Big Interview: ‘It’s not the essence of sport’ – Why changes to women’s football have left Sheffield FC Ladies out of the club

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The active efforts to strengthen and develop women’s football have not come without collateral damage.

And pretty significant collateral damage at that.

Helen Mitchell (centre) celebrating the victory which earned Sheffield FC Ladies a place in FAWSL2 three years ago

Helen Mitchell (centre) celebrating the victory which earned Sheffield FC Ladies a place in FAWSL2 three years ago

While the richest clubs – backed by the top men’s sides in England – grow stronger and show signs of becoming European forces, the story is very different for others.

Like its male counterpart, women’s football is increasingly defined by the status of the haves and the have nots.

There appears to be little future at the top end of the English game, nevermind the continental one, for clubs without considerable financial backing.

The Football Association’s vision for a fully professional top flight means – consciously or unconsciously – there is no place for plenty of proud clubs.

A financial glass ceiling is now in position – and some are finding it is getting lower as the pressure grows on clubs in the newly renamed second tier, the Women’s Championship.

Sheffield FC Ladies find themselves the latest victim of such pressure.

Last week, they announced their withdrawal from the upcoming Championship season with a short statement, which included: “The financial commitments necessary to compete at this level are proving now too onerous.”

It is the first significant backwards step the club has made in its 15-year history.

It began in 2003 when Helen Mitchell approached Sheffield FC asking if they were interested in starting a women’s team.

Club embraced the idea and backed Mitchell, who became first team manager.

And it did not take long for the Ladies team to become a considerable force in the game.

As the FA crafted the Women’s Super League, which evolved into a two tier structure, Sheffield were a powerhouse in the level below, winning the National Premier League for three consecutive years.

As the FAWSL looked to expand further, a promotion slot was opened up and Sheffield earned their place in WSL2, alongside arguably the game’s biggest traditional name, Doncaster Belles.

And they held their own, never struggling at the wrong end of a competitive division.

But costs continued to rise and the burden of keeping heads above water at that level only grew.

The pressure led to last week’s decision to withdraw.

And after a decade and a half of hard graft, it has not been an easy one to stomach – particularly for Mitchell herself.

“It was hard enough to get in the Super League and a huge amount of hard work has gone into that over 12 or 13 years from when we started to when we got that promotion,” she told The Star.

“And it’s been even harder to stay in.

“The volume of work, the amount of work, the hours you have to put in and the levels of stress – it’s been a really hard two and a half years.

“It’s so soul-destroying and heartbreaking for everyone who has been involved in looking to build it in that short space of time, let alone for someone like myself who has been involved from the start.

“You can imagine my feelings over the last week or so.

“It’s been really difficult.”

Mitchell became the club’s general manager when Sheffield won promotion to FAWSL2.

She admits it was quite surprising when she was approached by club hierarchy last week and told funding was no longer available for a team at second tier level.

“It’s a decision that has been made at director level,” she explained.

“I was told the club was no longer in a position to fund the upcoming season.

“With any football club, it relies on somebody or a group of investors putting a lot of money in.

“We’ve had somebody basically underwriting the club over the last few years and I think they’ve had a change of heart.

“It was tried then at board level to see what the other options were in terms of bringing money in.

“But if you understand the women’s game, you’ll know that is very difficult.

“The club felt it was irresponsible to start the season without being able to guarantee they could finish it.”

What has caught up with many clubs is the pace of change that has been driven by the FA and the grand vision for the future of English women’s football.

The goal is a top class English national team and a league to match.

No longer will young English players go abroad for their development. They will remain at home in academies which allow them to study and train.

And waiting for them as they move into senior football will be an elite league to rival any other in the world.

It is a vision most want to see. But the process of reaching it, and the financial implications which come as a result, are what plenty have problems with.

“I completely understand what they’re trying to do in terms of pulling the sport forward and move it into the public eye more,” Mitchell said.

“They are trying to get a system of support for the top players in the country and the best young players.

“The difficulty we have is that sort of environment aligns itself with professional football and the changes are being made a lot quicker than some clubs wanted.

“When it was first put to the clubs, a lot said that we couldn’t be expected to put the changes in place in 12 months and it would be better to push it back to the 2019/20 season.

“But it was ignored by the FA and they pushed on with it.

“Just from our experiences of having two-and-a-half years in the Super League system, the goalposts have moved every single year, in terms of what we’re being asked.

“You have to be licensed to be in the league and there is a list of standards you have to achieve to get that license.

“That is from all sorts of things, from the levels of qualifications of staff, to the cover at games for welfare which is understandable.

“But there are also standards with the number of contact hours you have to have with your players.

“There are lots of things which are attempts to raise standards but I also think a lot of it should be left to the club’s discretion.

“You obviously have minimum standards in player care and medical support and things like that.

“But to dictate who should be running your first team and how many hours you should train, I’m not sure many clubs in many other leagues have that dictated to them.”

With little to no broadcast revenues, low crowds and a constant battle for sponsorship, women’s football is far from profitable.

And even with the FA-driven development of the game, it is likely to be many years before even the elite teams can break even on their own.

It is why those women’s teams associated with ultra-rich male counterparts have thrived.

Those without that, or benevolent wealthy backers, are finding staying afloat a struggle.

“It’s made increasingly harder and for a club like us it is virtually impossible,” Mitchell said.

“But even for clubs that have got the backing of a men’s league club, they are struggling.

“There’s a lot of clubs that are struggling, not necessarily because the men’s club cannot afford to, but they are choosing not to support them.

“If you were running a business, you would not do in women’s football because it does not make you any money.

“Notts County, when they withdrew last year, were running at a loss of around £350-400,000. If you’re at the top level you can double that.

“It gets to the point where you have to make a decision or send the club under.”

Seeing Sheffield FC Ladies go under was not something Mitchell or the club hierarchy were going to allow to happen.

Withdrawing from the league before the start of the season allows Sheffield the opportunity to drop down the pyramid – likely into the rebranded National League – and gives the opportunity to start afresh without too much damage being done.

“We want to carry on running women’s football here,” Mitchell said.

“We don’t want to pull out completely because that would be a tragedy for what we have built over the last 15 years.

“We want to find a level that we can start again from and try to compete at the best of our abilities.”

The work ethic of those like Mitchell ensure the desire for success will be maintained at the club.

Such dedication was what women’s football was built from, long before finances became the real driving force at the top level.

Success was earned on the pitch.

And Mitchell feels a shift away from that is the antithesis of what the game has always been about.

She said: “This latest change again isn’t about whether you are good enough, it’s about whether you can afford it.

“On a personal level, and I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of people, that is not the essence of sport.

“It shouldn’t be whether you’re rich enough to compete, it’s whether you’re good enough.

“It’s not like we’ve propped up the table for the last three years.

“We finished top half in the last two seasons so we’re doing something right.

“We’ve got an environment that is very good with very good staff and very good players.

“But at the end of the day we just can’t keep up with some of the other clubs in terms of the money they’re willing to throw at it and the way the FA are trying to push the game on.

“Sadly, it’s the bottom line and it’s particularly sad because we feel as a team and a group, we’re good enough to compete and we’ve proved that.

“We had plans to push that on this season and felt we were in a good position to do so.

“But sadly we won’t get the chance.”