Women’s game stands at a worrying crossroads

From next season clubs in Women’s Super League 1 will have to be full-time, no ifs or buts. It is the FA’s attempt to raise standards in the women’s game, but for some this progress is coming too swiftly and they are asking for the minimum of a one-year delay. The Mixed Zone’s Katie Whyatt investigates difficult times in women’s football

Mick Mulhern can remember the first time he saw Steph Houghton. It was at Sunderland Ladies’ Centre of Excellence, where he was director, later first-team manager, and the present England captain was an aspiring young player.

More than a decade and a half later, Mulhern recalls: “We were doing summer trials for England. We were focusing on the under-16s, but there were a couple of girls in the under-14s who instantly just looked good enough. Steph was a goalscorer then – very athletic, very quick. That hasn’t changed. Strong, good finisher. She’s a great athlete, a great footballer – a credit to her sport.”

Lucy Bronze, Manchester City Women

Lucy Bronze, the England defender and Houghton’s team-mate in the Lionesses’ World Cup bronze-winning team of 2016, is another to have graduated under Mulhern’s guidance. “I remember Lucy at under-10s, when she used to train with her glasses on,” he says. “She looked every inch a footballer. Really assured, really comfortable. Probably quite similar to the way she is now – she’s quite shy and retiring, really, off the pitch. It probably took us about seven or eight years to get much of a conversation out of her, but she was a great footballer. She was always going to – like a lot of them – make a difference at the top end of the game.”

Sunderland’s list of notable alumni reads as the closest thing women’s football has to Manchester United’s fabled Class of ’92, the team of Beckham, Giggs, Scholes, Butt and the Nevilles.. In addition to Bronze and Houghton, the women’s equivalent includes Jill Scott, Jordan Nobbs and Demi Stokes. In fact, more than 20 of Mulhern’s former charges have gone on to represent England at various levels.

Mulhern became the Centre of Excellence director in 1999, and was manager in 2014 when he guided Sunderland to WSL 1. He says: “It was creating a positive mentality – making them all believe that anything was possible if they put the work in. It was only right that the sessions were of a standard that the boys were getting. I was challenging them all the time, and we went from nowhere to producing girls for the England set-up, because we were doing the right things. The mental aspect was massive: I was doing that very early on, when it was classroom sessions with the girls.

“I’ve seen them all represent England, and I’ve had the lump in my throat when the National Anthem’s been on. When I’ve been to watch the games live, it’s kind of usual, kind of normal to see that now – and yet it’s not. And I guess in years to come I’ll appreciate that I’m one of the few lucky ones who’s had five or six internationals in the starting team, especially a successful England team. This is the best group that I can remember, certainly the best standard of football. These girls are a special group.”

Yet, Sunderland Ladies, a club steeped in modern football history, faces an uncertain future. Indeed, English women’s football in general finds itself at a crossroads. As of the 2018–19 season, eight months away, only full-time clubs will play in the top tier of the Women’s Super League. The intention is to raise the bar, but many have reservations about the speed of progress. Current WSL tier-one clubs have only until November 10 to submit their applications. Yeovil Town Ladies, as a result, have launched a crowd funding page in an attempt to raise the £350,000 needed to fend off relegation, noting in a statement: “We have the structure, facilities and ambition to become a full-time professional club given time – but we currently do not have the financial support.”

Sunderland’s position seems particularly murky. In January, they reverted to part-time status; what this means, in both the short and long-term, is sketchy. The Mixed Zone has contacted Sunderland Ladies several times, but requests for interviews have gone unfulfilled. “To say that they’re only part-time now is sort of a misnomer, because I believe they may have up to 12 players on full-time contracts,” explains Jen O’Neill, editor of women’s football magazine shekicks.net.

In September, Sunderland Ladies lost access to first-team facilities at the Academy of Light, relocating to Northumbria University’s Coach Lane campus in a northern suburb of Newcastle, which also houses an elite FA training centre. With the WSL season moving to the winter, training sessions would clash with junior men’s development teams. Symbolically, the club showed where their priorities lie. The Independent pulled no punches this week when they described Sunderland as a “ghost town”: the club are saddled with debts of £110 million and failed to find a buyer in the summer. Their men’s team have managed one league win this season and have just sacked manager Simon Grayson. Paradoxically, only last night the Ladies team suggested that they are the one bright light when they beat Aston Villa 3-1 in a cup match. Yet, amid the crisis on Wearside, the position of the women’s team is inevitably precarious.

It wasn’t always so. “I recall the main difference was Niall Quinn, when he came in as a chairman,” Mulhern explains. “Previously, they were kind of paying us lip service. ‘Here’s a set of strips – find somewhere to play’. He made a difference because we were pushing and wanting more from Sunderland all the time. It was a challenge, and it makes it all worthwhile when there’s something at the end of it, when there’s something to fight for. Every hour that I wasn’t at work, I was working on things to help us become the best we could be.

