Women’s football in danger of being cut off as season is curtailed

The latest in our series looking at sport in lockdown comes in the wake of the FA’s decision to end the women’s football season from tiers three to six. Nick Westby, Stuart Rayner and Flora Snelson canvassed the reaction within Yorkshire.

Two lost years. That is the general consensus from within the Yorkshire women’s football fraternity after league football below the top two divisions was curtailed this week due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, the Football Association Women’s Board ended the league seasons for tiers three to six with immediate effect, declaring them incomplete.

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It is the second season they have done so.

Sophie Scargill, the Doncaster Rovers Belles captain in action in a pre-season friendly in August (Picture: Heather King/Club Doncaster)

The FA cited the many ‘operational issues’ that made completing the season unviable, given no football at that level had been played since January 4.

Understandable, given the current climate, but no less damaging to the players and clubs that make a part-time living out of competitive women’s football.

Indeed, the consequences are far-reaching; inflicting clubs and employees, bringing an early end to playing careers and affecting the mental health of the players themselves.

“When I read the news, my first reaction was I just felt deflated,” begins Sophie Scargill, the 25-year-old captain of Doncaster Rovers Belles of FA Women’s National League Division One Midlands, the fourth tier of the pyramid.

Leeds United’s Rebecca Hunt takes on Durham duo Dannika Purdham and Grace Ayre (Picture: Steve Riding)

“It’s now two seasons where everything we’ve done is pointless, none of our results count towards anything. It really feels like a waste, that it was all for nothing.”

Rovers Belles, a pioneering name in women’s football, had fallen on hard times in recent years but under former Doncaster Rovers player and now manager Andy Butler, their fortunes have transformed.

They were second in the fourth tier when women’s football below the Superleague and Championship was temporarily shut down for a second time in early January, when the third national lockdown was enforced.

The challenge for Scargill has been as much a mental one as it is physical.

Missing this: Action from Burnley v Sheffield FC.

“Mentally, it’s been really hard,” she says. “Even the decision that was made a couple of days ago, we didn’t know when that decision was going to be coming out.

“It’s really difficult for some of the girls to keep motivated. I’ve set myself a running challenge to have something to aim for but I still get asked how do you run when there’s nothing there to run for?

“I live on my own as well, so just to be back at football is so good for my mental health, to be around people. We all just want to get back playing.

“I’m trying to look at it positively and use it to get better. Yes, we have lost two years but there’s no point me sitting here thinking it’s two years lost, what’s the point? Surely next season we’re going to go a full season.

Matches off: Belles manager Andy Butler instructing his players. Picture: Howard Roe

“The mentality we should all take is that there’s nothing we can do about it, let’s just regroup and go again next season.”

Training resumes for Rovers Belles in April when lockdown restrictions ease and the hope is all teams can organise friendlies in the absence of competitive fixtures.

But the sense of what might have been is overarching, as it is a division higher where Huddersfield Town Women were having the best season in their 33-year history.

Under head coach Jordan Wimpenny – who was appointed last March just days before the 2019-20 season shut down due to the first set of restrictions coming in – they were top of the Northern Premier Division.

Playing in the Championship next season were they promoted would have cost £250,000, and the club would have to move away from their base at Shelley because it does not fit the criteria.

So Town had already stated they would not go up even if they won the division.

Doncaster Rovers Belles player Sophie Scargill in league action against Bedworth (Picture: Heather King/Club Doncaster)

But even then, winning the third tier would have been a notable achievement.

Wimpenny said: “It’s not the news we wanted, especially given the position we’re in in the league and the fact this is the first time we’ve been in this position.

“It was a great opportunity for us to be able to go and achieve something the club has never been able to do.

“If you look at the two seasons as a whole it’s frustration because of the commitment of the staff and the players who have given so much of their time – you just want to give them something back. When it gets taken away it’s difficult.”

Huddersfield do have something left to play. In fact, they are the only tier-three team to have played in 2021 as their FA Cup second-round tie at Liverpool Feds on January 4 was allowed to go ahead because local restrictions allowed at the time.

The FA Cup, which consists of mainly Superleague and Championship teams will continue with those two more professional leagues, but Wimpenny now has the challenge of preparing his players for a third-round tie loosely scheduled for April 11.

When a cup competition is your only competitive football, it adds extra significance to the term ‘knockout football’.

“Players have been let down and you’re asking them to now give 100 per cent motivation and commitment to the FA Cup, a competition where the majority of teams are in competitions that are allowed to continue,” said Wimpenny.

“These players are left wondering what happens if this happens again next year or they pull the league again? You’re killing people’s motivation to go and compete so it leaves a negative feel around everything.”

One of Town’s players is Beth Stanfield, who works full-time at Leeds University’s student union and plays part-time with Huddersfield, whom she joined two years ago from Guiseley.

At 24, this decision could inhibit her ambitions to play at a higher level.

“I want to play at as high a level as I can and being top of the league this year it was something that could have been achievable,” says Stanfield, who along with the rest of her Town team-mates receives no money for playing in the third tier.

“It’s been quite disruptive with all the stopping and starting.

“When you look at the women’s football pyramid, it does just feel like it’s the top two leagues and then everybody else.

“The Championship is still carrying on, so the gap is just going to get bigger between tiers two and three in terms of quality, fitness, etcetera if we can’t play for however long until the next season.

“The gap is already quite significant because some players are full-time, some are part-time.

“I really thought the leagues would carry on, especially given that a couple of weeks ago they said the FA Cup would carry on, I think that gave us a bit of false hope that the league would carry on, too.”

Clubs were invited to vote on whether they wanted the season to continue, via a survey. From that, it would be easy to conclude that teams at the top wanted to go on while those at the bottom did not, but such a theory is proved to be unfounded with the case of Sheffield FC, who are 10th in the 12-team third tier that Huddersfield are leading.

Sheffield FC, who are self-sufficient and not affiliated to a big men’s club, were in favour of playing on.

Their press officer, Charlie Walden, said: “This time around it’s not been as bad because we’ve been prepared and had a back-up plan but last year it was very difficult, there was talk about potentially having to fold the women’s team because of a lack of money.

“Fans through the gate is the main source of income for the club on the women’s side so once that was cut off there was no money coming in.

“It’s disappointing the season’s ended, but what can you do?

“We’d rather have continued. Times are difficult at the moment but I think we would have been able to continue safely. A lot of grounds are very big with a lot of space there and the regulations in place so we wanted the season to continue.”

The news of the curtailment came as no surprise to Leeds United Women’s head coach Dan O’Hearne. “It was inevitable,” said O’Hearne, with his team mid-table of the Northern section of tier four.

“How are you going to fit 19 games in between now and the end of the season? It’s impossible – something had to give.”

Going forward, the concern is that such disruption does not damage participation in women’s football, either attracting new players or retaining current ones.

“When you look at the development of women’s football,” says Huddersfield manager Wimpenny, “how far they’ve come, how far they want to go against the decisions that are being made, it’s a negative feel for those that want to develop the game.”

Scargill of Rovers Belles adds: “I’m worried because the amount of girls that drop out of football anyway is quite alarming. They reach an age where real life kicks in – college, full-time job – and it just gets difficult. And I understand that.

“Hopefully, people have got the mindset of wanting to prove people wrong, that they want to continue playing.

“But it is worrying. It does feel like we’re being left behind.”

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Leeds United Women's Abbie Brown (Picture: Steve Riding)