The full-time professionals of Liverpool FC Women have the 2021-22 FA Women’s Championship in the bag. It’s all over bar the shouting and they’ll lift the trophy and secure their Women’s Super League return after a two-year absence with a win at second-placed Bristol City next weekend.
They have been by far the best side this season and I doubt we’ll see them again at this level.
Therefore, it’s with a sense of anticipation that the thoughts of many fans in tier two are already turning to the 2022-23 campaign. New money will come into the game; a new three-year sponsorship deal will see Barclays branding adorning the Championship as well as the WSL as the bank renews and doubles its sponsorship of the league, and with this you would expect that there will be increased visibility.
All of Sunday’s games in our league were streamed on the FA Player, and I can envisage that this will be the case every gameweek next season. This is what already happens in the Barclays WSL and it makes sense for a global brand to want the league it sponsors to have maximum exposure to potential audiences.
With the Euros starting in less than 100 days and tickets selling out quickly - 80,000 will be at Old Trafford for England’s opener against Austria and 90,000 will be at Wembley for the Final - and clubs up and down the country putting unprecedented marketing time and resources behind their women’s squads.
It’s carpe diem time for our club too. With Liverpool gone, Sunderland will be the club with the biggest potential fanbase in the FA Women’s Championship.
The Lasses - with three wins in the last five games - sit proudly fourth in the recent form table, just below Sheffield United who we hammered 4-1 at their place the weekend before last. The Blades themselves beat Bristol City last Saturday lunchtime, who, like the South Yorkshire side, have now only lost one of their last five. With three games to go, a respectable return of nine wins from 22 games in our first year back is not out of the question.
Our upturn in form can be traced back to the FA Cup Fourth Round game down at St Andrews, where the Lasses went head-to-head with the WSL’s bottom club and took them all the way to extra time.
According to Assistant Head Coach Steph Libbey, that performance gave the group a huge boost as it showed them that they were more than capable of holding their own against a top-tier side.
Birmingham then came up to the north east to face Durham in round five, undoubtedly one of the Championship’s strongest sides across the whole campaign, and were by all accounts lucky to come away from Maiden Castle with a narrow 1-0 win.
They’re now all but relegated from the top flight, and with the twelve months of ongoing turmoil that the Blues’ women have suffered, the with mess that their club is in overall, I think most observers would agree that an immediate bounce back is highly unlikely.
As a club whose men’s side is in the EFL Championship, they don’t have the resources of Liverpool or last season’s tier two champions Aston Villa, and we should expect that they will need at least a year of recuperation, as has been the case with Bristol this season.
The “one-up, one-down” movement between tiers in the English women’s pyramid makes many of the fixtures in this part of the calendar dead-rubbers. And whilst next season’s system has not yet been made clear, Sunderland’s good form and the close competitive nature of the division which has been its defining feature all year, means we stand as good a chance as any of challenging for whatever places in the WSL may be up for grabs.
The Robins, with the prolific and powerful Abi Harrison up front combined with a professional-ready set-up, will be hard to overcome. Durham - with their non-denominational family appeal and myopic focus on women’s football - will continue to punch way above their weight. Despite being relatively neglected by their hierarchy and their dogged unwillingness to do any defending for large parts of this season, the exciting Crystal Palace will be there or thereabouts.
London City Lionesses (a break away from Millwall), with their wealthy owners and near-zero organic support, will seek to ride on the back of the overall strength of the game in London and buy their way to success once more. Sheffield United have a youth-focus like Sunderland, and have managed to draw big crowds this season, so our developing rivalry with them will no doubt be picked up again next term.
Whether Charlton will remain as a full-time outfit has to be questionable with their men’s side languishing in League One and their owner’s initial flush of interest having seemingly waned a little. Blackburn are the Cinderellas of the league - toiling away on a ploughed field and seemingly incapable of stringing a series of good results together - but a shock return by their men’s side to the Premier League could potentially transform their finances.
And then there’s the new arrivals from the National Leagues, probably one of Wolves or Ipswich, both of whom have shown the kind of commitment and ambition that goes a long way at this level.
Even Watford, who came into the league with us at the start of this season, are no longer the complete pushovers they were to begin with and have Premier League money behind them. If they do survive, they will surely look to invest and replace an aging squad in the closed season.
If Coventry United overcome the odds to pip Watford at the very last hurdle, it will be a story worthy of a Netflix special if not a Hollywood rendering. But despite the romance, they will surely have to review their low-paid professional model under their new owner and rebuild once more. The underdog spirit can only take a club so far.
Finally, there’s good old Lewes FC, who will keep fighting the good fight for equality, drawing in disproportionately huge numbers (if you take their ratio of men’s to women’s attendances and translate it to Sunderland AFC, they get the equivalent of 20,000 through the gates for each home game), and showing everyone up in terms of beer, food, atmosphere, and generally how to run a football club.
