Chris Hames: Lower Tiers Crucial for Domestic Top Level Growth

Chris Hames, head coach of Bradford City Women, contributes his debut guest column for Her Football Hub. Offering first-hand perspective of the reality of the women’s game.

In 2011, The FA changed women’s football in England forever.

The Women’s Super League was formed. The first mammoth structure to stand over the landscape of the women’s game in England.

Earlier this year, The FA released its report on their ambitions to grow the sport between 2017 and 2020. The Gameplan for Growth report highlighted how ambitious targets on participation, attendance and international success had all been met.

We cannot deny that the women’s game has grown rapidly since that first WSL ball was kicked in 2011.

The recent arrival of Pernille Harder to Chelsea has reportedly smashed the world record for a transfer fee in the women’s sport. More and more players are commanding high asking prices ahead of exciting moves abroad.

READ: Pernille Harder Officially Joins Chelsea

Whilst this may be gearing up to sound like I’m whinging, do not misunderstand me on this. It’s all fantastic news for the future of the sport.

However, following on from the recent global pandemic, there are certain things we mustn’t forget about to ensure this trajectory continues.

Financial Struggles in the Lower Tiers

The three-year project set a target of 12,000 registered teams in England – with the end figure nearly 700 greater.

And yet in that same period, I have seen first-hand two teams from the top three tiers fold completely. Plus a further seven be unceremoniously cast aside as immediate demands of financial strength have been put in place.

All this is still happening, despite these clubs boasting international players, FA Cup successes, large fanbases and significant history in the women’s game.

Millwall Lionesses, Doncaster Belles and Sheffield FC were all very competitive and successful clubs in the old WSL 2. Yeovil took on the challenge of full-time football 12 months ago, and it very much felt like Sunderland produced almost the entire England squad at the 2019 World Cup.

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All five of these clubs were victims of the sudden growth, as they acted to ensure they didn’t go the way of Notts County, with no support to prevent this.

At my club in the FA Women’s National League, we are all too aware of the financial requirements to exist each season. This is now made much harder considering the impending recession and ban on match day attendances.

As you look to The FA for help, the only significant financial support given is to start new teams (through a Grow the Game grant), there is nothing to help keep teams going.

Feed the Roots

I look at the modern WSL. What a competitive and exciting league that is lining up to be.

Headed up by title sponsor Barclays, as well as talent arriving from nearly every corner of the globe (I’m waiting on the league’s first Alaskan signing). Not to forget the strong homegrown players – many of whom I’ve known or competed against in previous roles at Tiers 2 and 3, or from within the RTC setup.

As these players depart, we have all loved watching them flourish as individuals. They have made huge strides in their careers, becoming a new wave of idols for future generations. But other than a warm feeling – only really matched by a bovril on a terrace – what has the smaller clubs, the National League sides, gained to ensure that pathway remains?

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Without contracting players – an option simply not available to most at Tiers 3 downwards – there is no financial reward for nurturing the talent we hope to see progress into these elite leagues.

And whilst I have no desire to see transfer fees enter the National League, there does need to be another way for money to trickle down to be able to feed these roots.

The Sport’s Heartbeat

The last Gameplan for Growth is coming to an end. Whatever the FA’s plans are for the next phase, they need to attend to the central part of the football pyramid.

The FA Women’s National League currently hosts 72 teams. From Newcastle to Plymouth, and Norwich to Fylde. A vast difference to the smaller leagues of the WSL and Championship, funded by their male counterparts and sponsorships.

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Tiers 3 and 4 have the capacity to impact a far wider reach of young players, and new fanbases to carry the flag of the women’s game.

Many players enter these leagues from all angles. Regional Talent Club graduates, development team loans, scholarship returnees and raw unearthed talent from the county leagues below.

Its impact is huge and the league’s latest tagline sums it up perfectly.

The Heartbeat of Women’s Football.

Despite this, many of the clubs at the centre of this heartbeat are flatlining, or at the very least having palpitations, over the increased demands required just to survive. Competing is a whole other matter.

Clubs are having to find new ways to keep their sides going. They must find other clubs to merge with, new names and home grounds to adopt. Some are even forced to rally support by door-to-door advertising.

Developing a large number of new teams is fine, creating more pathways and opportunities to play for the ever-increasing numbers participating, and all that. But this is only a success if these clubs are joining a sustainable system, whereby progress is achieved on the pitch, not when someone else’s chequebook ends.

Blackburn Rovers win the Women’s Northern Premier League title.
Credit: Lancashire Telegraph (2017)

Our job in this game is to progress the top end of the pyramid. But the higher that goes, the deeper and stronger the structure beneath it must be to keep it up there.

As the FA Women’s Super League kicked off its inaugural season, the city of London’s skyline changed forever.

The Shard, a symbol of wealth and success was built, overlooking the capital from its new heights. It’s glimmering glass panes, and million pound
tenants all proudly held up by its strong concrete foundations.

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