Blazing Saddlers

Meltdown at Walsall Ladies FC as virtually the entire first team is cleared out.

Walsall Ladies FC – The way we were… well, two weeks ago.

I’D BEEN WRACKING my brain last few weeks trying to think of a blog post that would head away from the beaten tracks of what our mass media were talking about – should Phil Neville remain as Lionesses boss? The imminent arrival of hot-shot striker Sam Kerr to the FAWSL; Megan Rapinoe’s Ballon D’Or win and the controversy around the overall shortlisting… But then something cropped up on Twitter that caught my eye. Walsall, of the Staffordshire Ladies and Girls League, seemed to be disbanding their Senior Ladies First Team.

At first, I simply responded that I was “sorry to hear about this”. But that one communication propelled me into the middle of a thread where a few seconds of scrolling revealed the situation was nowhere near as straightforward as a grass roots women’s football club folding. So, I followed the breadcrumbs online to see what I could dig up.

Walsall Manager Jason Barrowclough resigned from his duties on Wednesday 27th November. Within three days, the team he put together five months earlier was disbanded by a one-page, standard letter through the mail and a follow-up announcement via Twitter and the club website. This prompted angry accusations of jealousy, bullying, and underhandedness – with players suggesting they had not only been lied to but also lied about.

The fall out would surprise and bewilder not just players and supporters of the club, but local journalists, broadcasters, podcasters, and even coaches/players of other teams. The squad had been going well in their division, sitting consistently in the top four and having scored over 40 goals in 10 matches. They seemed a pretty popular group, loved (LOVED) playing for the club and had generated some interest from potential sponsors.

Barrowclough arrived at Walsall in the summer after a number of years at Starlands St. Annes, where he brought through several of his key players. With both Starlands and Walsall struggling to get enough first team standard players on the pitch, the manager hedged his bets with Walsall, a bigger name in the area, and took some of his stalwarts with him. These players became the hub of the team.   

Just a few weeks earlier they had gone toe-to-toe with FA Women’s National League side, Stoke City, in the Staffordshire Challenge Cup. A final score of 0-7 appeared par for the course against an outfit several levels above them. But for regular observers, non-defensive-related cracks were also being ruthlessly exposed by the Northern Premier League side. Walsall’s first team had just thirteen players available and many of them were playing injured. When two of the players couldn’t walk anymore a third injured player, the captain Sophie Ball, was forced to come back on even though she was crocked.

It is to the team’s credit, then, that Stoke City Manager Chloe Jones came out straight after the game and immediately commended the efforts of her opponents: “Walsall did well. They came here today with a plan and worked their socks off.” Which is really all you can ask of a side down to the bare bones taking on a National League side.

One Rule for One…

From the get-go, tension had been mounting between the board and new the arrivals. Where typically at football clubs the reserve and/or development team squads supplement first team player shortfalls, this was not the case at Walsall. And it wasn’t simply the club or coaches who were resistant. The reserve players themselves didn’t appear to be interested in taking opportunities to move up and test their skills at a higher level.

A request to advertise for additional players was flatly refused.  So, individuals played injured on a weekend which effectively protected the reputation of the club, but then had to sit out training sessions to recover for the following Sunday.  More frustration emerged when the players wanted to get matching track suits and training kit to represent Walsall a bit more professionally, particularly on the road. I mean, who wants to turn up at somebody else’s home looking like a ‘bag of rags’ as my Yorkshire wife would say?..

The club stated money wasn’t available; not in itself a stick to beat them with. But when the first team then brought several potential sponsors to the table, the club deemed that all new deals suddenly needed to go through reserve team manager, Donna Simpson-Ash. Her view – not entirely unreasonable – was that any sponsor must kit-out both the first team and the reserves. Sadly the additional cost implication would frighten off each of the sponsors. But the tail is wagging the dog, here. Why is the reserve manager deciding what the first team wears? Why not a commercial head within the organisation?  More irritating is that the club lacked any foresight to bring multiple, prospective sponsors together to collaborate on a joint venture that could deliver kit for everybody. It’s comes over as: ‘we’re just not entertaining this because it’s you lot that brought them in’. So, the first team players ended up forking out for their own track suits – from the official Walsall club shop.

