Mind the Gap: Navigating the Widening Gap between FA WSL 1 and 2

Mind the Gap signage by clicsorious of wikicommons
Photo by Clicsouris (Own work (Photo personnelle)) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When the FA Women’s Super League 2 was created in time for the fourth season of FA WSL in England, it was finally a chance for the pretenders to have a shot at the big time. While Liverpool and Chelsea were busy launching an attack on dominant Arsenal, Manchester City avoided a path through FA WSL 2 and straight into the top division.

That meant former FA WSL 1 side Doncaster Rovers Belles were dominated down to the second tier and would be joined by Sunderland, Reading, Aston Villa, Yeovil Town, Durham, Watford, Millwall, Oxford United, and London Bees for the first FA WSL 2 season.

Due to a lack of relegation from FA WSL 2 down to the FA Women’s Premier League (FA WPL; until next season), the league has been fairly stable and has offered an opportunity for those teams struggling near the bottom to stay afloat despite finishing at the rear end of the table.

Initially it looked like the gap wouldn’t be too much of an issue after Sunderland, propelled by Beth Mead, came up and finished fourth at their first attempt. But as more FA WSL 1 teams began to go full-time there were worries that promoted sides wouldn’t be able to make up the difference. Those worries were further strengthened when relegated Everton fell short of an immediate return to FA WSL 1 after finishing below both Reading and Doncaster Belles.

After being relegated from FA WSL 1 with just eight points, Bristol City bounced back instantly to join Yeovil in this year’s Spring Series, while Reading and Doncaster struggled badly.

Reading won just once (against Doncaster) but managed six draws, which kept them above their relegation rivals. Doncaster lost their first 15 games of the season and managed just seven goals and conceded 48 in that time. Doncaster did win at Reading on the final day but had been cut adrift long before that, unable to cope with the demands of going from a part-time model to a league in which budgets were growing and most players were training every day.

Stepping into the Unknown

“The first time you come up it’s a step into the unknown, you have to restructure everything, and the girls have to readjust to everything when you come up,” said Faye Lygo, Doncaster Belles chairwoman.

“The reality in FA WSL is you’re not playing nine other teams, you’re playing four or five other teams because we’re not going to be anywhere near the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. We didn’t throw ourselves fully into the FA WSL 1 model, we still have a lot of volunteers here, if we had, we might have gone into insolvency after getting relegated.”

It’s a sentiment Yeovil Town manager Jamie Sherwood echoes as he begins his first year at the top level of FA WSL 1.

“We know realistically what our level is, our league isn’t nine or ten teams, our league might only be three or four teams and for us, it’s about winning our league,” said Sherwood.

Wales international Helen Ward, now of Yeovil, was with Reading last year and experienced firsthand what it was like to go from dominating week in week out to suddenly not being able to buy a win after promotion to FA WSL 1.

“It’s absolutely huge [the gap] and not just for the players,” said Ward. “It impacts the staff as well. We had a host of full-time staff at Reading whose jobs depended on us retaining FA WSL 1 status. All of a sudden, the way those people may have left their previous employment could be huge.

“Would they be able to walk back into their previous jobs? I don’t know…”

Ward’s current employers Yeovil kick off their first year in FA WSL 1 but they’ll have to manage without one of their few signings so far as she is pregnant with her second child.

With manager Sherwood only being able to rely on free transfers so far, he isn’t under any illusions and says the challenge over the winter has been “massive.”

“I was under no illusions that the gap between FA WSL 2 and 1 was going to be huge for us. I remember watching my wife play in FA WSL 1 before it became a two-tier league and the growth since then has been incredible.”

Sherwood added: “The second tier is a few years behind FA WSL 1, the gap between the two is huge but for us the core values remain the same, honesty, hard work and putting in the hard yards whoever we’re up against. We know the quality gap is bigger because of what the financial rewards bring and Yeovil aren’t in that powerhouse, it’s up to me over the next 18 months to ensure we’re still in FA WSL 1 come 2018.”

Sherwood’s also believes Yeovil are in a good position thanks to having the upcoming Spring Series to get used to life in the top division.

“I was lucky enough to sit with Emma [Coates] at a FA WSL meeting a few months ago and she was envious of our position in terms of getting the Spring Series under our belts.

