr Hunt’s case stands up to FA scrutiny, this latest bombshell to afflict West Ham, at the start of Women’s Sport Week, brings into sharp focus the apparent disparity in funding between men’s and women’s football.
Mick Williams, who took over as chairman at Portsmouth Ladies not long before the Hunts moved into West Ham, told Sent Her Forward: “I feel for Stephen Hunt because it is difficult.”
Williams is currently in negotiations with Portsmouth’s men’s club, which like the Hammers, do not own the ladies’ side but regard them as part of the “Pompey family”, and therefore would not discuss the relationship between the two.
But he did say that after a couple of years of involvement in the women’s game, he had noticed disparities which he believed echoed Hunt’s assertions about female footballers being the poor relation.
“There’s the prize money in women’s football. [Women’s clubs] get £5,000 for winning the FA Cup. That’s less than the third-round qualifier, I think, in the men’s game. That is an indication of the disparity between the two sexes.
“Just today somebody from Charlton tweeted. One of the girls needs an op, and she’s got to try to raise the money through a crowdfunding page. It shouldn’t be like that.
“To a certain extent you can understand it because it’s the men’s game that pays the wages, so that has to take priority. But a little more help from some of these clubs would be a great help. It’s particularly difficult for clubs in the lower regions [of the league pyramid] because they’re not well-off themselves.”
And he added: “Because [Hunt] spoke out, perhaps things will move quicker at West Ham and they’ll be taken back into the fold and treated more seriously – and that’s without taking sides because what the club says is obviously different from what Stephen Hunt says.”
At the opposite end of the scale, another of West Ham’s FAW Premier League rivals, Lewes, appear to have a model relationship – they are wholly integrated in the now community-owned club whose ladies’ section is fully embraced and treated as the men’s equal.
Jacquie Agnew, who set up the women’s club, helping make the case for their inclusion in the Lewes family, and managed them until two years ago, is a key influence via the Lewes board.
While there is a single commercial department, it pursues different sources of income for the respective sections.
“There will be a demographic that our commercial manager will go after in terms of the men’s section, and we’ve found usually you’ll have a completely different set of commercial opportunities that you can go for under the ladies’ section,” she told Sent Her Forward.
“Some people are more attracted to the ladies’ game than the men’s game, and vice-versa.”
‘I feel sorry for players’
Their revenue streams include shirt sponsorship and match-day sponsorship, as well as that of individual players – plus Lewes’s famous beach huts, which can be hired as the quirky club’s answer to corporate boxes.
Agnew has found she has largely been pushing at an open door at Lewes, with the previous administration and the current community-run operation both keen to embrace the concept of women’s football development at the club.
But she acknowledges that the apparently limited opportunities for West Ham Ladies may still be the norm at many clubs.
“[Hunt] does have a point because up and down the land I’m sure there are a lot of people like him, and also players who feel that they’re not integrated into the club whose shirt they wear,” she said.
“I feel sorry for the players. They haven’t deserved this, and they’re in a situation now where they were quite comfortably in this league, and that’s not fair on the players. They put a lot of their time into this game, and to my mind, players should always come first.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if a few other clubs start looking at their model and saying, ‘Do we need to review it’? – Jacquie Agnew, director of ladies’ football, Lewes LFC
But she feels that the tide might be turning. “The whole thing starts with the England women performing. You get this ripple effect that starts, not flooding, but dribbling through, and clubs start thinking, ‘Women’s football – let’s have a look at what’s going on’. And then they make their own minds up.
“Brighton, to their credit, decided to put an investment model behind their women, and it bore fruit after three seasons, so they can say that they’ve achieved their goal.”
Agnew feels the West Ham drama could have a positive impact on the sport as clubs start to reassess their commitment.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if, over the next few months, a few other clubs start looking at their model and saying, ‘Is this the right one? Do we need to review it? Do we need to put something different in? Is it sustainable’?
“It all comes down to revenues, and if you can balance those… then you’ve got a sustainable model.”
Agnew added: “It depends how passionate the heads of these women’s teams are about driving that agenda forward.
