The date is 17 April 2019. It’s a surprisingly warm Wednesday evening at Leigh Sports Village.
The referee checks her watch before blowing the final whistle thus ending Manchester United Women’s 5-0 demolition of Aston Villa and in doing so confirming, to the surprise of absolutely no one, United’s promotion to the FA Women’s Super League.
It has become almost cliché to say it was merely a matter of when, rather than if, they’d earn promotion. The Red Angels asserted their dominance and went on to win the league at a canter. What lasting impact will last season’s sole full-time team leave upon the FA Women’s Championship?
Have they blazed a trail for other FA Women’s Championship clubs to make the step up to full-time. Does the promise of top flight football the following season beckon for teams bold enough to do so?
In the closing weeks of last season the race for the second promotion spot had become so tight you couldn’t separate Tottenham Hotspur, Durham, and Charlton Athletic with a referee’s notebook. We have no reason to expect anything different this season.
So is going full-time what it takes to give teams scrapping at the top that slight edge over their peers?
Men’s teams like Leicester City and AFC Bournemouth have played fast and loose with Financial Fair Play (FFP)
regulations in order to give themselves that extra advantage to get to the English Premier League, reap the rewards that entails, and damning whatever consequences may come their way.
Obviously, Manchester United boasted the one thing no other FA Women’s Championship side had: money. Yet is a shift to full-time status that big a jump financially?
According to FA Women’s Super League regulations, a club is considered full-time when they can ‘offer their players a minimum 16-hour-a-week contract’. Contrast this with the minimum eight hours of contact time that all semi-professional women’s clubs are required to meet in order to fit the criteria of an FA Women’s Championship club.
Doubling minimum contact hours does seem a lot but naturally many clubs, like Durham and Aston Villa who have some full-time players, on average will already exceed these guidelines so the expansion to a full-time team could be possible if only the risks weren’t so great for so little reward.
As Yeovil Town Ladies can attest, there are serious pitfalls in women’s football when your reach exceeds your grasp. The perils of spending beyond your means were made evident as the Somerset side were docked 10-points and subsequently relegated to the third tier of English women’s football after they were unable to manage the economic strain of full-time football.
Moreover, with the number of promotion places to the FA Women’s Super League this season being reduced from two to one the chances of success are halved. Last season, it seemed that the only team that could’ve realistically come close to the financial might of Manchester United in the FA Women’s Championship were their promotion
partners Tottenham Hotspur, another team affiliated with a top six men’s team.
That was until London City Lionesses announced themselves to the FA Women’s Championship. There was a lot of secrecy and uncertainty around the capital’s new women’s team and with now no men’s team to prop them up, London City Lionesses were one of the last teams you’d expect to go full-time. With the financial backing of SETL, a London-based fintech company, Nike sponsored kits and private medical care, The Lionesses are showcasing a level of professionalism few could’ve predicted.
So time will tell whether the gamble to go full-time will pay off for Chris Phillips’ side or leave them in financial ruin, and with one win and one loss in their opening two games the future remains uncertain. With various models in the FA Women’s Championship, such as Durham’s scholarship scheme, akin to the American college system and Lewes’ equal men’s and women’s teams who will be the trendsetter for many other women’s teams to follow suit? This will most likely depend on who is most successful, both financially and competitively. One thing is for certain, we are at a precipice where the events of the next season or two will have significant ramifications for the infrastructure of women’s football clubs in this country.