Rovers Rollercoaster Ride Takes Upward Curve – Part II

In Part Two of his exclusive interview with Gemma Donnelly, Head of Blackburn Rovers Women and Girls Football, Impetus editor Ben Gilby examines the status of the FA Women’s Championship, the growth of the game and where what her aims are for the future at the Ewood Park outfit.

(For the first part of the interview, click on this link: )

Looking at the FA Women’s Championship, Donnelly observed: “With the money that has been injected, there is now a wide hybrid range of clubs in the division. You’ve got some clubs offering full-time contracts with part-time players as well, so their players train all week at their parent club and use their facilities. The part-time players come in during the evening for training two or three times a week. To the other extreme, there are clubs in the division with no players on contracts and just some expenses paid, some not paid at all, so there’s a huge difference between the top end and the bottom end. Money can attract the right type of player in terms of playing quality, but it can also attract the wrong type of person too – the type of person who is only in it for the money. That’s football, isn’t it!”

The Rovers manager also pointed out the emergence of a new phenomenon in the women’s game: “There’s been an influx of interest from agents to promote their players to us this season, which has been a new experience! Millwall of last season are now London City Lionesses and have had a huge injection of cash, the players are all full-time and salaried, so it’s completely different from where we’re currently at, training eight hours a week over three evenings and we’re expected to compete in the same league, so it’s going to be tough. There’s pros and cons of that. We’re learning because of that and we’re experiencing adversity but we’ll learn from these experiences and the positives from that are it will help us moving forwards. The negatives are that it’s hard work. None of us hide from that, it’s the mental toughness that probably was a little bit unexpected, particularly after having so much success in recent times.”

Blackburn Rovers’ Blackburn Rovers Ladies v Coventry United Ladies Sunday 27/10/19 Ewood Park Photographer/ Copyright Rachel Holborn

In terms of whether or not there has been a noticeable increase in interest from potential players, sponsors and supporters since the World Cup, Donnelly is under no doubt at all: “There’s been a huge change and shift in the exposure for the women’s game and that has kicked on even more since the Women’s World Cup in the summer. In terms of Blackburn, we have over a hundred and twenty girls playing in seven teams, nearly forty staff, two of which are full time, the rest are part time. We’re involved with the seven teams all week, playing on a Saturday or Sunday up and down the country, so there’s huge investment in resources, both time and money ensuring the girls have the best opportunities. The game itself has kicked on. I do believe that there’s been a heightened interest in terms of sponsorship; businesses and companies want to get involved with the women’s game now and that’s fantastic to see because that funding allows players to have better resources.”

In all of this though, there is the conundrum of clubs throwing large sums of money at short term success or building slowly on a more sustainable model. At Blackburn Rovers, the belief it that a consistent, long term approach is vital. “It stems down to support from the football club – not just token gesture support, it’s got to be support across the board. If its facilities, it’s got to be top class facilities, if it’s expertise and staffing, having them on hand all the time; it’s got to be consistent – not just dropping in and out”, Donnelly says. “It needs to be a combined effort from everyone involved. Pushing all the time. The right people have to be in place – both staff and players. The sustainability of that for both semi-pro or pro clubs comes down to money. You have people moving around just for the money. At the moment at Blackburn I believe we have the right players in place because they are here for the club and for their own aspirations and as a team. When we’re in a better position to be able to offer more rewarding financial contracts you can attract potentially better players, but I don’t know if they will be able to offer us the same commitment and determination that the players we currently have are showing. Sustainability is a joint effort for sure for everyone involved, but ultimately having the right people involved.”

Donnelly believes that the future is exciting, as long as the game can maintain and keep up with increased interest: “The game is taking huge leaps. Currently, I think we’re all trying to keep up with the snowball effect of the exposure of women’s football. It’s now about ensuring we don’t allow it to slip away from us and keeping in touch with how much exposure and coverage and interest there is. We’re in quite a fortunate position at Rovers because we have a Regional Talent Club that is Tier One. Even that is having to keep monitoring whether it is keeping up with the surge in women’s football. I’m glad we’ve finally been promoted because, although there is a huge gulf between Tier Three and the Championship, there’s an even bigger gulf between the Championship and Super League. But at least we’re somewhere around there. I feel that if we hadn’t been promoted again, we would have lost staff and players. We would have been miles away. At least we’re now in touching distance. From a football club perspective, like the men, we’d say we’d like more investment in order to kick us on. The clear message from the club is that we’re trying to be sustainable, so we’ll look to start slowly and build over time to move forward. That’s the aim, that’s the target, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Above: Blackburn Rovers Ladies 2019/20. Photo Courtesy: Blackburn Rovers Ladies FC.

In order for the women’s game to stand the best chance of continuing an upward trajectory, Donnelly believes that, overall the model of parent professional men’s clubs is the way forward: “Whilst there’s advantages and disadvantages for being aligned or non-aligned as a women’s club, having been embedded in the game for ten years or more, the pros and cons are that you are able to have on hand the expertise from across departments, facilities, exposure – everything that the parent professional club can offer, you are able to experience. A real togetherness is definitely a positive. I’d suggest that the downside of it is that we’re probably not a priority because, in a business world, women’s football is not a money making area, so you are around the bottom of priority because they need to keep the wider business afloat.”

“When you are working independently, like I know many clubs are, the positives of that are that you are your own priority, you can market your own product. You are your own USP, but I guess the negatives of that are that you don’t have the security of a professional club and the expertise and professionalism operating alongside you; the ability of being able to seek help and advice and support you on your journey, so I think if I was given a choice, I would probably stay with a parent club because there are so many benefits to it.”

“We’ve seen lots of success with parent clubs and their female clubs at the highest end – Chelsea and Arsenal. There isn’t anyone in Super League who isn’t attached to a parent club – although I would also say that Chelsea and Arsenal are money rich clubs who are able to subsidise heavily their female teams. In the Championship, there’s two non-aligned clubs – London City Lionesses and Durham. When it becomes a semi-pro/pro league, I think it proves that you need your parent club there to help support them.”

If Gemma Donnolly has anything to do with it, Blackburn Rovers will continue to battle with passion and determination to, first ensure they keep their Championship place, and then push on. It’s a story worth following.

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Ben Gilby is the editor of Impetus and has over fifteen years experience in voluntary media officer roles within the sports of Football and Rugby Union, has appeared on BBC Radio Cornwall and BBC Radio Norfolk sports shows several times and published the book ‘The Game: Tales From A Season Travelling Around The Rugby Union Grounds of South-East England’.

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