“It’s absolute rubbish to say that women’s football has never had it better”

Janet Mitchell, chairwoman of Impetus’ partner club Chorley, who play in the tier four FA Women’s National League speaks to Ben Gilby about the harsh realities of financial impact for clubs beneath the top two leagues of the English pyramid (17/5/23).

Above: Chorley (sky blue) taking on Newcastle United in the FA Women’s National League Division One North this season. The two clubs are cut from very different cloth. Photo Via Chorley Women.

Since the European Championship Final, the mainstream media have run countless articles on the explosion of the women’s game. Massively increased crowds, visibility, and recognition of players. Yet beneath the top level of the game, all is far from well.

In tier four alone this season, two clubs – Wymondham Town and Hounslow – failed to complete the campaign and folded. Wymondham were a club that experienced sustained success in regional-level football, but just over six weeks into their debut season in tier four, posted on their Twitter feed that they had to withdraw from the FA Women’s National League Division One South-East due to losing “a number of players during the summer, two retiring, and a number of players out with longer-term injuries.”

These are the stories that no one in the mainstream media seem to be aware of. The Lionesses’ won the Euros, crowds are significantly rising in the WSL and Champions League, so everything is great in women’s football in their view.

Chorley are another club that are trying to ride out the storm of being a tier-four club. Non-aligned to any men’s club, the Lancashire club have been punching above its weight impressively for years, but as chairwoman Janet Mitchell revealed, it’s getting harder and harder.

“In my opinion based on my experience, it’s worse than ever financially. We have seen £0 more investment in the club yet prices for all our facilities (for which we don’t own our own) have gone up.

“Frankly, it’s absolute rubbish that women’s football has never had it better, obviously the WSL is seeing record attendances which is all well and good, but for the FA Women’s National League (FAWNL) and below nothing has changed apart from price raises and raised expectations. 

Above: Chorley celebrate during their superb FA Cup run last season. Photo via Chorley Women.

“It’s fantastic that our Lionesses are getting the limelight and deservedly so but, the reality at tier four is that the younger players coming into the game now expect a lot more than the reality; we’ve had players/parents whose expectation is that they would be paid at this level, which may be true with some teams but for clubs like ours this has become a real concern in terms of being able to compete financially with other teams.”

Whilst the FA point to the achievements of the Lionesses, the guarantee of extra PE time and access to football for girls at school, the assistance given to clubs like Chorley, for Dawson, is lacking.

“I think they are aware (of how hard it is), but I don’t think much is being done to help. Funding is being made available to clubs that either own their own ground (I know of one women’s club that has its own facility) or have a three to 10-year tenure at a ground. This is unrealistic for many women’s clubs.

“The FAWNL has released a ‘Minimum Standards’ strategy for 2024/25 which in theory is absolutely fantastic as it means clubs at tier four will have really decent facilities for games but we (like several others) don’t have that option without a serious amount of money coming our way, it’s a real concern to us how we are going to meet these targets and if we can’t, what will happen to us.”

I asked the Chorley chairwoman if she was in a position to discuss the situation with the FA’s Director of Women’s Football, Baroness Sue Campbell, what would be the most urgent points you would wish to put to her and what would be the most important immediate things she could do to help.

For Dawson, it comes down to a redistribution of funding: “More money to be put into grassroots; bottom-up funding rather than top down. Women’s clubs need their own facilities. It’s about time we saw money being put into the right places. There are at least eight women’s and girls’ clubs in a little town like Chorley, yet none of them have a home.

“Most of us are using a men’s ground for matches and training at schools and leisure centres; there aren’t enough pitches to cope with the demand.  If a women’s and girls ‘Hub’ was built in a town like Chorley it would be packed out and could only be a positive in the community.

Above: Youngsters from Chorley-based Euxton Girls walk out with their heroes last season. Photo via Chorley Women.

In terms of aiding lower-level clubs, the FA would point to increased prize money in the FA Cup this year as an example of how they support clubs below the top two tiers of the women’s game. However, even the reality of that doesn’t come close to helping to pay the bills in the same way it can for lower-level men’s teams.

