All Football Teams are Equal, but…

Kelly Simmons – FA Director of the Women’s Game

CLEARLY some football teams are more equal than others. With the Women’s National League declared null and void all the way back in March, the FA gave us their decree this week on the remaining two divisions. Chelsea were crowned Women’s Super League champions with seven of their fixtures left to play. Manchester City grab the other Champions League spot. Liverpool, meanwhile, have been relegated eight games from the end of their programme. Aston Villa have been awarded the FA Women’s Championship title and, therefore, the Reds’ place in the top-flight of England Women’s Football for next season – which is scheduled to commence over the first weekend of September

So, this landed in my email on Friday 5th June:

“The FA Board has reached a majority decision to decide the 2019/20 Barclays FA Women’s Super League and FA Women’s Championship on a basic point-per-game basis, with promotion and relegation determined on sporting merit.

As a result, The FA Board has today confirmed the decision to award the 2019/20 Barclays FA Women’s Super League title to Chelsea FC Women, and to award the 2019/20 FA Women’s Championship title to Aston Villa Women FC.

In addition, Chelsea FC Women and Manchester City Women FC will be nominated as the two English clubs to qualify for the 2020/21 UEFA Women’s Champions League competition, having finished in the top two places of the 2019/20 Barclays FA Women’s Super League season.”

FA Announcement by email

The FA is at pains here to let everyone know that sporting merit has been the deciding factor in these outcomes. Indeed, the word “sporting” comes up three times in the full statement which goes on to confirm, “[A]s the 2019-20 results were expunged between Tier 3 to Tier 7 of the women’s pyramid, there will be no relegation or promotion between the FA Women’s Championship and Tier 3 this season.”

Merit of the Winners and the Loser

Chelsea: winning trophies the old-fashioned way – through the medium of a football match.

For what it’s worth I saw Chelsea play both runners-up Manchester City and 3rd placed Arsenal this season. They looked a very resilient and skilful outfit, coming back from a goal down on each occasion to beat their closest title rivals. The Blues went on to hammer Arsenal in the return fixture and play out a brilliant 3-3 draw at the Academy Stadium. Having secured ten points from their title rivals, they also beat the Gunners in the Continental Cup Final (pictured). Manager Emma Hayes had clearly built a great side.

Liverpool, conversely, have been desperately poor throughout the campaign. Winless in their first eleven fixtures they finally chalked up a victory on the 19th January against relegation rivals Bristol City. When the league was suspended after the weekend of 23rd February, the Reds were a point adrift of Birmingham at the bottom of the Super League having played one game more. They’d just suffered a 4-2 defeat at West Ham United. It wasn’t looking good.

Vicky Jepson, Liverpool Manager: “we did not get the opportunity to fight for that place on the grass…”

“The players, the backroom staff and everyone at LFC Women are of course hurting right now after the FA decision that we should be relegated. All we hoped for was the chance to finish the season on the pitch once it was safe to do so. We were confident we could produce the performances to get ourselves out of trouble and secure our position in the Women’s Super League (WSL). Unfortunately, we did not get the opportunity to fight for that place on the grass and it’s a difficult pill to swallow. I’m very disappointed in the FA’s decision, taken with eight games of our season left.”

Vicky Jepson, Liverpool Manager

Aston Villa, who will take over Liverpool’s Super League berth also beat Jepson’s side 2-0 in the round robin stages of the Continental Cup.

I confess, something doesn’t sit right with me about deciding sporting outcomes in the way the Littlewoods Pools Panel used to during (and prior to) the CEEFAX days. When that panel sat, it was to come up with ‘likely’ scores on matches postponed due to inclement weather. The consequence of all this was that those of us in the general populous, who liked a little flutter once a week, might win some cash if enough of our predictions matched the panel’s. But it didn’t have any effect on the actual league table. Matches themselves would be rescheduled.

In Liverpool’s case the FA have effectively assumed, by using points per game, that they would be unable to turnaround their situation. And maybe they wouldn’t. But maybe they would. I’ve seen my team AFC Wimbledon (men’s team) get out of jail several times in EFL One over the last few seasons where a PPG metric applied in March would have sunk us.

Look at Arsenal Ladies: while they didn’t look likely to win the title, they were still in the mix with Manchester City for the second Champions League spot. They can’t play for this domestically, even though they are still in the competition for 2019/20.  There is a possibility that the UWCL (which was suspended at the quarter-final stage) could still go ahead in August, but if it doesn’t, they’ve effectively been eliminated by an FA administered ‘pools panel’ that has assumed nothing will change with a good chunk of fixtures outstanding.

Like I said, it just doesn’t sit well with me.

Inconsistency – A Plague on our House

Sunderland Women – Photo Credit: the Roker Report

But if PPG is to be women’s football’s answer to the Duckworth Lewis method used in cricket to determine a sporting outcome, so be it. I guess it’s as good an objective measure as any. What really rankles is the total lack of consistency applied to the rest of the women’s National League system (and the men’s for that matter). If sporting merit was the right way to decide the top two tiers of women’s football, then why wasn’t it right for the National League where all results were expunged back in March and everything from step three downward was told they had to start from scratch in 2020/21?

