FA WSL Academy League: Where future stars are born

Leah Williamson of England and teammates walk to a training session at St Georges Park on October 19, 2021 in Burton-upon-Trent, England. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

As the saying goes, ‘everyone has to start somewhere’, and for many, the FA WSL Academy League is where they learn their trade. Many stars of the future start their journey as 16-18 year olds in a WSL academy.

There are countless examples, but one of the more obvious ones is Leah Williamson. She worked her way through the Arsenal youth system to break into the club’s first team. Williamson is now currently the captain of the England Lionesses.

However, as we’ll explore below, it’s not just about the developing of future Lionesses. The Academy league is actually the lifeblood of women’s football in this country.

In the last three years, there has been a 310% increase in Academy registered players appearing in various first teams.

Originally formed in 2013 as the Development League, it was rebranded and completely upgraded in 2018. Tony Fretwell is the FA WSL Academy League manager and he has overseen the transition into what it is today.

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Objectives of the WSL Academy programme

The primary objective is to create a consistent pipeline of talent that will populate the WSL with homegrown players. Furthermore, the FA can then select a senior team capable of consistently winning World Cups.

The second objective is to achieve this in a dual career setting.

Fretwell is keen to explain what the philosophy and the definition of what dual career actually means.

“Firstly, what it doesn’t mean is something to fall back on,” he tells Her Football Hub.

“Notionally, less than 2% of players in pathways make it to be full-time employed athletes. Even fewer become internationals. This means the other 98% will not make a full-time career out of this.”

From the group who do make it, their football career won’t go much beyond 35 years. This means they potentially have another 30 years of working life ahead of them. By contrast, for those players that go through an academy and then play part-time for a Championship or National league club will have even longer non-footballing careers.

Therefore it is absolutely vital players focus on choosing an additional career that interests them.

Focus on Dual careers

Players could choose a career in teaching, law, retail, mechanics — absolutely anything of their choosing. The clubs work very closely with the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) to provide the necessary support and services to players.

Players also have access to the Diploma in Sporting Excellence programme (DISE). There are player-care workshops which focus on identity, finance, mental health and career planning. As a result players are eligible to earn 64 UCAS points which means they’ve got more flexibility with their courses.

The players typically spend around 16 hours a week attending college. In terms of football, there is a recommended weekly range of between 10 and 16 hours. The reason there is a range is to factor in travel, college and integration with the first team on occassion.

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Raising the bar for WSL academies

The FA WSL Academy League has grown each year in size and importance. One of the criteria for playing in the Women’s Super League is the club must have an academy team.

Each academy has to adhere to a set of performance regulations which includes the environment, facilities and staffing.

The FA is encouraging development from within, which benefits all the home nations’ national teams. Furthermore, it may go someway to reducing the need to sign international players.

WSL Academy League structure

This season the Academy League consists of 15 teams. It is divided into northern and southern divisions.

Fretwell explains: “They’re using a 2:1 model to reduce the amount of travelling. Each team will play each other twice in their regional division, home and away. In addition they’ll also play each of the teams in the other division just once, either home or away.”

Overall, the league consists of all 12 current WSL clubs plus Bristol City, Liverpool and Ipswich Town.

“The FA has always intended on expanding the programme to make it more accessible and that will come over time,” Fretwell expanded.

Just because a WSL senior team is relegated doesn’t mean an Academy team should be disadvantaged.

In addition to their league commitments, players are exposed to senior football alongside their development football. Teams must play friendlies against Boys’ teams and a mix of Tier 2 or 3 sides. This gives players the much needed exposure to help them sustain a place in their club’s first team.

The aim is for players to thrive in the first team and not just cope. Variety of challenges is the key.

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Challenges galore during the pandemic

Some WSL academies faced enormous hurdles during the pandemic. There were a set of Elite protocols which were basically a set of safety standards that had to be met.

In truth, these were very difficult for clubs with WSL academies to meet. There is a significant difference between the infrastructure and finances between a boys academy and a girls one.

As a result, the women’s academies started to work a lot closer with the men’s clubs.

Stepping up to the first team

It’s interesting to analyse the correlation between academy teams which do well compared to their parent club’s first team. There is a school of thought that if an academy team is doing really well, winning week in, week out, then are they challenging themselves as much as they could be or should some of those players go out on loan or dual registration?

If, for a example, a club is packed with internationals there will be fewer opportunites for academy players. Individual clubs will have their own selection policy based on many factors including risk.

When the timing is right, some talented players are offered contracts with their first team. Fretwell says: “This can be an excellent opportunity for the player but it doesn’t mean a player has ‘made it’. It’s a transition to new expectations and the journey of development continues and changes.”

“Clubs have a responsibility to ensure that all their players are playing at the highest level possible for each individual player. This may mean a player is loaned out to a Championship or National League club whilst still on the programme.”

This is a good outcome as it means the remaining academy players will have to step-up their game too.

Measuring success

Tony Fretwell was keen to explain that “a team which places too much emphasis on the number of wins is missing the point. Winning the WSL Academy League isn’t that significant. What is more important is that you are producing players who go on to do better things.”

One such example is Aston Villa. The club have given first team contracts to Olivia McLoughlin, Freya Gregory, Isobel Goodwin and Laura Brown.

Another example is Birmingham City who really struggled last season in the WSL Academy league. However, under the guidance of academy manager Paul Cowie, the academy is thriving and players are getting opportunities. Blues have given full-time contracts to Lily Simkin and Gemma Lawley.

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There are many more examples throughout the 15 academy clubs. 19 year old Emma Harries came through the academy at Reading and is now on a full-time contract.

Tara Bourne was thriving under Manchester United academy manager Charlotte Healy. United rewarded her with a professional contract. Bourne made her debut against Burnley in the FA Cup last season. This season she has gone on loan to Sheffield United.

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For the vast majority of players, the real measure of success will be the dual outcome from the dual careers. If a player goes on to play in the National league but also gets her dream job in her chosen career, this is an outcome to be hugely applauded.

Watching an academy game

Academy games typically take place on Wednesday afternoons. This is to support those players on the fringe of first team who might find themselves on the bench. With Wednesday Academy games they can gain minutes to continue their development and be match ready when required.

Occasionally games are on Sundays but these are either postponements or on weeks where Conti Cup games occur midweek. These games a traditional “gateway” fixture for Academy players.

Most clubs allow spectators to watch but a few clubs have a policy of invitation only for players’ families especially if the venue is at the club’s training ground. It’s best to check with the club before travelling.

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