It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Football…

Marta Tejedor at Birmingham – in happier times.

What a difference a few months makes. Marta Tejedor, who led Birmingham City to fourth in the WSL last season, was eased out of the door earlier this week by the club, having failed to win a league game or score a single league goal in 2020. Many fans who came across this story – whether followers of women’s and / or men’s football – probably didn’t bat an eyelid. ‘Manager of losing team gets sacked’. It’s what happens. But, I confess, when I read the press reports and the club statement, I found myself (figuratively) grouting my teeth uncomfortably and squinting at my laptop through half closed fingers.

Naively, I had hoped top-flight women’s football would somehow be more rational than the froth-ridden, money driven, melodramatic, knee-jerk world of the Premier League. After all, Vicky Jepson and Tanya Oxtoby have both endured similar shocking runs to Tejedor at Liverpool and Bristol City respectively, and they’re still (rightly in my view) standing…

A home defeat to basement dwellers Bristol City last weekend was clearly too much for the Birmingham City club board. To arrest the slide and to help “seek fresh impetus for the remainder of the season” both parties mutually agreed that Marta would move on. (Although I read that as ‘go or we will push you, Marta’.)

To be fair, on the face of it, things were not going well for the Blues. It’s quick and easy to make a case. The team has struggled to score goals throughout the campaign (just 5 in 13 matches). They’ve had no WSL victories since December the 8th, and they had to, almost literally, wrestle their way past Northern Premier League side Sunderland (two levels below) in the fifth round of the FA Women’s Cup. BUT successfully wrestle they did thanks to a late Lucy Staniforth free kick.

And so, to the flip side. It’s worth pointing out that in their current five-match winless run Birmingham had faced Chelsea (0-2), Manchester City (0-2) and Arsenal (0-2) all stuffed full of world class internationals. Reading beat the Blues at Adams Park by just the odd goal and have been going well. Only last week’s defeat to the Vixens stands out as a particularly horrible day at the office. Bristol City are, of course, also fighting for their WSL life.

But games go by quickly in the 22-game Super League. Time probably feels like it’s running out for the board and their decision clearly has both eyes on the short term. “Our recent league results,” the club statement said, “were a major factor for this change.”

Lofty expectations, both inside and outside the club have surely played their part. Birmingham have never finished lower than 6th in the WSL table since its inception, and last year, with Tejedor in post from January, the club finished fourth with a very spritely 65%-win rate and a 2-point per game average – a club record.

The 51-year old former international manager with Peru and Chile came in following Marc Skinner’s departure to the USA’s National Women’s Soccer League. Skinner had managed brilliantly at Birmingham (6th, 4th and 5th in the WSL plus an FA Cup Final) but his time at the Orlando Pride has been less auspicious. Last season the Pride finished dead-last in the league, with players like Alex Morgan and Marta on the books. Last time I looked he was still in post.

Pitted against those expectations, the Blues have also never faced the level of financial competition that currently exists within the division. With Manchester United and Spurs arriving this year, and West Ham United looking to further consolidate, it was always going to be a tougher ask for Birmingham to be as strong as their track record suggested.

On top of that just look at some their players who moved on over the summer. World Cup Bronze Boot winner Ellen White and bright, young defensive starlet Aoife Mannion to City; combative midfielder Hayley Ladd to United; link-up forward Lucy Quinn to Spurs – the situation is screaming out “warning, warning, major surgery required”.

So, 2019/20 has felt like a transitional year for the Blues as they looked to rebuild and develop a playing style in line with old Tejedor’s philosophy.  I confess I hadn’t seen the team play live (I have their FA Cup match with Brighton pencilled in as it happens) but have seen them on FA Player a couple of times where they look to play through the thirds and focus on possession football – little surprise with a (former) Spanish manager. Tejedor herself has gone on record a number of times acknowledging a lack of experience, but experience costs.

Inevitably, supporters, press and (probably) people within the club felt that replacement of those individuals that moved on was inadequate. Maybe that will prove to be the case. Because if the next manager in the door is unable to keep Birmingham in the top-flight then perhaps no one could.

Ultimately, I suppose I despair of the time Tejedor was given. Not enough in my view. Frankly, it smacks of personality issues behind the scenes – players, board, who knows?  Look, I might be totally on the wrong track here, but having watched my own (men’s) team AFC Wimbledon getting shot of Wally Downes earlier this season following some pretty low level betting infringements from years ago, it’s so much more palatable for fans to accept a ‘mutually agreed’ departure when the results are dreadful.

Bigger football clubs are making their way into the top levels of women’s football. They don’t want to be spending much money (relative to their income) on their women’s teams, but what they commit to will be enough to attract the best available players – brilliant Wolfsburg and Denmark striker Pernille Harder is the latest to be linked with English football. Media interest will then continue to increase, and more money will inevitably pour into the WSL. This is what clubs like Birmingham will be hedging on – just stay in there for that piece of the future, bigger pie.

So, the moment a manager loses a few games in a row (particularly in a 12-team division) their job will now be at risk. Even if they’re in charge of one of those clubs that aren’t richly backed at a time when there’s never been more financial disparity between the top teams in the division and the rest.

Former first team coach Charlie Baxter takes over as an interim appointment while the club actively seeks a permanent replacement. Personally, I genuinely wish him well. I’m not a Birmingham fan, just a fan of the women’s game in general. Like everyone, I understand that there will be winners and there will be losers. I just don’t think we need to be sacking decent football managers after a handful of bad results.  Leave that nonsense in the realm of the men’s game…

Recently, we charted on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link above, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…

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