“The last couple of years at Sunderland were brilliant. All those years of the girls backpacking in Asda to make money, travelling down on rickety old buses, arriving at Arsenal far too late after leaving ridiculously early in the morning, were worthwhile. The support the football club gave made all the difference: the hotels, travelling down on the first-team bus on several occasions, the extra training session a week. The girls were professionals probably a year before they were professionals – because they were given everything they needed.”

Journalist Jen O’Neill says: “There have been a lot of redundancies right across the club, not just in the women’s football – the new CEO Martin Baine has had to make lots of big cuts. It was a financial decision to cut the programme back, and it felt like we were taking a massive step backwards. They still have more resources to hand than some of the other WSL 1 clubs. But, as far as I can gather, the problem is that Sunderland were so poorly run at the top of the club that the women’s team are one of the areas affected first. It’s always the women’s team that are going to be one of the first to face the cuts if you’re not bringing in a lot of revenue. It’s frustrating because we don’t seem to get away from that.”

It is unclear how the new proposals will help in that regard. Tony Farmer founded Chelsea Ladies in 1992, and is currently petitioning for the FA Head of Women’s Leagues and Competitions, Katie Brazier, to “reconsider plans to exclude non-professional sides from WSL 1 next season”, as part of FA WSL Fans United. His open letter to Brazier, available here, notes: “The proposed changes will mean that only women’s teams backed by professional league clubs will meet the required criteria and will be able to comply. That effectively puts the whole future of women’s football in the hands of the owners of Premier and EFL clubs … If a men’s club gets relegated, and needs to tighten purse strings, the women’s team will be the first place they look.

“Forcing players to go full-time means the FA have a responsibility to those players. The FA seem to be happy to use the women’s game as an experiment and if it fails, [to] just try something else.”

He continues: “A professional top tier could well be good for the game in time, but to give existing clubs, such as Yeovil, 44 days to secure in excess of £350,000 or lose their place is unacceptable. Clubs that have been built on sound management and achieved their dream of playing top-flight football [will find their dreams] left in tatters, so that ‘bigger’ clubs can purchase their place.”

Farmer has requested the FA postpones plans until at least the 2019–20 season, while granting WSL 1 clubs a one-year licence to source funding and create business plans. “Teams should only ever be relegated on results, not a club’s financial power,” says Farmer. “Notts County are a prime example of what happens when a men’s club has financial problems – the women’s team are the first casualties.”

“I loved it,” begins Chelsea and England goalkeeper Carly Telford, as she reflects on the three and a half years she spent at Notts County Ladies. “We had a great fanbase, and a manager and team that wanted to go far. The city as a whole had invested in us: we’d been to Wembley [for the 2015 FA Cup final], we were doing well, the guys were not doing so well. There were international players at the club who were going to the Euros. The way the club wanted to go was all good on paper – and then the way things happened was unprecedented.”

Notts County Ladies no longer exist. On Friday, April 21, 2017, just two days before the start of the WSL Spring Series, they folded; they had been due to play Arsenal that Sunday. A winding-up order had been issued against the ladies’ club: adjourned in March, they had been given until July 3 to pay money owed to HMRC.

Local businessman Alan Hardy had purchased both the men’s and women’s clubs five months earlier, aiming to clear debts owed by both sides. “But the numbers simply do not stack up,” Hardy said in a statement at the time. “Continuing would have been little short of financial suicide. When I took over the club, HMRC and other creditors had in excess of £350,000 of unpaid liabilities. Additionally, I was extremely concerned that to operate Notts County Ladies for the current season was going to cost us approximately £500,000 – a figure principally made up of player and coaching salaries.”

“It was exactly that: a complete shock,” Telford recalls six months on. “When the new chairman came in before Christmas, there were rumours – but we thought if they were going to do anything they would have done it in the off-season, and given us all a chance to leave. There were new signings, new contracts – if they were going to do anything, they wouldn’t do that.

“We literally had a 24-hour warning that training was cancelled and that we had a meeting. That could have been anything. We hadn’t met the chairmen, so we thought maybe he was coming in to wish us good luck before the start of the league. We were taken into a room and told not by him, but by his administration staff, that the winding-up orders had been given the day before and that we were now effectively all jobless – the club no longer existed. That was it. We were sat there with the management, who found out at the same time. There was a lot of emotion flying around.”

Telford was approached by Chelsea’s goalkeeping coach the following day. “Within 48 hours, we got the all-clear from the FA and the PFA that we could speak to other clubs and we’d be released from our registration forms. I signed on the Tuesday and played on the Wednesday. I didn’t train with the girls – I met them at Reading, had a pre-match meal with them and then we went to the game. It was a whirlwind after that. I was still at uni, so I was driving and commuting, staying over at Raff’s [Claire Rafferty] while I got used to what was going on.”

