“What’s happing? Is it really the case that CULFC have gone bust?”
“They’re what? Haven’t heard a thing as of last Saturday afternoon and when I left we were planning for January, Jay was looking at players to bring in...”
This was the start of an unfortunate exchange I had with Paul Wheeler, the Coventry United women’s commentator with local community station Radio Plus, last Thursday morning as news filtered out through Twitter that the Warwickshire side will be put into voluntary liquidation when businesses return to the office on 4th January 2022.
The club, which was born of the troubles at Coventry City eight years ago and has progressed up to the second tier of English women’s football, had folded after its main sponsor, cleaning products manufacturer Hycolin - owned by Steve Quinlan, Darren Landon and Paul Marsh who hold a 49% stake in the club - withdrew funding.
The administrators handling the liquidation said a combination of factors including Brexit and Covid had caused the sponsors to pull out and the owners to close the business.
It later emerged that the club had indeed been up for sale, but I cannot find any reference to this being the case. Questions will surely be asked in the coming days and weeks about when the FA and the League were informed of the financial difficulties, whether and how the business plans of the owners had been assessed by the authorities, and what will be done to prevent similar situations from emerging in future.
The FA and the League have remained silent on the matter over the Christmas period.
Of the other clubs competing in the FA Women’s Championship this season, only pioneering fan-owned outfit Lewes saw fit to issue a statement in solidarity with the players and fans of the Green and Reds.
Real anger & exasperation around at demise of Coventry United. So hard for non-Prem backed clubs to compete/survive. Insufficient revenue opportunities ie too few League games; tiny FA Cup prize money; NO League Cup prize money; increasing infrastructure costs to meet regulations pic.twitter.com/J3lAd1WmWH— Lewes FC Women (@LewesFCWomen) December 23, 2021
Back in August, we Sunderland fans had the unexpected pleasure of listening to Paul’s commentary of the Lasses' first game back inside the WSL structures as their FA Women’s Championship kicked off at the Butts Park Arena down in the West Midlands. We won - kicking off our season with three good points away from home. Coventry struggled, but in recent weeks had looked a lot more competitive as the season reached its halfway point.
I’d kept in contact with him ever since, intrigued and inspired by the access he had to the squad, the live commentary he was providing, and the fact that they’d gone full time over the summer - bringing in some big-name players like Katie Wilkinson and Rio Hardy. These same players - some of whom had moved from abroad or left successful careers outside the game to take full-time contracts and live their dreams of becoming professional - were now being left unemployed not 48 hours before Christmas day.
Coventry United always seems like it was a bit of a gamble - spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to create a professional women’s team at Tier 2 without the backing of a professional men’s team (and, crucially, their infrastructure or fanbase) and with a private ownership structure lacking the fan oversight of other similar-sized clubs like Lewes.
The economic circumstances of the UK are extraordinarily fragile, the fanbase at Coventry wasn’t huge, the coverage of the league has been almost non-existent outside of fan and individual club media channels meaning exposure for sponsors is minimal, and it seems that safeguards are not in place to ensure that clubs that start the season will be able to finish it. All of this spelled disaster.
There were a couple of podcasts and Twitter Spaces that discussed the situation as many people wound down for the Christmas holidays, an article in the Guardian and one in the Mail, but there was a real risk that the story would disappear into the news void. Nobody would remember the incident come the New Year.
The glitz and glamour of the WSL and Champions League would return, the focus of the whole sport would move to the buildup to the European Championships in the summer.
But something is not right in the women’s game. Coventry United LFC feels like the canary in the coalmine. As football supporters who care about this game overall, not just the health of our own club, we couldn’t just throw up our hands and walk by on the other side.