“Players at this standard come with a higher cost and they want full-time football and at the moment Yeovil Town can’t really offer either of those. But you look at clubs like Birmingham and what they’re doing — we have to look at clubs and their infrastructure and try and do similar things here. We know we can’t compete financially, we have to stay competitive in our own way.”

Differing Gaps

With relegation back to the FA WPL now a realistic prospect for some, why is the gap back to the “non-league” not anywhere near as big as the one between the two FA WSL divisions? Sheffield FC Ladies suffered no issues coming into FA WSL 2 with no football behind them for 10 months while Brighton have also competed well during their first few games in FA WSL 2 this year.

Sheffield captain Carla Ward was a veteran of both FA WSL and FA WPL before coming back into the Super League last year and even she admits the gap isn’t anywhere near as big as the jump between FA WSL divisions.

“The leap between FA WSL 2 and 1 is far greater now than it is from the FA WPL into the FA WSL,” said Ward.

“Once we had actually settled and played a few games last year then we did fairly well. I think the FA WSL 1 teams are just too strong now for the FA WSL 2 sides. Nobody is full-time here, Zoe Johnson [the manager] and Helen Mitchell [General Manager] do more hours than anyone but even they’re part-time.”

Johnson herself had to work as hard as anyone to make sure Sheffield were in a good position to challenge last season as she was drafted in at the last minute to lead the club into FA WSL 2. Acting as a coach under Mitchell in the FA WPL, Johnson was promoted to assistant manager when Mick Mulhern was hired last year but ended up taking control of the team when Mulhern left his job before taking charge of a competitive game.

“So much had to be put in place, but to be honest, everyone worked so hard, at times we didn’t think we would be able to afford the move up but Helen and the chairman never gave up.

“We had to go from not one member of staff or player earning a penny to all staff and players now being paid, plus we are now one of the only clubs to pay our development team expenses.”

For Doncaster, the costs of going up to FA WSL 1 were even greater; they only managed to put a certain number of players on full-time contracts while Reading were able to place nearly their entire squad on full-time deals at the start of 2016.

Even worse followed for Doncaster: two of their full-time players (Natasha Dowie and Becky Easton) left shortly after the summer break while star striker Courtney Sweetman-Kirk broke her leg in a behind-closed-doors friendly. That left just five full-time players until new recruits came in during the summer transfer window and though Belles have been able to keep most of their players, Lygo’s worried about the future of some teams.

“I just wonder where it’s all going sometimes. I worry about those who are treading water near the bottom of FA WSL 2 and the relegation now adds an extra dimension to it for whoever goes down next season.”

Changes Require Investment

So, what can change? Helen Ward doesn’t see anything changing any time soon without more investment for clubs in FA WSL 2. With the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal, and Chelsea now attracting even the top players from the United States, there’s a fear FA WSL 2 clubs simply just get left behind.

Ward said, “I mean unless there’s an increase in the money put into FA WSL 2, then I’m not sure what can be done.

“Maybe parachute payments similar to that in the Premier League but I don’t see that as an option really as there’s not enough income generated by either league to justify it.”

One man who knows all about a challenge is new Watford boss Keith Boanas. The Golden Girls looked like they were going out of business before a quick turnaround saw the former Charlton manager take the helm as the club lived to fight another day.

“I do have concerns about it, certainly within the top half of FA WSL 1,” said Boanas. “Now the big guns at the top are bringing in big foreign internationals as well as monopolizing the best, young English talent.

“I will always believe that good coaches can develop players up to elite level but to get a whole team to that level is much tougher. Some players have agents who are asking unrealistic demands of FA WSL 2 clubs. Arsenal’s recent 10-0 defeat over an otherwise unbeaten Tottenham is a worry as I’m sure they would hold their own in FA WSL 2 – that kind of result takes us back 10 to 15 years.”

In terms of what can be done about the future, Boanas believes the FA and the clubs need to slow down and “keep it real.”

“Every club would love the resources of a Man City or a Chelsea but it’s only the top teams who can afford the top salaries. If the idea is to encourage clubs to compete and add their own investment then the money we get from the FA at the moment isn’t enough.”

He added, “I can understand the hesitation of any club investing finances into a model that basically loses money. In essence I feel the more the FA provide the more understanding club decision-makers would be.”