It is no secret that Monsieur Salut feels a monstrous miscarriage of natural justice has occurred with the double demotion of Sunderland AFC Ladies who,amid the mess of the parent club, admirably finished last season seventh in the highest tier of women’s football in England, only to be consigned to the lower league.
My analogy? Watford or West Ham, after comparable Premier League seasons, informed they would be in League One from next month. Questions have been put to the FA (earlier ones were answered here) and any response will be reproduced, fairly, in due course.
Here, Ian Todd MBE, a veteran of Sunderland support (men and women) and of the Football Supporters’ Federation and founder of the London and SE branch of the SAFC Supporters’ Association, explains the background to a decision that frankly seems cruel and undeserved …
The announcement that SAFC Ladies will be playing in Tier 3 of the FA’s national women’s leagues pyramid next season will have been greeted in a variety of ways.
The reactions range from “So What?” from those who still have a blinkered view of the sport, to devastation by not only those players who were part of a squad which achieved a ranking of 7th best in the country in May, the team’s dedicated fans, but also the many volunteers who over a decade were responsible for developing the foundations upon which the club eventually prospered.
Sadly the outcome was not unexpected though the delay in its revelation has caused an unnecessary trauma for players and supporters alike.
Most women’s teams have been in training for some weeks now in preparation for a new season starting in a month’s time and it’s therefore hardly surprising that several of Sunderland’s both experienced and promising players have now signed for other clubs.
What does the future hold for those who remain? Why the FA has taken so long to tidy up the consequences of its licensing operation, the promotions from last season’s Women’s Premier League and resignations from those who were awarded licences but then declined them, borders on irresponsibility and insensitivity at the highest level.
Vacancies remain in Tiers 1 and 2 in the new structure but, despite their appeal, Sunderland have not been deemed fit to fill them. (The retention in the top tier of Yeovil Town who scored only two goals and failed to win a single game last season does not help the credibility of the FA’s bidding and evaluation process! Good luck to the Glovers though!)
It seems to be second nature nowadays to seek to identify someone to blame for every diversion from normality and Martin Bain has, perhaps unfairly, been the target for much of the anger among Sunderland fans at the gradual struggle to maintain a competitive Ladies team.
Those who achieved 5th place in the Spring Series, a quarter-final place in the League Cup and 7th in the winter league competition deserve the highest praise in overcoming the hurdles placed before them. But the fact that such success would become progressively more difficult has sadly been evident for some time and is inevitably conditioned by the demise of the men’s team.
The Companies House files for the Ladies club have persistently contained the auditors’ caveat that continued support from the parent club would be dependent on retention of Premier League status. Well we all know what happened there! To the club (and Ellis Short)’s credit they honoured the contracts of those players and staff until this summer’s end date of the four-year licence the club obtained for membership of the FA Women’s Super League.
There were, however, warning signs of impending doom firstly with the announcement that the club was to become predominantly based on part-time players, their eviction from training facilities at the Academy of Light and Hetton for their home games then finally the announcement that the club was not initially going to apply for a new licence to play in the top tier for the 18-19 season.
So while I’ve no doubt staff at the club were diligently trying to put together a credible bid during the second licence application phase, Short’s hatchet man Bain was by then in “further economies” mode and it was externally evident that new applications from women’s teams backed by Premier League clubs (West Ham and Brighton) were always likely to have priority by the FA for selection.
The sad fact is that, despite the progress which has undoubtedly been made by the Lionesses in particular, the FA’s senior competition structure is based upon an unsustainable business plan. Even in 2010, when the Women’s Super League was formed, Sunderland’s application to join ignored their success in seven of the last 10 seasons in the Women’s Premier League and was rejected on financial grounds rather than playing success.
Lovers of sport want to see inherent talent rise to the top but at present the more successful teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City – apologies to those who feel they should have been included) are those backed with substantial money and allowed to operate on a continuing loss-making, rising accumulate debt, basis.
So, instead of those clubs developing local talent from schools, colleges and Regional Talent Clubs, they offer better terms to the star players of other clubs and import players from Europe and the USA.
There is a huge rise, for which the FA must take credit, in the number of girls even at young ages, wanting to play football as well as watch it but their progress is being thwarted by the ambitions of the elite.
An EFL Championship club, without the £100m riches from media rights which promotion would have earned them, posted a 16-17 season loss of £675,000 and yet for this season are building their women’s squad by signing (one from Sunderland) quality players from other clubs.
How can that continue ad infinitum without a radical look at how the game overall is financed?
Sunderland posted a loss of £424k and have an accumulated debt of well over £1m so Stewart Donald’s statement that “the Ladies’ team is an important part of our Sunderland family … We want to continue the club’s long-standing tradition of developing top-class women footballers, as well as giving young girls the opportunity to aspire to play for Sunderland when they grow up” was heartening.
The appeal decision has now caused the club to state it will “look at how to move forward with its commitment to women’s football”?
Premier League media money is not on any immediate horizon so the short term decisions will be very interesting and eagerly awaited. Most importantly, who will manage, coach, condition and play for the team in Tier 3 and how competitive can they hope to be?