So there’s everything to play for - the club that wants it most and is willing to emulate what Liverpool and Villa have done in the last two years, will come out on top. The right combination of innovative coaching and state of the art training resources, data analytics and flexible tactics, as well as smart recruitment, will surely prevail.
However, if winning promotion next year is to be a stretch for such a young squad as Sunderland, who may not yet quite be at the point of turning professional despite the great facilities and coaching they have available to them, then being in the mixer at the end of 2023-24 has to be the long-term target.
The current £24m three-year TV deal will finish in 2024, at which point we should expect that the top-two tiers will be restructured once more and it is widely believed that the Premier League will take over control of the upper echelons of women’s football.
(Note that the announcement from Barclays in December 2021 about its three-year sponsorship specifically referenced a partnership between them, the FA, and the Premier League, which seems to allow for a restructure before the end of their contract).
The English tier 1 and 2 leagues may well be expanded at that point to be 14 or 16 clubs strong - a shortage of competitive games for players in women’s teams is seen by the international players’ organisation FIFPRO as holding back both technical and professional development of footballers.
I understand there is much debate between the current WSL clubs as to if, when, and how this expansion might happen. But we do know that the FA’s strategy envisages two fully professional women’s leagues in England before 2026, and it is clear that the women’s sides of Premier League clubs like Newcastle and Wolves, will be turning professional even before they reach tier two.
Suspicions abound that, with the Premier League likely to in charge from 2024, they will ruthlessly jettison promotion and relegation on merit and use punishingly expensive license requirements to build a new top flight made up exclusively of sides that represent clubs in the men’s elite league.
If footballing merit does hold out against the forces of global capital, then being in the top four or five in the Championship at that point should make us well placed to join the newly enlarged successor to the current WSL format.
With that in mind, where Sunderland AFC is as a club overall by either 2024 or 2026 will be vitally important. If the men progress to the Championship and then are pushing for promotion back to the bigtime, it will make a huge difference to the resources available to meet such stringent conditions. The fate of the two squads remains, for the forseeable future, inextricably linked.
But we’ve got to be conscious that there will never be a “good time” to concentrate more on women’s football from the perspective of those who care only for the men’s side of our football club.
For many, including some within the ownership group, investment will always be seen as a zero-sum game, with anything spent on developing the Lasses written off as a distraction from the “real” business of the Lads getting promotion. It will then be a distraction from surviving in the Championship (the costs of which may actually be higher than the potential increase in revenue), then from pushing for the Premier League (more costs), followed by potential focus on surviving in the Premier League, and with a bit of luck, progressing towards UEFA competitions. Rinse and repeat, for ever.
I’ve learned that there’s little point in attempting to win over the nay-sayers with either rational business-cases based on potential growth or appeals to fairness, equality, historical injustices in this regard.
Yet a process of cultural change is underway, and there’s an element of just needing to bide our time - build it and they will come, as the corn once whispered into Kevin Costner’s ear.
The Euros this summer will be a huge thing for all involved, the World Cup in 2024 will provide another boost to the game. But at individual football clubs, someone does need to bulid it.
Behind the scenes at Sunderland, Lasses gaffer Mel Reay, her coaching staff, and the club’s General Manager Alex Clark, have finished laying the foundations and are already working on the walls. The detailed plans are almost complete.
Sunderland women’s squad show genuine promise, with all the signs suggesting that we’re producing yet another golden generation of talent just when the previous crop are set to challenge for major honours with England Lionesses.
Anyone who watched on as Sunderland beat Watford or Sheffield United over the last couple of weeks cannot fail to have been impressed with the quality of play on show from Reay’s young side. Keeping them together at the club is a huge challenge - already two of our squad are due to take up scholarships in US collegiate soccer - and it's one that I’m sure will be a big part of Clark’s strategy for the next few years. When recruitment is difficult, retention becomes all the more important.
The time has come— Sunderland AFC Ladies (@SAFCLadies) March 28, 2022
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This strategy will be outlined to the club’s hierarchy over the next few weeks, and we hope to speak to Clark shortly to find out more about it. What’s clear from the creation of a new Under-23 squad that will play locally within the north east from next season, as well as the attention being payed by the Foundation of Light to both the Regional Talent Club and the scholars programme, is that Sunderland Ladies will be looking to be ambitious and innovative in its youth policy.
Growing the audience will also be important - we can all play our part in this alongside the club by always bringing new people along with us to the games and sharing our own pics and vids and the club’s content on social media.
The club also needs to learn from others about how to create a matchday experience that goes beyond the no-frills non-league fare that’s currently on offer at Eppleton. There are examples across our league and other sports about ways to do this that will attract different people to the ground on a Sunday afternoon, and includes not only entertainment and food but also transport links and an away-fan offer.
It’s undoubtedly an exciting time with the Euros ahead of us, but also one that has to be embraced fully in order to realise the potential gains on offer for the club overall. More sponsors, more fans, younger, more diverse crowds, more merchandise sold, even potentially more trophies.
That’s the prize on offer. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again. Ha’way the Lasses!!!