The near liquidation of Coventry United shows need for a fan-led review of women’s football
As we build up to the country hosting the 2022 Women’s Football European Championship this summer, there has not been a better time to be a woman playing football in the UK since the FA rescinded the ban on women playing football was banned by the football authorities in 1921.
The Women’s Super League (WSL) achieved never-before-seen crowds before the pandemic, with regular new sponsorship and exposure deals, and 40,000 watching the Women’s FA Cup final in Wembley late last year.
There is much to be celebrated – but the news that the Coventry United LFC received a couple of days before Christmas showed there is still lots of work to be done.
Whilst we got ready to celebrate Christmas with our loved ones, whether in person or over Zoom, the players and staff of Coventry United LFC received notification that their club was going into liquidation, and that their contracts would be terminated on January 4.
As a club that was semi-pro up until the Summer, many of the women dropped successful careers elsewhere to pursue their dream of football – but no less than five months after being given full time contracts, they found the rug pulled from under their feet.
There has since been incredible news, first reported by Tom Garry, that the crisis has been averted, and the club may well be able to carry on under new ownership. As the papers were rushed through last minute, this is a position that those players and staff should have never been put in, not least in the immediacy of the festive period.
It was reassuring to see the women’s football community pull together to support them during this time, with other clubs offering use of their training facilities, and an incredible fundraising effort which raised thousands to support the players and staff. The future of clubs within the sport should not have found itself in this position.
The growth of the women’s game can no longer be at the behest of the men’s game
The nature of finances in the Men’s game has been discussed endlessly – from the disparity between the rich owners of Man City and Newcastle, to the destruction of community clubs like Bury. The fan-led review was an essential undertaking to consider what the next steps should be for a sport that was revolutionised 30 years ago with little change since.
Though the main headlines from the review’s publications are – for good reason – the creation of an Independent Regulator, a stronger fit and proper owners test, and the greater involvement of fans in the decisions made by their clubs, the review also called for a whole new review into the women’s game. The situation at Coventry United has shown that this cannot come too soon.
This is not the only example. On the eve of the start of the WSL in 2017, Notts County folded. In 2019, Yeovil Town dropped two divisions from the WSL as a result of financial difficulties. Leyton Orient cut ties with their women’s team and forced the creation of London Seaward to ensure the players could continue to play. With teams like Fylde threatened and recently, Holwell Sports Women FC in the fourth tier of the football pyramid forced to fold, situations like this can no longer continue.
The growth of the women’s game can no longer be at the behest of the men’s game and then serve as collateral if plans are not as successful as previously expected. Nor can it continue to function as it currently is when the livelihood of players at Coventry United for example, who all have bills to pay and families to support, can be taken away at the drop of a hat.
The women’s game should get its own review. This should happen sooner rather than later. The multitude of different ownership and governance structures renders any comparison to the men’s game pointless. Whilst the review in the men’s game is considering a league that is being sold for billions across the globe, the women’s review will take into account a league that is growing in stature year on year, and is encountering its own difficulties on the way.
We can look ahead to the excitement of the Euros in England this summer – but we must also ensure that there is a viable pipeline to sustain Women’s Football, that allows opportunities for grassroots engagement for young girls across the country, and pathways up to the elite game that will not end with the prospect of the rug being pulled from under their feet a matter of days before Christmas.
Julie Elliott MP, Member of Parliament for Sunderland Central.
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