Licence to thrill – but at a cost: the Super League winners and losers

Brighton celebrate winning the Preemier League play-off, May 2016 (Photo: Clive Jones)

Brighton won the Premier League Southern in 2016 and will be in WSL 1 next season (Photo: Clive Jones)

The race is on to see who can buy the best team in women’s football. 

If the creation of the Super League was a turning point in the game in England, the current upheaval represents a crucial, perhaps defining, watershed.

When the FA announced today that all WSL clubs who had applied for licences for either the first or second tiers had been granted them, it appeared everyone was a winner.

But I’m not so sure that’s how the management and players of WSL 2 Watford, whose parent club felt they couldn’t justify the level of investment and guarantees required by the FA, will feel.

Or many who follow the likes of Sunderland and Doncaster Rovers Belles, who for the moment have chosen not to make the commitment needed to secure a WSL 1 place.

Moreover, some of those who have taken the plunge and told the FA they can cope with the financial requirements of going pro and running a youth academy face a daunting task.

It’s excellent news for Brighton, who ironically, might well have won a place in the top tier next season through football ability rather than off-field progress and promises – although even that comes at a price, as Brighton supporters will have to travel to Crawley, in the next county, to watch their team’s home games.

But I fear especially for the likes of Yeovil Town and Bristol City – clubs who don’t have the greatest financial backing but are prepared to stretch – perhaps risking overstretching – themselves to maintain their place at women’s football’s top table.

Watford, on the other hand, with their men’s club well esconsced in the mid-to-upper reaches of the Premier League, probably could have afforded to bankroll their women’s team, currently bottom of WSL 2. But they’ve elected, controversially, to pull out of the Super League structure completely and concentrate on player development.

In so doing, they’ve lost some goodwill, a top-class manager and inevitably some of their best players for refusing to invest the sort of open-ended sums many believe will be required to create – and then sustain – an élite women’s club.

WSL top-tier licences

Arsenal Everton
Birmingham City Liverpool
Brighton & Hove Albion Manchester City
Bristol City Reading
Chelsea Yeovil Town

Subject to confirmation of meeting licence criteria
Two-to-four more clubs may be accepted when licence applications are considered from non-WSL clubs
Click on bold links to see club statements

Doncaster Belles, currently top of WSL 2, who famously made way for newcomers Manchester City when a second division was added to the Women’s Super League in 2014, have opted not to risk buying their way back into the top tier, choosing instead to apply for one of the tier-two licences and stay where they are, albeit in a league that may no longer carry the WSL branding.

Significantly, when announcing their decision, they stated that the WSL 1 criteria were beyond their means.

Yes, Doncaster Belles. Twice former Premier League National champions (before the Super League), six-times winners of the Women’s FA Cup and the current WSL 2 leaders, who attracted 630 people to their league game against Sheffield FC on Sunday – the envy of many top-tier rivals – on a day when the weather put paid to almost every other match.

Yet Yeovil, who cannot dream of the sort of support from the town’s men’s club that most of their WSL 1 rivals enjoy, have somehow sneaked in, the FA perhaps aware of the nationwide opprobrium the prospect of losing one of the country’s pioneering women’s football clubs was generating.

The well-supported club launched a crowdfunding appeal in October to try to raise the £350,000 they estimated would be required to fulfil the licence criteria. By the deadline, less than a month later, they had raised £1,941 – but they clearly feel subsequent talks with prospective partners have been sufficiently fruitful for them to take the plunge.

Bristol City’s licence offer is among those the FAWSL says is conditional on “ensuring certain requirements are met”.

Sunderland, who in any other season might now be battling to avoid the drop into WSL 2, have decided that trying to keep their place in the top division in the current climate is too risky and are instead considering joining forces with another organisation – be it club or education establishment – to make a bid for one of the remaining WSL 1 places when applications from clubs outside the current Super League structure are considered in the spring, as have WSL 2 club Oxford United.

WSL second-tier licences

Aston Villa Millwall Lionesses
Doncaster Rovers Belles Sheffield FC
Durham Tottenham Hotspur
London Bees

Subject to confirmation of meeting licence criteria
Up to five more clubs may be accepted when licence applications are considered from non-WSL clubs
Click on bold links to see club statements

Certain to be bidding in March are current Premier League strugglers West Ham United.

The club’s relationship with the men’s outfit has turned almost full circle in the past year or so, from one where the men’s club were ridiculed and  condemned for failing to provide even basic training facilities for players who at the time were not strictly funded by them, to one where the women appear now to be embraced wholeheartedly within the entire structure – and where an application to join WSL 1 next season is top of the agenda.

Premier League title challengers Crystal Palace have also announced plans to apply for a licence in March, although their realistic target is the revamped tier two, to which they might yet have got promoted on merit.

Whose approach is right remains to be seen. Maybe they all will be, and every ambitious club will find their place in the grand order by judging their financial capabilities to a tee.

More likely, there will be more casualties along the way, as happened with Notts County earlier this year, even before the Super League overhaul was announced.

There will certainly be some anxious looks over shoulders in the coming months by club administrators and accountants, who are now committed like never before to a high-risk game once known as women’s football.

