As England emerges from a three-month lockdown, for the second year in succession, the clubs in the lower leagues of women’s soccer voted to declare their seasons null and void last month, a decision which has created division within the game.
Many players are unhappy with the lack of transparency around the process with clubs claiming that safety considerations prevented them returning to play before organizing a slew of friendly matches against one another.
Unlike last season, when all women’s soccer was suspended, the top two tiers of the game, the FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship, were granted elite status by the United Kingdom government and allowed to continue throughout the winter lockdown. Below that level, tiers 3-6 were classified as “grassroots” and teams were forced to suspend matches and training on January 4.
On March 15, the English Football Association (FA) announced that clubs within the relevant leagues voted on whether they wanted to continue with the current season or curtail it. For the second year running, they voted on rendering the season null and void with no promotion or relegation between the tiers or up into the elite second tier. Two weeks later, the government lifted the restrictions on grassroots soccer allowing clubs to resume training and organize matches, but for many women’s teams that decision came too late.
Last March, after The FA also declared women’s tiers 3-6 null and void during the first lockdown in the United Kingdom, Women’s National League Division One North side Barnsley Women accused the governing body of “discrimination against women and women’s football” as the equivalent tiers in men’s football were allowed to continue playing. This is the situation once again.
Seven third-tier and two fourth-tier clubs have made it through to the Fourth Round of this season’s FA Women’s Cup to be played this weekend despite not playing a match in the FA Women’s National League (WNL) since December. Fourth-tier Leyton Orient went out to Chichester & Selsey last Sunday, a defeat which leaves them with no more competitive matches to play this season.
The Orient manager, Chris Brayford, described the decision to curtail the league as “very disappointing”. “It seems as if a lot of clubs maybe didn’t put their players’ interests first. Their mental and physical well-being should surely be at the forefront of a club’s thinking and it seems like most of the players, particularly at a WNL level, were desperate to return to competitive play whereas apparently across the pyramid, even among the WNL clubs, more clubs voted to curtail than not. There are clearly quite a few clubs where the players probably don’t have a clue that their own club voted against continuing with the season!”
Of the twelve teams in the FA Women’s National League Division One South-East (tier 4) only three clubs – Ipswich Town, Hashtag United and Leyton Orient – voted to continue with the season. Spencer Owen, chairman of Hashtag United, who were second in the standings behind Ipswich Town when the season was suspended, explained to me his frustration with the situation. “Actually the club should never have had a chance to vote. The reality is you can’t ask teams who’ve started a league to vote on how to finish it. Obviously clubs are going to vote to protect themselves. We would have done the same thing if we were in a relegation-threatened position for example. Everyone’s only going to look out for themselves.”
“The clubs at the top are going to complain when the league gets declared null and void, and their voices are going to be washed away because they will be in the minority. When the league’s been started, the amount of teams who can benefit from finishing a league is always going to be a minority. There’s going to be just as many teams under threat from relegation, and there’s going to be a load of people in the middle, who maybe don’t have much to gain or lose, but are going to incur costs from continuing to play games.”
“Ultimately, I don’t think it’s their fault. This is two seasons in a row they haven’t finished the league. The powers that be let us down because they didn’t create a plan for this happening. People went out to play games and fans went out to watch games this season and there was absolutely no plan whatsoever if there was an inevitable stoppage, which was always going to happen.”
Hashtag United’s ninth-tier men’s team have also had their season prematurely ended but Owen believes the effect on his newly-acquired women’s team will be greater. “With the women’s game particularly, having no promotion or relegation for two years in a row has harmed the development of the game. We’re trying to grow women’s football. We’ve seen a massive TV deal signed with all the money going to the top two levels. I feel like that’s a little bit counter-intuitive to be honest. I think it should be going further down. The fact they’re not promoting or relegating makes it harder for teams to reach that level.”
Last week, The FA announced that it would be creating a new board “made up of professionals making waves in their respective industry” to oversee the development of the Women’s National League. In a statement they outlined their objectives. “Following a challenging year, the new Board has been formed to drive forward women’s football across Tiers 3 and 4 of The Women’s Football Pyramid, taking on responsibilities such as agreeing and implementing the strategic direction of The FA Women’s National League and its Competitions, as well as making recommendations in respect of commercial partnerships, league development and policy.”
“The Board’s immediate role will be to assess how the pandemic has affected the FA Women’s National League and plan for how it will come back even stronger at the start of the 2021/2022 season; and to create a new League strategy with clear priorities for the League’s development over the next three years.”
Owen does not understand how teams who voted to end the Women’s National League season are now playing non-competitive matches against each other. “The worst thing is, teams that voted to not play league football because they couldn’t justify playing games without a fan-base are now playing without fans. I do believe they are within their right to say “we shouldn’t be made to play without fans”, these teams need that revenue but I take issue with teams who did vote to null and void and are choosing to play games. The only way they can justify that is by playing games literally incurring zero costs to them. We definitely could have finished the league, no doubt about it.”
Further down the pyramid, it is a view shared by Georgie Brophy, a player in the Essex County Women’s League. Her side Barking Women’s FC were top of their division unbeaten for a second season in succession before other clubs created a majority voting to curtail it. Brophy’s frustration is that, now the ban on grassroots soccer has been lifted by the government, those other clubs have since resumed playing a Champions League-style competition against one another. “I guess our biggest question is why opt to play a tournament every weekend, that ultimately means nothing, when we could use that same time to finish the league competitively?”
Unable to play in matches since December, Owen told me what effect it has had on his team. “One of our best players has basically quit the game over the last few weeks. She’s decided that’s she fallen out of love with the game. How much of that is a result of what’s happened over the last couple of years?”
“I know how devastated our players have been because at this level you’re doing it for the love of the game. There isn’t the financial renumeration there that you get as a professional athlete, but you still have to give up the same sort of time or you’ve got to balance it with a job. Some of our players are front-line NHS workers and football is their release. It’s incredibly demoralizing for these players. It’s not just the players of course, it’s the volunteers. All these people that make these teams tick, two years in a row will be told all their efforts will have gone to waste. I don’t think the powers that be have really allowed for that, how important it is to have these people enthused.”
“I’m not necessarily saying that teams should have been made to play, I want to make that clear. I’m saying it needed better management from the top. It needed a better plan in place from minute one, that we all agreed to before a ball was kicked because there were clear concerns the season wouldn’t run smoothly. None of that happened and then you’re given a vote. Ultimately, I blame the people in charge because they didn’t give any alternative to null and void a chance, even in the way surveys were put across. It is clear what they wanted to happen, and they got what they wanted. Two years in a row, is borderline criminal for me.”