We are here to support, protect and promote women’s football at Tier 2 (and below) in England. We’re bringing together fans of all 12 @FAWomensChamp clubs disgusted at what has happened to Coventry United. We need to #ProtectWomensFootball for the players & the fans. Join us. pic.twitter.com/m31tBVa7Xs— FAWC Fan Collective (@FAWCfans) December 24, 2021
I got in touch with Paul Wheeler and with a few of the other FA Women’s Championship fans that I’d spoken to over the last few months for our “Fan Focus” prematch articles and on our weekly Lasses Podcast Live Twitter Space, and we created a little WhatsApp group.
Quickly we’d assembled fans from over half of the clubs in the league, and now we have representatives of the majority of the supporter bases across the division. Our discussions have been forthright.
We’ve called ourselves the FAWC Fan Collective and we have some serious and pretty straightforward demands. We include in our group experienced political campaigners, media people, professional organisers, vocal fans, and football experts. We are not messing around.
There’s an air of impatience and urgency in our little collective. Across the fans we’ve gathered from clubs big and small - from Coventry United to Liverpool FC - there’s a sense that supporters and players of these clubs deserve better coverage from national and local media, we deserve football authorities that have a focus beyond the upper-echelons of the WSL, we deserve clubs that see their women’s sections as more than an expensive luxury or a charity case.
“Who’s going to help us?”@CovUnitedLFC players & staff react after being told the club will be placed into voluntary liquidation.— George Hancorn (@georgehancorn) December 24, 2021
I spoke to @katiewilko10 / @LiamKeen_ who said players have made huge sacrifices. The Club said it cannot go into detail. More @ITVCentral 5:15pm pic.twitter.com/5nXV27SXxE
We also think that clubs and leagues need to be properly regulated - especially financially. The game needs to be put on a sound financial footing not only through sponsorship deals but through reparations and cross-subsidy from the men’s game to recognise and compensate for the historic injustice of the 50-year ban on women playing at FA grounds. As a bare minimum, the FA should provide equal prize money for its competitions across the men’s and women’s games.
The players need to be protected too - Coventry United’s professional footballers were amongst the lowest-paid players in the country but we're not afforded the benefits of having a proper trade union to represent their interests and negotiate with their employer. The PFA, quite unbelievably - will not accept membership from contracted female footballers outside the top flight WSL clubs. This must change.
Ironically, supporters across the country are now raising money for the unfortunate Coventry United players who have done nothing to deserve having their jobs destroyed on the whim of some rich men. They should not have to rely upon charity appeals to be able to pay their bills.
Happy Christmas. So pleased this has more than £1000 for the cov united ladies. If you want to give a different gift this Xmas... please RT #footballfamily @EnglandFootball @EnglandFootballhttps://t.co/wxQCQUfNSp— Michael Mogan, MBE (@MichaelMoganMBE) December 25, 2021
All of this requires the immediate initiation of the recommendation from the Fan Led Review of Football for a separate individual review of Women’s Football to take place. There is no reason why this cannot happen in the New Year and be concluded in time for its provisions to be implemented alongside changes in the men's game and for the new Independent Regulator for English Football (IREF) to have jurisdiction over the whole of our sport. This is our priority as a collective.
Sunderland supporters can get involved by emailing their MPs to ask for them to write to the Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) to call on them to act on Recommendation I of the Crouch Report and get the review of Women’s football up and running next week.
Sunderland Ladies have twice suffered the indignity of being forced out of the top flight for non-footballing reasons. We know the pain of having the financial support required to participate being pulled from underneath the feet of a dedicated squad and manager, and how the overwhelming desire of the authorities to get the “big” teams into the WSL can manifest as indifference to the plight of the rest of the football ladder.
We as Sunderland fans must show solidarity with the other clubs, fanbases, and players who suffer the injustices that periodically plague the English women’s football pyramid. And in the new year, we must come together to create a new supporters group for Sunderland AFC Ladies fans that will give us an independent voice within our club, making sure the plan being drawn up for the future by Kristjaan Speakman and Mel Reay is fit for purpose and has building the fanbase at their heart.