“They might decide that actually, no, we’d better not. We get a good deal here, we get the facilities, we get the kit. I don’t need to rock the boat.
“But then you might get some more pioneers saying, actually, they’ve got a point. I’m going to start having discussions around that agenda.
“For me, that would be really healthy for clubs to start debating it, because then we could move on another level.
“There’s a deal to be done, but it needs to be sustainable because clubs can’t also expect the parent clubs to chuck a load of money at them. That’s not right, either.”
The Brighton example that Agnew talks about is widely regarded as a model template for men’s clubs owning women’s teams.
Their female players – the most senior of which will embark on their first Super League campaign next spring – receive a level of support almost unrivalled even at semi-professional level.
The women and girls share the training, medical and other facilities with the men and boys at the club’s impressive élite football performance centre in Lancing – the envy of many Premier League clubs.
On Sunday, one of Brighton’s injured players, Liam Rosenior, took his family to watch the women’s club’s development side because his daughters had shown an interest.
Goalkeeper David Stockdale offers advice and encouragement to the club’s female ‘keepers, and players talk of a culture of support from the men that clearly is missing at many clubs.
Paul Mullen, Brighton’s head of football administration, said: “The women’s and girls’ programme, from the first team through to our FA Regional Talent Club (the successor to centres of excellence)… operates primarily out of the club’s training ground, the American Express Elite Football Performance Centre.
“All of our teams train and play many of their home games at the facility, as well as having access to the same level of support services – such as medical, strength-and-conditioning and performance analysis – as the boys’ academy and men’s first team.”
Kirsty Hulland, Brighton’s new head of women’s football, said: “The investment into the women’s game can be seen on the pitch, with the first team achieving FA WSL status and the development squad also securing the FA Women’s Premier League Reserves Southern Division title.
“The club also successfully met off-pitch licensing criteria for their FA WSL status to be achieved, which would not be achieved without a fully integrated approach.”
More than just the bottom line
Crystal Palace Ladies, too, have struck up a valuable relationship with their “parent” club, which chairman Richard Spokes says is already paying dividends.
While in the past the club – which came out of administration only six years ago – helped the ladies’ side where it could, the relationship has now become more accommodating, with mutual benefits already.
Spokes, who has developed that relationship following the men’s club takeover by Steve Parish and his team, said: “It was down to us, as a kind of satellite part of Crystal Palace Football Club, to prove that not only did women’s sport need that backing, but also, what we had was worthy of that backing.
“Clubs function commercially, and whether that is the first thought in their minds or not, that is the bottom line.
“As a rule, women’s football isn’t a bums-on-seats commercially viable option, but… women’s sport is something hugely important socially. And clubs like Palace are seeing what the value is beyond that commercial return.
“They are seeing that there are more indirect commercial benefits but also greater benefit in terms of community support and the developing of women not just in sport but beyond that.”
Among the gains as a result of closer co-operation with Palace’s commercial and marketing teams has been a sponsorship deal with Utilita Energy, a commercial partner of the men’s club, whose input, in return for its name on the players’ shirts, covers the cost of running their first team.
“Like Palace, [Utilita] don’t look at it in cold numbers – how many people do you get in? They look at it that you’ve got 330 girls and women playing football under their brand.”
Spokes says the benefits go beyond the obvious financial one, with the perception of fans changing when they notice similar branding at both men’s and women’s games.
While there has been further integration, with the men’s club committing financial investment to the ladies’ section – whether directly or by brokering sponsorship deals – the two remain separate entities, which Spokes says safeguards the future of the ladies’ team in the event of the men’s club suffering another financial calamity.
More directly, as with Brighton, there is some integration among playing staff – Palace Ladies players featured in a joint training session with the men the week before the club’s FA Cup final appearance against Manchester United, and they had a joint-kit launch.
Spokes added: “I was surprised when I saw the article on the BBC about the disconnect between West Ham Ladies and West Ham Football Club, because we are a kind of third party, like what was described by Mr Hunt and West Ham.
“But what we are is a third party that is fully functioning with the main club and slowly becoming more involved with the club – and the club can see the benefit.”