For Telford, Notts County now stands as a story of unfulfilled potential. “I liked the ambitions the club talked about, but we just didn’t have the backing like Emma [Hayes, current Chelsea Ladies manager] has higher up. We were always chasing our tails. It was always kind of a token gesture, rather than a full investment to see where we could take the women’s team.

“When I came into Chelsea, two weeks after leaving Notts, I actually can’t believe how we even survived in the league, if I’m honest. The little support we had compared to these clubs we were trying to compete with week-in, week-out. Every one of us released from Notts County, and who went on to different clubs, have said how the hell we even managed to compete in the league is beyond us. Even though we had the players, we were never going to. If we had had someone who was passionate about it at the right time, I think we had the squad and the capabilities to have a good side that was very competitive.

“And that’s the sad thing about it: the foundations were there for something special, something good to happen, but it was just never backed in the right way by the right people. [Hardy] has obviously got the club up and running in a way he wanted to, which was to support the men and get the men back to winning ways. Potentially, it was the right thing to do – but we’ll never really know. It was just the maddest time.”

Mad, but by no means unique. In 2007, Telford was poised to sign for Charlton, having completed the pre-season tour – until the plug was pulled on the women’s team. Subsequently, she signed for Leeds – then Leeds Carnegie, given their links to what was once Leeds Metropolitan University – until they withdrew their interest in becoming a founding member of the WSL, citing, again, financial concerns. The news then wasn’t broken with any greater dignity than Hardy mustered. “We’d just drawn or beaten Arsenal, and we were all on a high – and then we were told,” Telford says. “The application had shut the week before so we wouldn’t be able to reapply. We had a couple of games left, but Leeds would basically no longer exist at the end of the season.”

Extinction loomed until Leeds United took the women’s team under their remit once more. Funding was withdrawn during Massimo Cellino’s tempestuous reign, but new owner Andrea Radrizzani has since repurchased the ladies team and seems keen. A club statement promised: “Leeds United Ladies first team will also train at Thorp Arch and wear the same kit as the men’s first team.”

Telford wasn’t alone in feeling a pang of déjà vu when Hardy made his announcement: Notts County manager Rick Passmoor had been in charge at Leeds when the axe fell, and Laura Bassett and Sophie Bradley were Telford’s team-mates in both Yorkshire and the Midlands. “There seems to be a common theme here – it just keeps happening,” says Telford. “It was taken out of our hands, and that’s the ruthlessness and instability of the women’s game. I think what happened at Notts County has given the FA some sort of rules, regulations, stability promises from these chairmen – whether that’s the chairman alone, the club, the group of businesses who decide to back the women’s team – that there can’t just be an easy out. There has to be some sort of sustained stability there for a period of time before they just decide to pull the plug like that.”

Given the “ruthlessness and instability” Telford outlines, it is obvious why the FA’s new proposals are a cause for anxiety. Partnerships with men’s clubs continue to be fruitful – think Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City – but further down the pyramid, where assurances are less overt, those links are viewed with ambivalence. “It has moved the game forward and it has prompted the male clubs to start investing – but if you’re going to make a sport run before it can walk, there are going to be casualties,” says Jen O’Neill. “If the whole game and the standard of the top level is moving forward, [partnerships with men’s clubs] is probably going to be the way to do it – but we have to accept that there are probably going to be sad stories along the way. At least some clubs have a bit of a conscience.”

For Telford, the contrast between Notts County and Chelsea remains stark: three of the men’s directors watched the recent Champions League home game against Bayern Munich. “They’ve fully embraced what [Emma Hayes] is trying to achieve,” she says. “That shows the connection she has – they visit regularly and ask if we’ve got everything we need. They want to make us a world-class organisation, a brand that’s recognised all over. I think Emma has paved the way for many men’s teams and many women’s teams to get on-board, and show where the game can be taken if things are done correctly.”

Mick Mulhern, who left Sunderland in 2014 and currently scouts for England, concludes: “Sunderland are still going. They’re still supporting the women’s team, they’re still backing the women’s team – I certainly wouldn’t criticise the football club for that. Notts County have been frugal, but they decided they didn’t want a women’s team. But I don’t think that’s the end of it. I think others have seen what Notts County have done and they’ll have a look at it, and they’ll do it season by season. The boat might be sailing along nicely somewhere, and then it’ll just sink, and it will be that sudden. And there’s other clubs who just don’t want a women’s team full stop, or they’re not prepared to, or they might have a good deal of money for the men’s set-up and the boys’ set-up, but they’re not prepared to fund the women’s team. I think that’s sad.”


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