More cost cutting needed to be done. The first team hosted matches at Dales Lane, home to Rushall Olympic. Suddenly the club announced that this would be too expensive to continue with. Training would have to take place on just 1/3 of an all-weather pitch. Oh, and the match day photographer would have to go.

The Letter and the Announcement

But all of this – the machinations of low budget, grass roots, ‘community’ football, where many a chairman has built and ruled their empire from behind a closed committee of cronies and ‘yes’ people – couldn’t have prepared the players for what happened next.

To recap, Jason Barrowclough resigned on the Wednesday. The board then held a meeting. A letter was written and hurried out to the first team players. The upcoming fixture with Staffordshire Victoria was postponed. The letter landed on doorsteps on the following Saturday.  And, like a shitty Friday afternoon email from your boss, it sure was a ‘weekend killer’. I happened to be online for the short period that the letter appeared, before ‘pooof’ like Kaiser Soze it was gone…

Signed by the chairman, Brian Simpson, it’s a curious affair. He begins with a full paragraph on the resignation of manager Jason Barrowclough, how much the club was devastated by this and how they had tried to get him to stay – alas to no avail. But this paragraph, it turns out, is entirely irrelevant in respect of anything that comes afterwards.

It goes on: An emergency committee meeting was called, following Jason’s departure to discuss the “matter in full with the concerns which were raised” [sic]. But whose concerns is not clear. The club? The outgoing manager? Other parties?

Then we finally get to business. First up: Subs aren’t being paid on time or in advance. Players are behind on payments. For info, subs are £20 per month. The individual recipient is not told explicitly whether it’s their subs that are behind or by how much. Twenty quid, forty quid? A thousand pounds? Consequently, a lot of the players immediately took to social media to announce that they were fully paid up.

Then, there’s a lack of training being conducted – “only trained once in seven weeks” is what eventually gets posted on the official club statement. This point about training is hotly disputed by the players. They seem to accept that sessions were missed but have countered that the numbers quoted were exaggerated. They also highlighted that the squad was running on low players, was barely supplemented by the development squad of approximately thirty (one reserve apparently did come in for the derby at Walsall Wood) and, even when players couldn’t train in order to rest for matches, they still turned up for sessions to watch. Training is another chance to play football. I mean, ask yourself: why wouldn’t they want to play football? It’s what they live to do.

Ok, so far, it’s sledgehammer to crack an egg time. But then we arrive at what I suspect is the heart of the matter: “several individual players are taking it upon themselves to go against the correct structure and procedures at the club. Despite those individuals having several warnings and continuing to carry on.” No further explanation is offered and again the chairman doesn’t explicitly point the finger at the letter’s recipient even though it goes on to say: “the best way forward for the club is that unfortunately we don’t see you in our future plans.” [my underlining].

The correct structure and procedures aren’t further elaborated on, continuing the general theme of vague and woolly… I read this bit a few times. Look, just a personal opinion, but I wonder if that’s just man-speak for “some of you ladies have opinions and I don’t like it.”

Oddly, Brian then closes by wishing the recipient all the best for their future and then promptly asks for the team kit back. The only item that wasn’t standardised in the letter was the player’s name at the top.

This letter was sent out to players in the third best team in their division, fiercely proud to wear the shirt and committed 100% to the success of the team. Recipients included three of the top scorers in the division and two players with the highest assist rates. Any missed training, it seems, wasn’t taking that much of a toll.

One Rule for Another

“So sad we can’t finish the season as we started it… our girls were smashing it.”

Louise Delaney, Former Walsall Player, via Twitter

But the plot thickens. It turns out there was a second letter. This letter was sent to a select few inviting them to train and to hear about the club’s proposed changes. There was no mention of subs, training or going against structure or procedures. It transpires a couple of these players were a little behind on their subs, so no irony there. None of those contacted have taken up the club’s offer at the time of writing and were openly commended by their teammates for sticking with them and essentially saying they would rather not play, than play for a club that publicly sold their friends down the river.