Brighton’s rapid rise confirmed

Hope Powell at Brighton's elite training centre on her first day as head coach, Sep 28 2017 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

Hope Powell declared on her arrival that she was aiming for WSL 1 (Photo: Sent Her Forward)

As expected, Brighton, champions of the Women’s Premier League just 20 months ago, will be playing in the top tier of women’s football next season.

Their WSL 1 licence is the culmination of an awful lot of hard work by an awful lot of people at an exceptional football club.

In former England manager Hope Powell, they have a charismatic coach whose reputation helps attract top players.

They already have an impressive squad, sufficiently talented to merit praise from Chelsea boss Emma Hayes, who believes they are already fit to figure in WSL 1.

Women and girls general manager Kirsty Hulland has been a busy figure behind the scenes since joining just over a year ago.

And they have a coaching staff who have steered them in the right direction over the past few seasons, making light of a rather longer-than-expected interim managerial spell featuring George Parris and Amy Merricks (during which they maintained the inexorable rise begun under the stewardship of James Marrs and Tracy Doe) – and, of course, topped off by the impressive backing of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club, who have shown an admirable degree of faith in – and commitment to – their women’s club for many years.

But the foundations for this meteoric progress were laid by the likes of Doe, head of the women’s section, who enticed arguably the best manager in the Premier League to Brighton in what became a turning point in the club’s fortunes – and Marrs himself.

Marrs brought the core of his terrific Gillingham side to the south coast and blended them over two years with many of the talented players already at the club into a squad that was destined for big things – and undoubtedly convinced Brighton chairman Paul Barber and co that the women’s club was a sound investment.

The role of that superb squad of players should not be under-estimated, either.

While the likes of former Arsenal and Ireland goalkeeper Emma Byrne have come and gone, and Alessia Russo, Laura Rafferty and Ini Umotong have joined – and enhanced – the revolution, the core of the squad Marrs had assembled would arguably have enjoyed an equally impressive start in WSL2.

Indeed, one of that championship-winning side, Deanna Cooper, was a regular in Chelsea’s first team until she suffered a serious injury in the autumn.

Much as that Brighton side has changed in such a short space of time, the performance on the pitch has continued in the right direction.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as player contribution goes in the licensing process, and those footballers currently licking their lips at the prospect of plying their trade at the top of the football tree have much for which to be thankful to the club’s off-field structure.

FA is right – but there will be casualties along the way

By Stephen Hunt, former joint-chairman of West Ham Ladies and insolvency expert

Stephen Hunt, former co-chairman West Ham United Ladies (Photo: Nicky Hayes)

(Photo: Nicky Hayes)

Having more professional clubs will be a breeding ground for the next generation of England players and, with the BBC hungry for live sport at a reasonable price, the WSL is doing the right thing to meet that opportunity.

But there will be a cost.

Community-based teams like Yeovil and Lewes, who have pioneered the growth of women’s football with great integrity, now face the same challenges that their male teams have faced for years.

They cannot match the financial muscle of the bigger brands and even if – as in the case of Yeovil – they are able to step up to meet this challenge, there is no guarantee that they could meet the next raising of the bar.

I see the raising of the professional opportunities for women players as paramount but I feel for the volunteer clubs who will begin to fall away.

Some clubs will over-stretch and go bust as they fall subject to the same economics as their male counterparts. Others will be more responsible, and will gently sink down the leagues.

It’s what everyone wants and at the same time fears.

Ambitious Lewes attract yet more Super League talent

Kylie McCarthy, who has signed for Lewes from Watford, December 13 2017 (Photo: Lewes FC Women)

Kylie McCarthy has won 50 caps for Wales and has plenty of experience of playing at the top level in England (Photo: Lewes FC Women)

At the same time as Brighton were announcing the next phase of their meteoric rise through women’s football, Lewes were announcing the signing of yet another top-class player with Super League pedigree, to underline their own willingness to splash the cash to join their Sussex neighbours in the big time.

Ironically, the vastly experienced former Chelsea captain and Wales international defender Kylie McCarthy joins Lewes from Watford, whose WSL 2 place is now up for grabs – from the likes of her new club.

Much-travelled McCarthy, 30, who started at AFC Wimbledon and has also played for Millwall and Reading in the Super League after spending seven years at Chelsea, was part of Keith Boanas’s developing squad at Watford but opted to quit after Watford FC announced their decision to pull the women’s side out of the Super League.

She said: “I joined Watford for a while until we realised that their ambitions didn’t match the players’. Now I’m at Lewes, where the club have got a lot of ambition, and I’ve been really impressed by the facilities and the direction the club want to go in.”

Her new manager, John Donoghue, who has signed a host of highly skilled footballers – many with Super League experience – since the club announced they would invest equally in their men’s and women’s teams, emphasised that ambition when welcoming his latest addition to a squad already featuring the likes of Sarah Kempson, Leeta Rutherford, Faye Baker and Amy Taylor.

He said: “This is a terrific signing for Lewes. It shows our ambition and our ability to attract players from the highest level. Kylie brings a wealth of experience: 50 international caps and a superb record at WSL 1 and 2 level.

“She will help us to continue to challenge at the top of our division as we look to build on a solid start to the season.”

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