FA Director of the Women’s Game, Kelly Simmons, has since explained that different approaches were taken because: “The professional game… is aligned around deciding the season on sporting outcomes and issues around promotion and relegation.” A curious statement to make really, because every level of football I’ve ever come across, professional, semi-pro, amateur, even my eleven-year old’s little league team is bound in this way to “sporting outcomes”.

In the Northern Premier League, Sunderland were eight points clear of Derby at the top and had two games in hand on their East Midlands rivals. In the Southern equivalent, Crawley Wasps were nine points ahead of Watford and, while the Hornets had three games in hand, the Wasps also had a better points per game metric. Yet here no sign of sporting merit being considered.

Simmons goes on to say: “The more amateur side of the game decided to null and void so there’s consistency across the pyramid.”

Hmmm, well perhaps someone forgot to send Barnsley a copy of that memo. Leading the field in Division One North they proceeded to divide opinion across the women’s game when they rallied support of dozens of clubs and petitioned the FA to reconsider their decision and allow teams to vote on a potential… (wait for it…) ‘points per game’ system of deciding promotion and relegation.

Barnsley – urging clubs across women’s football to support them…

Spare a thought, too, for Walton Casuals and Bristol Rovers who had already won their Divisions. Stourbridge were unbeaten and only conceded two goals all season and Abingdon Town were almost there on the promotion front as well. **

Moneyfields had won all ten of their league games in the fifth tier of the national set-up. On finding out that the top two tiers had been decided on points per game ratio, manager Karl Watson reportedly said, “I’m absolutely fuming. Points per game was the fair way to do it all the way through. That way you would have rewarded success. It’s all about the money – let’s make sure those at the top are catered for and the rest of us can go and do one.”

Would Chelsea have gone on to win the WSL? Maybe. Would Sunderland have gone on to win the Northern Premier? Probably. Would Walton Casuals or Bristol Rovers? Job already done.

Why was the FA in such a hurry to shut down the Women’s National Leagues when all other levels of football across Europe were adopting a cautious watch and wait policy?

All of this points to something we’ve seen in men’s football at lower league levels for many years: clubs being railroaded into decisions by the people who run the game to benefit either a few powerful, wealthy football clubs or, er, well, the people who run the game.

When it comes to the matter of football and what to do with it during the COVID-19 lockdown and beyond, there’s been no consensus across the sport: men’s, women’s, professional or otherwise.  ‘Cancel and expunge’ versus ‘suspend and award prizes’ versus ‘suspend and restart because we’re financially able to do so’. In the English Football League (EFL), there isn’t even agreement between the three divisions. Leagues One and Two have shut up shop and  are now wrangling about promotion / relegation, while the Championship has chosen to restart in mid-June – the lure of the Premier League just too much for chairmen, clearly, rubbing their hands at the thought of all that TV money.

Tone at the ‘Top’

If ever proof was needed that the English topflight of men’s football doesn’t need fans from a financial perspective, the pandemic crisis has delivered it.

The Premier League has never looked like it was going to abandon their campaign and once the German Bundesliga was mooted to be returning the writing was really on the wall. The league and its key sponsors / stakeholders have never wavered in their commitment to ‘Project Restart’ which will ensure the fixture programme is completed, televising as much of it as possible. So much is at stake.

But not matchday income, of course. That games will all be played behind closed doors will have little impact on the bank balances of players, management and boardroom executive roles. Matchday income only appeared to affect the number of back office staff that can be paid – if reports on the amount of initial furloughing going on were anything to go by.

Women’s football, of course, doesn’t have this luxury. The spectators who show up to watch WSL games do make a material difference to the income of each club – including those owned by Premier League outfits. Maybe a handful of these clubs would have been willing to back their players and invest in the testing required to get the league up and running, but looking at the state of Liverpool’s pitch this year and the alleged lack of investment by a now former player suggests that if the EPL Champions-elect aren’t willing to pour some of their surplus into the women’s team then how on earth could, say, Reading, Birmingham or Bristol City be convinced to do it.

Wolfsburg – Back in action in the Frauen Bundesliga.

Indeed, it might have been nice for some of that money sloshing around at the top of the game to be shared with clubs trying to make their way on a shoestring so that they could have met the testing requirements necessary to finish their leagues – in the way that the big clubs in Germany have done for their Frauen-Bundesliga return. But we’ve long known that the Premier League is a law unto itself and that the cosy idea of a football “family” is fiction. Benevolence is not a value entrenched in the culture of our men’s leagues and, even if the handful of Premier League giants were inclined to support their women’s WSL or FAWC team, there would still have been plenty of clubs in the top two tiers that wouldn’t be able to make a restart for women’s football work financially.

Alienating the Talent Pipeline?

