Ever since last year’s announcement of the upcoming changes to the women’s football pyramid in England, supporters have been trying to work out who might end up where next season with applications for the new FA Women’s Championship hugely oversubscribed.
Indeed, even the clubs bidding for the few remaining spots in Tier 2 don’t know their fate yet as a number of variables continue to threaten the FA’s hope of even numbers across both the top two divisions for next season.
After setting a ceiling of 14 teams in the new FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL) and 12 teams in the Championship, the realistic feeling among many is that it will be 12 teams in each next season, leaving 24 clubs as a whole competing in the top two divisions of English football.
On the eve of the 2017 Spring Series, Notts County folded and now, almost a year on from that announcement, popular FA WSL 2 club Millwall announced they’re in financial difficulties and may be forced to enter administration in the coming weeks.
For those unaware of Millwall’s history, the Lionesses were embraced by the club as a whole as Millwall tried to improve their image and reputation in the 1980s during a dark era for hooliganism in the sport.
The club was the first to have a female Centre of Excellence in England, won the FA Cup in both 1991 and 1997, and kick-started the playing careers of former England head coach Hope Powell and internationals such as Claire Rafferty and Katie Chapman.
The club is on a long unbeaten run which stretches back as far as early 2017 and has a realistic chance of winning the FA WSL 2 title this season. Given the club’s popularity and current form it would be another public relations disaster for the FA should Millwall follow Notts County out of the women’s game.
With Watford almost going under last year and Sunderland reverting to a part-time program, the FA will — or should — want to ensure the Lionesses are at least able to finish off what has been a fantastic season, though it leaves questions about the club’s ability to maintain its position for next season.
There’s now added interest in who will gain places in the Championship after both Manchester United and Southampton confirmed they have bid for spots after coming under plenty of pressure for not having women’s teams over the past few years.
With Tier 2 set out as a semiprofessional/part-time league for next season, alarm bells have been ringing among some supporters that both United and Southampton are currently in the process of hiring managers on a full-time basis and referring to themselves as “professional” women’s teams.
Despite the furor that would come with the FA accepting teams who seemingly go above and beyond the requirements for a license, current clubs are relaxed about the situation and believe some of it is down to the wording of such statements.
Indeed, both Everton and Doncaster Belles had several full-time players during their various spells in the second division and several current managers in the league are also working on a full-time basis so it would be nothing new should both clubs push the boundaries if accepted.
When asked for a comment by Our Game Magazine on the situation regarding possible full-time teams in a part-time league, the FA confirmed the eight hours of weekly contact time that is part of the Tier 2 license requirement is a minimum requirement and a club is within its rights to provide more if they want to, as can clubs in Tier 1.
With seven of the 12 spots all but confirmed barring a late change of events such as what is happening to Millwall, the likely admittance of Manchester United, Southampton, and the winners of the FA Women’s Premier League playoff would leave just two spots open to the 15 or so clubs who are wishing to make the step up.
Mitigating circumstances could see that number increase though. Despite Watford and Oxford United back-tracking on their initial plans to pull out of the league, both clubs have re-applied but rumors throughout the league suggest neither are a given for a spot, particularly the former who have lost an experienced player and several players throughout the course of the current campaign.
It will leave the likes of Crystal Palace, Leicester City, Derby County, Sheffield United, Lewes, Coventry United, C&K Basildon, and others fighting for spots as clubs prepare to make their final presentations to the FA.
Sunderland could also be in the mix with the club currently running on a part-time program and no word from the club on their previous plans for a merger in order to go back to being full-time and maintain their well-earned spot in the top tier of women’s football.
It leaves the rest in a close fight for the remaining spots, however many there may be. Sheffield United have big plans and new facilities but face a big step up from Tier 4 while Leicester City have increased backing from the club as a whole.
It does leave one wondering why the numbers were not reversed and 12 teams allowed in Tier 1 and 14 for Tier 2. Did the FA perhaps overestimate the ambition of clubs and expect the likes of Man United and current WSL 2 side Tottenham Hotspur to bid for a top division license?
Brighton & Hove Albion will make the step up and it’s expected West Ham will be rewarded with a license, too, but some applicants have been asked if they’d wish to bid for Tier 1 in order to open up more room in the second division.
Sources tell Our Game Magazine that some clubs in the current FA WSL 2 would support an expanded league but preset budgets have been settled on the assumption of a 12-team league and the fixture window for the 2018-19 season already decided, with a start date of mid-August yet to be confirmed.
With FA WSL 2 clubs also more often than not having a lack of games during FIFA international windows, there aren’t enough weekends available alongside cup dates for an expanded league at this time.
The majority of current Tier 2 clubs would prefer to play during international windows with the guarantee they could request a postponement if they have two or more players called up for either full national sides or more likely, youth teams.
With D-Day looming and just a month of the season remaining before a clear picture emerges of what next season’s leagues will look like, the first priority for the FA and the FA WSL should be to prioritize the current clubs and ensure those with history and tradition within the women’s game are able to compete come the beginning of the new season.