The FA Women’s National League (FAWNL) kicks off this weekend with 71 teams across six regional divisions vying for the one, single promotion slot available in each…
My club, AFC Wimbledon, has a ladies’ team in Division One South East – effectively the fourth tier of the Women’s pyramid.
Recently, I was fortunate to make a contact with team manager, Kevin Foster, via the SWSG Supporter’s Group and he invited me to blog the 2019/20 season.
As an avid, lifelong Womble, with a weblog devoted to women’s football, how could I possibly pass this up? So, over the next 10 months I’ll be following the progress of the team: the ups, the downs (there won’t be any of them…) and observing the players who are making their way in grass roots / semi-professional women’s football…
It’s just before 7pm on a warm August evening. Five individuals clad in AFC Wimbledon training attire are pushing goals-on-wheels into position and laying markers on the all-weather surface at Shrewsbury House School, dividing the large playing area into four training sections.
From the changing rooms, players start to emerge and congregate in the section nearest the clubhouse.
There’s a relaxed feel; it’s a very pleasant setting – leafy Thames Ditton, Surrey – a stark contrast, I think to myself, to the many Sundays that lie ahead over the next ten months, where sporting battles will be played out in a fair amount of wind and rain and freezing temperatures.
Manager Kevin Foster spots me and introduces himself. I meet Reserve Team manager Mike Parsonson and Kevin waves a hand in the general direction of other coaching staff too far away to call over. Abigail Ingham and Gareth Townsend, it turns out, work with Mike’s reserve team players. Kevin Finnerty works with the first team.
I get to have a quick chat with Mike. The reserves compete in the FA Women’s National League Reserve South Division. His task consists of juggling annual fee-paying reserves with those first team players who need matches to gain fitness following bench time or injuries. While the first team are covered for match-related expenses, they don’t pay the annual club membership fee so Mike, in an ideal world, likes to give game time to as many of his reserve squad as possible. It’s value for their money as much as anything.
The training regime is currently split Tuesdays and Thursdays between Shrewsbury House School (where Kevin is a PE teacher) and the ground of former Isthmian League rivals in the men’s game, Carshalton Athletic. Kevin took charge at the back end of last season and guided the team to mid-table with three wins on the bounce – “more luck than judgement,” in his own words! He arrived following a spell at Walton Casuals’ Academy but had previously been a coach for the Dons Ladies’ team.
Like so many people within the club’s community, the management and coaches are volunteers. All of them hold a minimum of the FA Level 1 coaching badge, but most have achieved higher standards. They are also required to be certified first aiders, and the club ensures each member of the team attends an FA Safeguarding Course and has been FA CRC cleared.
Kevin is extremely excited about the 2019/20 season: “we have recruited excellent staff in the likes of Head coach Abdullah Kheir, Kevin Finnerty and [new role] Video Analyst Chris Thorpe, whilst John Parker, who knows the club inside out, will continue his role as goalkeeping coach.”
John has been with the Dons over 12 years. Kevin refers to him as “Mr. AFC Wimbledon.”
One or two of the players will arrive later than the half-seven start, hopping towards the training field as they try to put their boots on with one arm raised in apology. The manager shows no signs of alarm: “these girls all work,” he says, “some of them are trying to get here from Croydon…”
AFC Wimbledon play in Division One South East of the FAWNL. They will come up against a variety of sides that regular Dons fans may recognise from our time in both the EFL and non-league football. This year the division consists of AFC Wimbledon, Billericay Town, AFC Basildon, Cambridge City, Cambridge United, Enfield Town, Ipswich Town, Kent United, Leyton Orient, Norwich City and Stevenage.
Women’s teams can be backed directly by professional / semi-professional clubs and adopt their affiliated moniker adding WFC or LFC. Others are membership-based sports and social clubs who have built a good quality team and keep their own independent identity.
Actonians, for instance, are a social club that allow non-players to join and use their facilities for a membership fee, as well as benefitting from discounts and promotions on offer. AFC Wimbledon visit them on the 25th August in the Cup, and again on the 4th September for a league encounter so you can try the clubhouse out – no discount, though.
In some circumstances the ‘parent’ club and women’s team may use a slightly different name – e.g. Doncaster Belles – but all will have earned the ‘Charter Standard’ that clubs need at this level.
“AFC Wimbledon Ladies, are the continuation of Friends of Fulham Ladies FC founded in 1973. They became Wimbledon FC Ladies in 1985 and further became AFC Wimbledon Ladies in 2003. The year after, Wimbledon FC moved to Milton Keynes, to evolve into Milton Keynes Dons. The ladies, girls and boys teams were not included in the move North in 2002, with the ladies continuing as Wimbledon FC Ladies for the 2002-3 Season.”John Ivers, Club Historian (see comments section below)
For several years, following the 2003 name change, Wimbledon ladies’ team was one of only a few sides in the top tiers not to be affiliated with a club from the EPL or EFL.
Following promotion from the London & South East Women’s Regional in 2016, the side has competed well in the fourth tier finishing 3rd, then 2nd and, last season, a slightly disappointing 6th. Kevin is confident the side can realistically fight for a top four spot again. His longer-term ambition is to get the club into the Southern Premier Division (tier 3) and to consolidate there. But with only one promotion spot available each season that’s easier said than done.
It’s a light session tonight. The players don’t need to be doing too much now with the opening weekend in sight. The reserves train separately in one quartile and John Parker takes an area to work with the goalkeepers, assisted by Becky Sargent who’s moving a bit gingerly and won’t be able to join the outfield group.
The remainder of the first team squad warm up, do a bit of ball work and then divide between defence and the rest. The back-line players take half the available pitch area and work with Kevin on receiving and clearing the ball under pressure, driving the ball over two sets of full-size goal posts.
