The Football Association (FA) has decided to end covering the costs of England players at university traveling to and from the United States for international training camps and tournaments starting in September 2019.
It’s a move which The FA hopes will persuade more of the young talent across the country to pursue their careers in England rather than across the pond, but it has left hundreds of players and parents in a difficult situation.
Players already in the U.S., such as Alessia Russo, Lotte Wubben-Moy, Anna Patten, and so on, will now have to subsidize their own costs when they return to England for international duty, while players going to the U.S. this summer will be at even larger disadvantage.
Our Game Magazine spoke to three parents of players currently in the development system of the FA Women’s Super League about how the changes affect them and their daughters, as well as to David Faulkner, the FA’s Head of Women’s Performance, about the alternatives being offered.
To protect the identities of the players and their families, their names and clubs will remain anonymous.
Pairing Clubs and Universities
Alternatives from The FA now include options which will see all Tier 1 clubs for the 2018/19 season paired with a local university, a move which will allow young players to follow what Faulkner describes as a “dual-career process,” plus a new academy league to replace the current development setup for players aged 16 to 20.
“The major area we looked at when my role was created was the 16-18 group,” Faulkner told me. “Players at the age of 16 might get to go straight into a first team if they’re very talented but it’s extremely rare.
“That area between 16 and 20 to support and develop female football talent has been a real focus. Part of the license process when we set the criteria was every FA WSL club had to have an academy. There are three pillars in that academy. One is to ensure the quality is benchmarked against the world’s best and that we’re delivering a model that is aligned with proper technical development.
“Secondly is around performance services, making sure these individuals have the appropriate access for physical development, physiotherapy, nutrition, lifestyle support, and psychology to try and build that support around an individual. And finally, there’s the dual-career, ensuring that all-the-time football development is going on it’s aligned with their academic aspirations.”
One parent, whose daughter has already committed to a U.S. university from 2019, believes the alternatives on offer aren’t enough to persuade players to stay unless forced to financially.
“There remains absolute confusion across the board,” they said. “Girls going off to university this year are delighted it’s no longer their problem, their assumption is there probably isn’t going to be a development league for them next year. I’m sure they [The FA] will work something out but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was just a series of friendlies.”
However, Faulkner said a new academy league is all but set to go and it will be joined by a knockout style competition which will run alongside the FA WSL and FA Women’s Championship.
Aside from the new system, Faulkner also stated it’s his “aspiration” to see young girls playing in the boys’ league in the near future, a model he compares to the Netherlands, which won Euro 2017 last year.
“If I’m being pretty blunt, we want the girls in the boys’ league,” he said. “We are working through with that. Kay Cossington [The FA’s Head of Women’s Talent and Development] is leading that. People have seen the rise of the Netherlands lately and in their 15-to-18 teams they all play against the boys. Their education is integrated with football during the week, they play games on a Friday night, and it leaves their weekend open to a normal life.
“We’re consulting with clubs and how it will work, and I’d suggest we may be playing midweek. We’ll look at how that can be scheduled throughout the season and around FIFA windows but we’re well down the road in terms of getting that ready for the new season.”
Regarding the end of costs for players traveling to and from the U.S., the first parent in question believes the move is a “backwards step” for women’s football in England and that a year’s notice wasn’t enough for players.
“The timing for people my daughter’s age is difficult,” they added. “If you’re going to the USA you’re already mentally committed by now. Our daughter has already made that decision that she will be at a U.S. university next year, it can’t change our view.
“The FA might be trying to force people’s hands in not going over there but for most people it’s a fraction of the cost against the debt of university here. My gut feeling is England will have shot themselves in the foot because the options are not very competitive here.”
Parents have at least been told there will be universities paired with every Tier 1 club but they’re not necessarily the university a player might want to go to.
OGM has seen a copy of the email sent to parents in February of this year and the list of universities involved. However, there was no prior notice the email would be coming and that the FA was considering ending the funding.
