The FA, Watford & A Woman’s Place
It’s probably reasonable to say that, following the severe criticism that the Football Association has been receiving of late over the Eni Aluko matter (and, as though this even needs to be said, deservedly so), the relationship between men and women’s football isn’t in a terribly healthy place at the moment. As such, the decision of Watford FC to pull the funding from its women’s team and demote it down to a regional amateur level probably couldn’t have come at a worse time for the game’s governing body.
The phrase “institutionally racist” came up more than once during the inquest into their malfeasance on this matter, and we might be tempted to draw the assumption that it’s likely to be institutionally sexist as well. Certainly, considering the hands-on approach that they’ve taken over reorganising the senior women’s game in this country over the last couple of years or so, the FA could likely have done without further negative headlines regarding a women’s team at this precise moment in time. Quite asides from anything else, their plans for the Women’s Super League (WSL) have already received not inconsiderable criticism, in particular over its apparent inability to leave top level women’s football alone for a while rather than continually seeking to find ways to “improve” it, as well as insisting upon full professionalism in its top division when only six of the ten clubs in the WSL1 are currently full-time, a decision that seems likely only to increase the dependence of top women’s teams on the munificence of their parent clubs.
If the FA’s decision to insist upon professionalism in the WSL1 was intended to dissuade clubs from continued involvement in the women’s game, Watford certainly signalled exactly where this might be headed earlier this week. Yesterday, the Hornets released a mealy-mouthed statement which might easily have been interpreted as something approaching doublespeak. For all the slick marketing phrasing – such as “Watford FC will be seeking to re-energise a more community-focused approach to its ladies’ football offering at all ages”, “This move will include an application to The Football Association for election of the senior team into the regional Women’s Premier League structure” and “The stability the current Watford FC Ladies operation enjoys means that supporters can expect a vibrant and active community-led offering from summer 2018 onwards” – the hard truth of the decision taken by the club was clear. Watford doesn’t want to pay for a women’s team any more, and we can only interpret such language as “a more community-focused approach” as “if you want it that much, you bloody pay for it”.
To a point, it’s understandable that the club should have taken this approach at this particular time. As part of an attempt to improve the standard of women’s club football in England, the FA have confirmed that all WSL1 clubs must be full-time as of next season, as well as running academies, whilst all WSL2 clubs will have to be part-time, albeit with some full-time support staff, and that WSL2 clubs will have to be ready to move to being full-time if promoted. The cost of doing so is not completely inconsiderable. It’s estimated that the cost of a WSL1 place will be around £600,000 per year, although this will be considerably lower in WSL2, where the Watford team currently plies its trade.
Where Watford’s treatment of this matter becomes truly unconscionable, however, is the manner in which it was delivered. Players and staff were reportedly just told just forty minutes before the press release was issued by the club, and this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the shoddy way that they have been treated. Staff and players had been under the impression the club would at least apply for a full-time licence until very recently, with some of the players brought into the team during the summer having been assured that this would be the case.
Indeed, yesterday’s meeting and subsequent press release are understood to have come completely out of the blue, with no prior warning having been given that previous assurances given no longer counted for very much. Manager Keith Boanas is said to be considering his position at the club whilst the best known of Watford’s recent signings, Wales’ record goalscorer Helen Ward, tweeted that “280 characters still isn’t enough to say what I want to say right now… so it’s best I don’t say anything at all.”
There will, of course, be those who agree with the overall sentiment that men’s football shouldn’t be subsidising women’s football. Regardless of how mean-spirited this is – and it is, very – there remain those who believe that only “the laws of the market” are worth paying any attention to, these days. Considering the way in which Premier League television money is divided up, however, it doesn’t seem excessive to consider this particular viewpoint to be somewhat hypocritical on the part of a club the size of Watford.
The Premier League has just finished batting away an attempt by the biggest six clubs in the division to change the way in which overseas television money is divided up to benefit themselves at the expense of the rest of the division. The argument put forward by these clubs was that it is they – Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool – who are the sources of the majority of overseas interest in the division and that they should therefore receive a greater share of this money than the other fourteen clubs (overseas television money is distributed equally between the twenty Premier League clubs at present).
Watford, we might reasonably assume, weren’t too happy with the proposals put forward by the biggest clubs to change the way in which overseas television money is divided up between all twenty Premier League clubs. Or perhaps, considering that the club’s attitude seems to be that everyone should pay their own way without subsidy, they didn’t mind. Perhaps, should the club come to be relegated back to the Football League from the Premier League, Watford will refuse Premier League parachute payments on the basis of “seeking to re-energise a more community-focused approach to its Football League offering.”
It’s not as though the club can’t afford it at the moment, either. Watford will make £120m in television money alone just from having existed in the Premier League this season, at a minimum. The £600,000 required to fund a WSL1 team amounts to 0.5% of this revenue, and the cost of funding a WSL2 team – where the team currently plays – would be considerably less than even this. However, to decide to withdraw from it – and, no matter what anyone within the club mutters about, no-one is going to believe that this is about anything other than saving a maximum of £600,000 in cold, hard cash – creates a very poor impression of a club that did, in the past, work very hard on building a reputation as a “family club”.
The FA isn’t excused from its role in all of this, either. Since replacing the Women’s Premier League in 2011, the WSL has been expanded, first to two divisions and then to three. For this season, the women’s football calendar has switched from the summer to the winter in order to align better with both the men’s game and the international calendar. And in the interests of balance, it should be added that Watford aren’t the first professional club to pull their funding from their women’s team. Notts County were wound up earlier this year because the club wouldn’t financially support it any more, whilst Sunderland went part-time earlier this year and will be demoted at the end of this season if they don’t go full-time again. In these cases, though, there are mitigating circumstances. Notts County’s men’s team plays in League Two, where insolvency can only be a hair’s breadth away, whilst Sunderland fell from the Premier League at the end of last season and are heavily in debt.
For Watford, though, this shouldn’t really be about the money, or the shortcomings of the FA’s attempts to get to grips with reordering women’s football. Premier League riches ensure that the club can afford this sort of subsidy with comfort. This is, therefore, a matter of the sort of football club that Watford wants to be. There is little doubt that the players and staff of the Watford women’s team have been badly let down by an act of extremely bad faith on the part of those running the club at present. It might be argued that no Premier League has an obligation to fund a women’s team, but at the very least the manner in which this decision has been dealt with by the club has been shabby. Otherwise, the laws of wild west capitalism are as alive and well as ever at a management level at Vicarage Road, but even a few hundred thousand pounds doesn’t alter the fact that the owners of the club have sold a well-earned reputation as a community club at least a small way down the river this week.