“There is absolutely no denying that the increase in the FA Cup prize money has been good for clubs,” said Dawson. “But it’s unlikely most grassroots clubs will earn more than £1-£4,000 and in reality, that wouldn’t even cover one of our training facility costs for the season!”

On top of the funding issues for lower-level clubs, the financial climate around the cost of living crisis is also having an impact, but Chorley’s chairwoman believes the major issue is that grassroots clubs cannot keep up with the demands placed on them in the face of the growth of interest in the game.

“The cost of living crisis has had a very negative impact in terms of literally all our costs rising, but I don’t think it’s the main influencer. The main issue is that the game is growing exponentially and clubs just can’t keep up in terms of the demands being put on them, financially and structurally.

“There are more and more women’s and girls clubs being formed which on one hand is absolutely amazing but on the other it’s too quick and there just simply isn’t the structure in place for it nor it seems the finances to support it.”

As a consequence of the financial pressures, it is becoming increasingly rare for women’s teams not aligned with men’s clubs to prosper as they did in the past. In the last month, Crawley Wasps, who have been at tier three for several years have just announced that they are merging with a men’s club. Dawson believes that the impact of this on clubs, like her own, which are non-aligned, is hugely challenging.

“This is something which I am very passionate about. If you look at our league alone you will see that the teams who have merged with their male counterparts tend to have the most financial power and in turn the most appeal to players.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that teams in our league, for example, Newcastle United, are offering their players packages we could only dream of. I don’t have any issues with clubs merging it makes good financial sense if the offer is right but what concerns me is that it appears that it is the only way women’s clubs can progress to higher levels.

“Where are the women’s clubs? Surely the game is big enough now for investment in women’s clubs or at least absolutely 50/50 shared facilities where men’s and women’s teams are true equals?  There must be lots of towns (like Chorley) that have the ability to create a women’s club; where is the money/interest for that.

Chorley are a self-funded, independent club. The reality of the huge increase in finances needed just to be able to tread water for another 12 months, never mind aiming for a more productive campaign, is, to be blunt, scary for Dawson.

“I am seriously concerned looking at our finances; we have always been extremely careful with our money as we have to be as a self-funded and independent club. However, year on year the pressure ramps up on what we can afford.

“Playing at tier four brings a huge amount of financial pressure from tier five, as of course, we play at national level rather than regional and the FAWNL are always striving to make the league more professional which ultimately is something that has my full support but, I do wonder how long teams like Chorley will be able to survive the cost. As you said earlier several well-established clubs have already fallen by the wayside this season.

“We run three fundraisers per season to support the club which honestly, in my opinion, is not what we should have to do at this level, but without those, we would not survive half a season. We also rely on sponsorship and subs from our reserve and development teams.”

Above: Chorley’s home ground – Coppull United’s Blainscough Park. Photo: Gibbo’s 92.

We ended our discussion pondering on whether it is inevitable that the Lionesses’ successes and the imminent World Cup will just see youngsters be exposed to the top players and go to watch the top level of the game simply because the WSL remains affordable to watch in person and it is still pretty easy to get tickets to top matches – unlike the men’s game when England have success, and increased attendances trickle down to the third and fourth tiers of the men’s game.

Dawson believes that clubs like Chorley can still prosper from increased attendances, but need to have support to improve their spectator facilities.

“I consider the club to be lucky in that we have a very loyal fan base at Chorley. We regularly get 100 supporters on a match day and considering we have no cover or seating, I think thats amazing. The FAWNL are also pretty good in terms of CPD events in regards to social media and marketing. 

“The real issue with getting people to games and to a certain extent player interest once again comes back to finance and facility. For example, if our home ground (Coppull United FC) had an upgrade in terms of undercover seating, turnstiles, repairs to car parking/fencing, grass pitch investment, I believe more people would come to games.

“They do a fantastic job at Coppull at making supporters feel welcome and at home and it’s an amazingly homely club, something we have been really fortunate to have. This is an attraction in women’s and girls’ football and when we have mascots for our home games we always get positive comments about the club, but with investment, I am sure more could be done and the profile of women’s football in the area would only get better.”

Artwork: Graphics by PW.

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