“We’ve been told which universities will be paired with Tier 1 clubs but the one linked with our club is not the one we’d necessarily want. I think you’re going to have a lot of 18-year-old’s leaving football, that’s my concern.”
The universities paired with current Tier 1 clubs are below. Any other Tier 1 clubs accepted at the end of the licensing process will also be paired with a higher education university.
University of Birmingham
University of Chichester
University of Gloucester
Manchester Metropolitan/University of Manchester
University of Nottingham/Nottingham Trent
Sheffield Hallam University
St. Mary’s University
There will also be five designated FA Women’s High-Performance Satellite Centres:
University of Hertfordshire
University of Brighton
Buckinghamshire New University
Liverpool John Moores University
University of East London
“What we’ve done is partnered a higher education site with a WSL club to address those three pillars,” said Faulkner. “When a young, talented player gets to 18 what we’re trying to do is offer a viable alternative to going to the USA. What we’re trying to do here is build a viable, dual-career system for women’s football.
“The clubs have been fantastic in engaging with this because they’ve been crying out for it. Some do get quite demotivated when they see their top talent go off to America. It means a player can sign a contract with a club and use their partner university to do a degree. My time in Olympic sport tells us that top Olympians don’t do three-year degrees, they do five- or six-year degrees. There’s been a fixed mindset in the UK where people think they do a three-year degree, they start it and find they can’t do football with it.”
He added, “What’s worked in the Olympic world over the last decade is universities have offered that flexibility of choice. We have to back it and we want to back it. The ability to sign a contract and do a degree is something we’re actively encouraging. In the WSL license what we said is our expectation is 16-20 hours a week minimum. The reason we chose that is because of the dual-career, so they can run an education program alongside their training. I know it works because I’ve seen it work in Olympic sports.
“Nobody is being forced to go to this club with this university but what we’ve done is we’ve made that choice available to them.”
The Juggling Act between Academics and Football
Another parent is concerned that their daughter’s academic work will suffer further with the extra commitments needed from players as the league becomes more professional from August on.
“Our daughter is halfway through her A-Levels and her marks have been adversely affected because of the amount of time she’s out of college, so she’s already racing against time to continue her football career and get the best results, too.
“For young players in the top tier, clubs are now asking for them to be at the club for training five days a week due to the new licensing rules, but it’s a commitment players still studying in education simply cannot commit to.
“I think the FA have driven it through very quickly for a limited number of reasons,” they added. “The consequences for players are quite significant. Our daughter cannot and will not relocate to where her club are based and have to change college halfway through her A-Levels in order to be available five days a week because of the changes to Tier 1.
“That’s not what she signed up for and it’s out of her club’s control. She doesn’t drive and we can’t manage the impact of moving to a different college. If she’s going to achieve her ambition she needs to be able to train five days a week and be in college 20 hours a week, plus international camps. In some people’s books that would be exploitation of a minor.”
In response to concerns about young players struggling to juggle college life with the added demands that come with the new FA WSL licensing, The FA have appointed Tony Fretwell from rugby league as a new full-time WSL Academy Manager, who Faulkner tells OGM will oversee the dual-career system as he did in his previous role. Ryan King has been brought in as Head of Performance Services for the WSL.
“We’re leaking talent,” admitted Faulkner. “There’s no question we had to put this intervention in. We’re leaking talent because we did not have a system to support girls after 16.”
On concerns regarding players juggling A-Level exams with football, Faulkner added: “We have strongly recommended to clubs to not move those players out of their education and that they put in a football transition program to support them through their second year.
“When someone is doing their A-Levels the last thing you want to do is swap colleges of examination boards so we’ve strongly recommended to clubs they do that transition year for girls who are in college.
“One of the things we’re also doing is we’ll be putting into the academies a dual-career accreditation. We want to make sure there’s someone at the club but also someone at the further education site who is independent from football who is overseeing the well-being of the individual.”