Meanwhile, the midfield and attack drill patterns of play down either flank, looking to move the ball wide, cross and convert, enabling keeper Charlotte Ferguson to get some practice dealing with high and low balls driven into the six-yard box…
Five players have arrived to replace the same number that left over the summer and are settling in well. Two wingers have been brought in. Helen Ogle came from Chichester City, who play one level up, and Liz O’Callaghan from the National League’s Charlton Athletic (tier 2). Together with Jade Davenport, Foster believes this attacking trio add pace and will be extremely exciting to watch.
New Signing, Steph Mann, will bring energy and athleticism to the midfield, while tough tackling Georgie Edwards will add defensive resilience having re-joined the Dons for a third spell. Previously at Watford Ladies, she can play at centre back or in midfield and provides the manager with some tactical flexibility as well as squad depth.
KF: “In general, the team this year, with both new signings and players making the transition into the first team from the reserves, will mean we are far more fit and athletic. The group will be exciting to watch as the tempo and intensity of matches will be high.”
Bringing in new players to strengthen the group important, but at a club like AFC Wimbledon talent retention is also key. So, getting Player of the Season Rosie Russell, attacking midfielder Rebecca Sargent; and centre half Kelly Highman to sign on for another year has been a boost. Russell, at just 17, also won the Young Player of the Year Award and has been with the Dons since Under 10s.
Of course, there are always departures and a couple of important players have moved on that Foster accepts the team will miss, but he’s more than happy to acknowledge their contribution:
“Caz Bisson served excellent years whilst at the club, playing a big part in a number of promotions and cup successes. She was a huge part of that achievement. Jess Trimnell, last years’ captain has taken time out and will be a big miss around the changing room and on the field. Jess is ‘Miss AFC Wimbledon Ladies’ and I have no doubt she will be back.” So, hope for a Georgie Edwards-style reunion at some point in the future, perhaps?
There have been some big goal hauls in pre-season, with the Dons hitting eight twice and beating Dulwich 4-1. The final game was a 2-2 draw with South West equivalents, Southampton, but it had a bittersweet taste with the Dons 2-0 up before “running out of legs.” So, the age-old debate: how important are results for the manager in assessing readiness for the new campaign?
KF: “Pre-season has been extremely positive. Both the first team and reserves team players have managed to get a lot of game time and allowed us to prepare for the season ahead. Whilst it’s nice to win games, the results are not important. What I was most pleased with was the commitment and energy levels of the team. Alongside this, it’s nice to see the team scoring. Sophie Manzi has done well coming through from the reserve team, leading the line and scoring goals alongside the other forwards. We now look to take that into the season ahead.”
The AFC Wimbledon Ladies are now owned by The Dons Trust, who provide a modest budget which is supplemented by long-standing Wimbledon fan and commercial partner, Mike Richardson. Equipment, kits, facilities and travel costs are covered off, but the first team players are not paid for their time and talent. This can occasionally present challenges if a rival is making, um, ‘investments’ in their women’s team. Even £30 to £50 a week to switch clubs can look very attractive to a player looking to top up their day job.
While the fantastic 11.7m viewing figures for England’s semi-final with the USA at this summer’s World Cup may have given the impression that women’s football is resurgent, there will be matches even at the fully professional Super League (FAWSL) level that fail to attract more than 1,000 spectators. Arsenal are the current champions; they groundshare with non-league Boreham Wood at Meadow Park, which holds just over 5,000 people. The Gunners’ average attendance according to worldfootball.net last year was 2,010. They are reporting a 10% increase in season ticket sales ahead of their September start but when you give that more than a cursory glance, it doesn’t seem a lot.
Look three tiers below, and in Division One South East crowds often fall below 50. So, gate money is meagre. On top of that, for AFC Wimbledon as an organisation, the New Plough Lane Stadium is pulling focus financially over all other matters at the club, with the potential to impact even playing budgets of the men’s senior first team. Fundraising activities, then, will play an important role in helping propel the ladies’ team towards the Southern Premier.
There are other challenges for Kevin and his team. Good young players may go off to university; some get embroiled in a career ‘day’ job that soaks up more hours; some women simply feel it’s time to start a family.
Players often transfer in friendship groups. One will leave and then recommend their new club to former colleagues who also make the move, leaving a coach looking for half a team. (Although that can work the other way. Kevin described a situation where he picked up four Whyteleafe players in a batch exodus!) It’s not uncommon, then, for women’s clubs, even now on the eve of the new season, to be advertising on Twitter and other websites, such as SheKicks, for players.
Back at the training session, practice matches for the reserves and the first team consolidate some of the evening’s learnings and finally the players run a series of sprints the length of the pitch before warming down. By this time the moon is already well set in the sky and there’s a sense that floodlit training at Carshalton will be needed two nights per week sooner rather than later. At least that will help the players travelling from Croydon.
It’s a tough start to the campaign, Ipswich Town away. They are a big club with huge aspirations and have developed an excellent U21 women’s programme, but the Wimbledon manager and his players are relishing the challenge:
KF: “These types of games are what we have prepared for throughout pre-season and they are the reason why we are involved. The ladies are extremely excited and just want to get going and see just how far they can go as a group.”
The manager knows his starting eleven, but he wasn’t letting onto me. He’ll set the side up to play their way, concentrating on their strengths and not worrying too much about the opposition. There’s little opportunity to gather video intel anyway, especially at the start of the season.
This will be my first Wimbledon Ladies’ match, along with my 7-year old daughter and 10-year old football-mad son. I’ll be looking to do a short blog update thereafter.