What Could Have Been: Making Sense of the FA WSL Restructure

FA WSL Super League logo

I always said when I was younger I wanted a job that excited me, a job I’d be willing to jump out of bed no matter the weather, which is good really given the job I selected includes sitting around at 10 pm in what can only be described as less than pleasant conditions.

I got a job that has excited me on a regular basis — whether it was big England squad announcements, the start of a new FA WSL season, announcements over big transfers, or managerial changes; or covering big cup finals at Wembley, Champions League finals at Cardiff and even the European Championships in the Netherlands.

But I’ve never had a morning where that excitement turned to nervousness like it did earlier today. Rumors had swirled for days over what was going on, who was where, and if I’m being honest, regarding private discussions I had with people as late as Sunday night — and we all got it a little wrong.

On Wednesday of this past week some clubs believed they were going to be informed of the decision after the FA Women’s Board met at Wembley that morning while others believed the decision was always going to come on Sunday.

What I do know is some managers and staff were so nervous on Wednesday and then less than thrilled when they found out that tension would have to stick around for another four days.

Clubs were emailed at around 6 pm on Wednesday night and officially informed that the announcement would come on Sunday after the FA Women’s Premier League playoff final at Bramall Lane, host of one of the applicants in Sheffield United.

Over the past 96 hours I’ve had discussions and exchanged messages with people at all sorts of different clubs inside and outside the current top two tiers of women’s football, trying not just to build a picture of how the leagues might look but how it has affected people whose jobs and livelihoods have been, and now are, very much on the line.

“Horrible” and “upsetting” were words which often popped up and the lack of clarity even led to members of staff and players from clubs messaging me to see if I knew what was going on, such was the level some were kept in the dark over their club’s fate.

As of 8:30 am on Monday morning Sunderland players still hadn’t been informed by the club of their situation, but one told me they believed “silence was deafening” in regards to their FA WSL fate.

Sunderland sadly weren’t the only team to lose out as both Oxford United and Watford lost out on their spots in Tier 2. Watford, in particular, feel a deep sense of frustration after they were misled when the first round of license applications ended last year.

The Hornets didn’t originally bid as they didn’t believe they could cover the costs of the criteria The FA set out when the restructure was announced in September. Their decision not to bid led to players leaving along with their experienced manager Keith Boanas, but the club were later informed the goalposts had moved slightly and the club decided they could now just about afford the costs that came with Tier 2 status.

Unfortunately for both them and Oxford, the changes came too late for them to be saved. Oxford manager Andy Cook has already stepped down from his post and told me on Saturday the process had been “tense.”

Only Cook and the club’s general manager were full-time at the club and found themselves taking on the majority of duties just to keep up, including washing boots and kits, and he even admitted to me that their leadership wasn’t as good as it could have been due to the demands being put on them, leading to Cook’s resignation.

Being inside the lounge at Bramall Lane on Sunday evening was a surreal experience. Many clubs had representatives at the ground so they could be informed of their fate face-to-face, while others had to rely on phone calls and emails.

One by one, people were being called into the boardroom down the hall and came back sworn to secrecy. Sheffield United manager Carla Ward was called in and was in there so long I was leaving by the time she came out, nobody any the wiser as to who was where as clubs were only informed of their own fate.

Rumors continued to circulate as people were desperate to find out where they would fall ahead of the new season in a process many described as something that could have been handled better.

The email with the whole structure finally landed in club inboxes at 9 am this morning to the shock and surprise of many, especially regarding the lack of Sunderland or Southampton, the latter in particular were expected to land in Tier 2 and some rumors even swept around of a Tier 1 spot.

But what might have been? In this big restructure which Baroness Sue Campbell describes as a “hugely exciting time for the game,” we’re left safe in the knowledge one top tier team won’t even play on the opening weekend due to an odd number of teams.

While Sunderland’s bid clearly didn’t match the criteria set out for a Tier 1 license, the club could clearly compete at a certain level on a part-time model and with the acceptance there will be one team running a completely full-time model in Tier 2, it’s a shame more couldn’t be done to save the Mackems.

Hopefully the club can rebuild financially and in terms of their playing staff on the pitch and come back in a couple of years, but even then it leaves the prospect of an 11-team league where The FA ideally wanted as many as 14.

West Ham’s ambitions and transfer plans will ensure they are an exciting new member to the top tier while there is some solace to be had in Tier 2. Leicester City and Sheffield United, in particular, put a lot of work into their bids and the latter even have their own facilities to look forward to come the 2019/20 season.

Lewes are also a welcome and exciting addition. Many didn’t give the side a chance to compete against the bids put in from Premier League clubs such as Southampton and Crystal Palace, but it is one thing we can applaud the decision makers on, just the one.

But once again we’re left wondering how much relevance can seriously be placed on Tier 2 this season. Last campaign the likes of Doncaster Belles and Millwall Lionesses were denied the chance of promotion due to the fact there simply wasn’t any promotion.

This season they are likely to be denied by the fact Manchester United will simply blow the opposition away. I spoke to many Tier 2 managers, players, and staff over the past 48 hours who all wished United had been promoted straight into the top tier because there is an acceptance they will do things nobody else can.

The club will likely play at Leigh Sports Village this season while The Cliff undergoes sufficient work in time for the 2019/20 season but United are already actively targeting players who are willing to drop down from Tier 2 and should be able to assemble a team that will leave everyone else trailing behind.

Like I didn’t blame Manchester City in 2014, I don’t particularly blame the red side of Manchester here either, they are just the benefactors of a system put in place. In September, The FA described Tier 2 as a “part-time, semiprofessional environment” but there will be nothing part-time about Manchester United come August.

To be fair to them, it’s nothing new. Other clubs, including Doncaster and Everton, have enjoyed the positives of full-time players in the past but not on the level United will profit from.

I’m still excited for the new season and more so relieved than anything else that the whole process is out of the way, but as ever in the women’s game you’re left with a tinge of sadness and big fat “What If” scripted across your head.