The club hijacked the ‘Walsall Ladies First Team’ Twitter account, originally set up by the players, to post an alternative announcement to the one the players initially put out. This inevitably led to more anger. Subsequently the players locked down the account and have since changed their Twitter handle to @newsquad_2020.

The club then put the same statement on their website. This was posted December 4th and looks structured to give the impression at a glance that players had left rather than being moved out. However, read beyond the first paragraph and it becomes clear that this is not the case. Barrowclough’s resignation is still front and centre as the catalyst for the, er, cataclysm. But payments and training finally appear as key issues that prompted the club to make the “difficult decision” to part ways with a number [well all] of [the] first team players. It seems a needlessly public and confrontational statement so going on to “wish them all the best for the future” and thanking players for their services comes over every bit as hollow as Brian’s letter.

Donna Simpson-Ash has been promoted to handling first team affairs and she’ll presumably look to rebuild from the development squad. We can only assume Donna will be able to convince some of the reserves to step up to the ‘firsts’, so reluctant were they before.

Kits have now been handed back. The players took them directly to the Chairman, but he wasn’t in the mood to entertain any more discussion with them. While making their deliveries the players spotted the development squad, kitted out in matching tracksuits going through their paces on a full-size, all-weather pitch. Incidentally, the shiny new, ‘reinvigorated’ first team will play their home fixtures at Rushall Olympic’s Dales Lane.

Even the photographer is back. But not the physio who stepped away from the club immediately.

So, what about the main club, Walsall FC? What’s their position in all this?  Well, it needs to be made crystal clear that, while there is an affiliation to the EFL club run by Leigh Pomlett and managed by Darrell Clarke, there is no suggestion that these individuals have been involved in the situation at the Ladies FC. In fact, the departing players have been at pains to stress how supportive the main club and their players have been over the last five months. I found video footage of captain Sophie Ball stood on the pitch at the Bescot Stadium ahead of Walsall’s fixture with Stevenage in November, handing out Player of the Month certificates to female players in the youth set-up. Seems to me that the club were actively encouraging teh integration of women and girls into the wider set-up. Just a week later, of course, it was all over…

What Next?

‘Thick as thieves’ – sometimes they do change out of the football kit…

All indications are the team want to remain together longer-term. They play at good standard, know each other very well and ostensibly treat one another as family. But losing their place at a club halfway through a season, it’s going to be tough to do that. There appear to be irons in the fire and there’s been an amazing online response and a lot of support for these players. But if it’s going to happen as a group it’s going to be next season, earliest. For now, the players need to find clubs. They want to play football and are not resting on their laurels. Short-term, then, the game plan is: continue to stay fit, train together and get friendlies where possible.

This group does come over as very tight, very confident, more than the sum of their parts, formidable even. I find myself wondering whether that may have bred some resentment, some jealousy, perhaps even a feeling of intimidation for those that sought to push them out of their club.

Whatever way you slice it, this doesn’t look good on Walsall. They’ve made the club look petty, amateur and underhanded at the very moment positivity around women’s football is growing exponentially. They’ve effectively driven the ‘proverbial truck’ through a close-knit team in the middle of a campaign that was going well. And for what? Over a few quid and some personality clashes? Maybe the odd spat on social media between the first team and the reserves. All clubs have inner tension to a greater or lesser degree. It’s part of running a competitive sports organisation.

One of the players involved, Roxie Dodds, has set up an online ‘Go Fund Me’ campaign to help purchase training equipment, tracksuits, and hire of training facilities so the ladies can get their own squad together for next season.  For those interested the page can be found here.

Bethany James, Former Walsall player, via Twitter

The club statement on the 4th December closed with this: “We currently operate teams from Under 8’s through to open age and our aim is to produce a successful and positive club for all the girls and ladies that come to us to play.

I don’t know about you, but recent events suggest to me at least, that they need to behave much better to achieve the kind of inclusivity that meets this aim.

With the Stoke City players before the Staffordshire County Cup tie…

TD2B

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