Of course, many players in lower leagues and women’s league are on year-to-year deals which typically expire in June. Playing through the summer would have meant extending contracts to ensure squads were full, and then committing to continuous testing. On the announcement that the WSL was not going to continue several clubs immediately announced that they were releasing players from their rosters.

But ending the season wasn’t the real issue here, was it? It was the decision to hand out gongs at the top level and not at any other. To promote Villa from the Championship but not relegate Charlton Athletic.

Opportunities to play at the highest level in England are only going to get more difficult with the number of overseas players coming to the Super League. Top WSL teams have been quick to adopt the culture of their parent clubs and look to buy in the best players available globally. There’s been an influx of top Australian players coming to England recently and, right on the cusp of the COVID-19 lockdown, Chelsea announced that German midfielder Melanie Leupolz had signed with them.

I get it. We want a strong women’s top-flight and a top league requires top players. But unless the FAWSL expands significantly (and I’m not personally advocating that by the way – not yet at least) English players coming through development are more likely to get their chances to shine at clubs in tiers 2, 3 and 4. Integrity must surely, then, be seen to be cascading down from the FAWSL, FAWC, through the National League and into the leagues below that. Treat them the same.

The vision for the women’s and girls’ game: Whether competitively or recreationally, to be the no.1 team sport of choice for every girl and woman in England

The Game Plan for Growth came out in 2017. A strategic priority within this document was to ‘build a world-class talent pipeline’ for England. So, where does the FA think this pipeline is going to come from? It lives and breathes in the grass roots. But if the governing body can so easily dismiss the need for consistency between the pro levels and the rest – writing them off in this case – what message does this send out to young female players working through the development levels? Here, the FA has basically said nobody else’s results matter. Nobody else’s points per game average is worthy of the term “sporting merit”. Small clubs, only a smattering of fans, you’re not important and we don’t see the need to treat you the same.

“In the lower leagues of the English women’s game and across the world, there are significant concerns about the financial impact the pandemic could have on female teams. However, the FA appears confident that England’s top clubs are all in a position to get through the challenges the situation brings.”

Tom Garry, BBC Sport 6/6/2020

Some people will counter that there must be loads of mid-table clubs quite happy to let their leagues finish with all stats voided if there was really nothing on it for them, regardless of what was going to happen with the pro / semi-pro teams. And I’ll concede that that’s probably true in many cases.

I look at my own team, AFC Wimbledon Ladies, here, who would have finished a points per game season in second spot in Division One South East. Only one team goes up from the division – and that honour would have gone to Ipswich Town, who the Dons took four points from during the campaign. Manager Kevin Foster was philosophical about the FA’s decision when I asked him, but his response suggested there had still been a lot of resentment across the wider football community.

“I think that I can see why the decision was made however there needs to be consistency through the leagues, at least down to national league, and a uniform decision should have been made. This would have solved a lot of issues and disgruntled people. I think had Ipswich been given promotion we couldn’t complain – over 50% of the season played and they had a better PPG. Tough, but I would have liked to see good teams rewarded.”

Kevin Foster, Manager, AFC Wimbledon Ladies

For the players that scored goals or were credited with assists – all chalked off their record. Young players who made their senior debut, got to do it again. Goalkeeper keeping clean sheets, didn’t happen.

Fudge with your Waffle?

They had to make a decision. What would YOU have done?

We’ve seen in the politics of the Corona Virus pandemic that decision makers are nearly always damned whichever decision they make. But once the FA had chosen expunging of records with no promotion and relegation – and in my view this was clearly their preferred option – it should have applied to the entire women’s game.

They don’t have the get-out clause that the men’s leagues have where separate organisations are responsible for the Premier League, the lower leagues, and the higher levels of non-league. The Football Association are responsible for the entire women’s game. And they should have either fought for consistency; for all of senior level football to be concluded with “sporting merit” at the heart of their approach, or written the whole thing off as an unfortunate force majeure to be reset and restarted in 2020/21. Instead, they came up with the classic fudge – one rule for one and another for everyone else.

The second option outlined above would have upset (not even) a handful of teams in the WSL, plus Aston Villa in the FAWC. I accept that would still have been extremely sad as the players and staff at these clubs had enjoyed a fantastic season up to the COVID-19 suspension.

But I can’t help but believe that the FA Executive plumped for a solution that effectively disenfranchised so many more people in the game…

** Thanks to Craig at the excellent Talking Woso website and Twitter feed for providing the benefit of his knowledge of the FAWNL and the leagues that feed into it.

Recently, we reached number 29 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, 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…

One thought on “All Football Teams are Equal, but…

  1. Started Lewes Ladies off in 1993, 2014 retired, sent a Women’s football game plan off to the FA after rebelling against the scrapping of the Women’s Premier League, supported by 96% of PL clubs, wrote a 10 year plan for women’s football entitled, “Taking Football into the 21st Century, most of the contents adopted by the FA,the trouble is the FA is a closed shop of institutionalised geriatrics, i’ve seen first hand how the system works, the game is secondary to keeping complete control of the way football is run, for better or worse!

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