Ricky Charlesworth: Women’s game has soon become all about money at the top level

Neil Redfearn.
Neil Redfearn.
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AT THE start of June, things were looking rosy for women’s football in the Broad Acres.

The FA had just announced it was handing licences to three of our clubs for the upcoming, revamped 2018-19 Women’s Championship.

The rebranded second tier league, formerly known as WSL2, was to comprise 25 per cent Yorkshire teams in the shape of Doncaster Rovers Belles, Sheffield FC Ladies and Sheffield United Ladies.

Fast forward a month and suddenly the goalposts have been moved and nowhere more so than at Sheffield FC.

The club announced it was withdrawing from WSL2, saying the finances needed to compete in the competition were “proving now too onerous”.

Sheffield’s Ladies are a club that have organically grown year-on-year over the past decade and their rise has been built on hard work and dedication, rather than pounds and pence.

But their glass ceiling was sadly reached last week.

The club could have carried on but rather than face the prospect of dropping out midway through the campaign, club officials decided it was best to make the decision early.

It gives the players and coaching staff the chance to move on elsewhere, but it is still a huge shame to see them have to call it a day for non-footballing reasons.

Speaking to Sheffield manager Zoe Johnson last month, she described the continued struggles that clubs like them face.

Unlike many of the other teams around them, they do not have a men’s side that is willing to prop them up financially.

Despite being affiliated to and sharing a ground with the world’s oldest club, unfortunately the prestige of that honour does not pay the bills.

Johnson’s predictions were to ultimately come true not long after that conversation.

They are not the first club to do so, and it is unlikely they will be the last and that surely must set alarm bells ringing at the FA.

Last year, Notts County Ladies, who were at the time a WSL1 team, folded on the eve of a new season

They had reached the Women’s FA Cup final in 2015 but within two years they were disbanded.

Then there is the case of Sunderland Ladies. Upheld as an example of a successful, long-standing name in the sport, the Lady Black Cats were not handed a licence for either of the top two divisions for next season.

On the flipside, the FA surprisingly chose to hand a licences to Millwall – who narrowly avoided administration – whilst Yeovil were given a spot in the top flight despite going public about their need to raise a six-figure fee in order to fulfil their spot.

Manchester United’s women’s team have also been handed a Women’s Championship spot for next season but you suspect it will not be too long before they will be playing at the top level.

The affiliation to men’s clubs is crucial – just look at Manchester City’s women’s team who benefit from state-of-the-art facilities and are heavily backed as a result.

Doncaster Belles, pioneers of the women’s game, have faced their own issues with the FA in recent times. The controversial decision to demote them to the second tier in 2014 still, understandably, rankles with the club to this day.

Like Sheffield, the Belles have also experienced their fair share of upheaval in recent weeks.

Head coach Neil Redfearn was poached by WSL1 side Liverpool Ladies earlier this month.

The move made perfect sense for Redfearn, pictured below.

He has effectively upgraded to a club with huge presence, one that has won the top tier twice in recent years and, more crucially for his day-to-day role, one that is in safe hands financially.

Redfearn’s time with the Belles was short but sweet, as he guided them to top spot in WSL2 after winning 12 of his 14 games.

However, the complicated nature and restructuring meant that the Belles knew they would not be promoted to the top flight.

Shortly before his Merseyside move, Redfearn spoke to The Yorkshire Post about the ever-changing landscape in the women’s game.

Unfortunately for them, Redfearn will not be around if, or when, that does occur.

Women’s football in this country is more popular than it has ever been. You only have to look at the record-breaking attendance for last month’s Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley.

But if it is not careful then it could soon follow the way of the men with a cluster of clubs hogging the trophies and effectively becoming a plaything for the mega-rich club owners.

Unlike the men’s teams, the support simply is not there to keep club coffers ticking over.

Coaches and players are all too aware of this volatile situation.

Redfearn perhaps best summed it up, saying: “The FA have tried to make the top tier an elite division but in doing so they’ve made it about the money.”

It is now time the governing body worked harder to ensure the fate that has befallen Sheffield Ladies does not happen again.