The parent also adds that her daughter actually became less set on moving to the United States because the game was developing in England so quickly, but now accepts they’re at a stage where the “next two or three weeks will be critical for her.”
“Within two seasons she changed her mind about going there because she felt the rate of change here and the way the game was developing, she felt things were tipping a bit. She had conversations with another player over there who was telling her about the travel demands, even though at the time they were paid for, and she started to see the negative impact of going over there and trying to play for your country.”
They added, “You’ve got players who have already signed up to go next year who think it’s brilliant and then out of the blue the FA announces that from next season they’ll stop covering the costs. I understand the logic but to do it when girls who are currently 17-18 are making life-changing decisions with the financial implications that come with it and no kind of consultation I think is just wrong. It’s really unfair, those girls are already committed now and have to either make a different choice or manage the consequences.
“England want her and other girls to be playing so her even stepping up to the first team and sitting on the bench isn’t a great option for us. We don’t know what’s going to happen once the melee starts in a couple of weeks.”
Extra Financial Demands
With the decision to stop covering travel costs to and from the U.S. in September 2019, it will leave players and families with extra demands financially, and those already in the U.S. or committed to a university in the U.S. won’t see their costs subsidized despite having committed under the premise of their costs being covered.
But Faulkner says the “bigger picture” is about continuously improving the pathway for girls who want to stay in the UK.
“From next September we have that decision that any individual that wants to go to America — and we’re not going to sway them either way — but what we’re saying to them is we’re building a viable alternative here and we’d like you to consider it.
“However, if you’d still like to go to America you’ll still be considered for selection for the national teams but it will be your choice and cost to return. It’s no different to any Olympic or Paralympic sport.”
Faulkner added, “We’ve got 8 to 10 girls based in the USA who will go to the U-20 World Cup this summer. Return flights to the USA are expensive and we’ve these groups coming over 4 to 6 times a year. You don’t need to work out that’s quite an expensive area for us and we want to invest in our system rather than travel costs.”
It’s a less difficult situation for the final parent who spoke to OGM as their daughter isn’t overly interested in heading to the U.S., but they’re equally concerned as everyone else about the long-term implications for young players across the country.
“You’ve got girls who are committed to going there and now the goal posts have changed,” they said. “The upsetting part of it is the finances are not there. Boys committing at this age are being paid thousands and the chance of a future where they’ll earn a lot of money. You can’t expect a girl who’s thinking about going to university to definitely prioritize football because they don’t know what the future holds.
“All the players at our daughter’s club have met with the club and given them the information they need. The club are trying to juggle their training schedules around that, some can make it for a few days a week and some can’t even make it at all. Nobody really knows what the options are at the moment, it’s like an impossible jigsaw puzzle and that’s not counting on which girls the club will keep and the ones they’ll release.”
Regarding players who may be released and find their full-time options limited as clubs struggle with tight budgets beyond the top few teams, Faulkner admitted he “can’t control” what clubs do but will “support” the players and try to get conversations going with alternative clubs.
“We would want to support those players,” he said. “The other side of the coin is obviously as we change the structure of this league I think there will be a few Tier 2 clubs who will have a full-time program and that will open up more options for players. A dual-career is such a fundamental part of this sport but it will always be the club’s decision as to whether the player stays there or not.”
Faulkner also said he’s had conversations with parents and was open to speaking to any others who had concerns about their daughter’s future and the direction of the league, but says conversations so far have been “positive” and they are also working on an extended pathway for the players who will end their youth program after the U-20 World Cup in August.
“We’re doing a significant review at the moment with Phil Neville around the U-23 team and there will be a new program coming through in the next six to eight months, and we’ll do due consideration on how we’ll select players for that.
“If girls don’t make it at their clubs or get injured, at least we’ve put this dual-career process in place. We’re not trying to dilute the aspirations of 18-year-old girls. If we can broaden the base of professional clubs across the landscape, not just in the top tier, that will widen the opportunity for talent and what we’re really pleased to see is Premier League and Championship clubs taking women’s football very seriously.”