How Can “Non Elite” Women’s Football Return, If At All?

Photo: Andrew Waller.

The government have confirmed that all being well, outdoor football can return for “non-elite” women’s football from March 29th. Following on shortly afterwards was a tweet from the FA Women’s National League’s Twitter account stating that there was lots of work going on behind the scenes to get football back on and to keep your eyes peeled for an April return of football at this level.

I was gobsmacked to see this as over half of the clubs involved in tiers three to six voted in a recent survey to cancel the 2020/21 season, and the men’s National League (steps three to six) returned similar numbers and have already had their leagues cancelled by the FA.

I am desperate to see the return of women’s football at this level and would love to see a positive conclusion to the 2020/21 season, one that allows for clubs to move between leagues going into the 2021/22 season.

Initially, I doubted that the government would have permitted the return as early as March 29th, so I figured the best plan was to pause the season until around September when the vaccine will have been fully rolled out and just carry on from where we’ve left off. I admit it’s not a perfect solution but there is no perfect solution. Presently, the pragmatist in me believes that it’s likely that the leagues will be cancelled.

The feedback that I have received from a number of people associated with clubs within the women’s National League is that they are keen to avoid another cancelled season and that there is an openness to complete the season in some form if that is possible.

I have seen suggestions that you can finish the whole season if you play two games a week between early April and the end of June. I understand that view but in reality, it is not quite as simple for all clubs within the women’s football pyramid. Some clubs have only played a handful of games and would need to play three games a week to finish their seasons by late June. Other clubs face losing their facilities to the upcoming cricket season and then there are those who can’t afford to run their club without the money generated by match-going fans. Perhaps playing everyone once would be an option but based on what they have done with the men’s leagues I’m doubtful that the FA would go down that road.

Photos: Andrew Waller (feature) and Paul Loughlin (above)

I don’t envy the poor souls at the FA who have been tasked with finding an adequate resolution to this situation but I am reliably informed that the results are expected to be shared on March 15th.

So the simplest and most likely option will be to cancel the season. As we’ve already touched on, this appears to be the view of the majority of clubs surveyed. There would be losers in this outcome, clubs like Southampton FC, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Ipswich Town have dominated their respective leagues for the last two unfinished seasons and those in similar positions will no doubt feel disappointed and frustrated if they have to start again.

A reliable source has advised me that an option being considered by the FA is a play-off involving all of the clubs who have successfully applied to meet the criteria of the league above. This play-off would likely begin with two small leagues organised based on the club’s geographical location. The winner of each would then compete against each other to earn promotion to the league above. If we are facing a cancelled season then I think that this could be a very exciting and forward-thinking option by the FA and one I would welcome. If this goes ahead then I would want the FA to really get behind the games and consider televising them on the FA Player irrespective if played when fans can attend or not.

Photo: @_ChuBarker

During this announcement in two weeks, I hope that the FA will also share an outcome on how the FA Cup can recommence. This could be a good opportunity for clubs to return for competitive action even if their leagues are cancelled, although a short pre-season would be preferable. I appreciate that there may be a few clubs who have reservations about this or barriers preventing them from participating and in that sad scenario then they may have to forfeit their games for the greater good of the competition.

This might not be the only cup competition going on. Many of those affected by the cancellation of the men’s leagues have already suggested that they’ll seek to hold a one-off league cup competition to fill the gap. The Northern Football League, the second oldest football league in the world, have surveyed their clubs asking for declarations of interest in taking part and how that tournament might look. For example, should the competition cover both divisions or a separate competition for first and second division clubs?

This would be another good option to allow for some competition between clubs. If the leagues were to go down this route then hopefully this can take place between May and June, allowing clubs to welcome fans in to watch the games. This option would also allow clubs to have a close season in July and August so they can prepare for the upcoming 2021/22 season. And let’s pray that at this point we really have returned to some state of normality.

I appreciate this is such a difficult time and tough decisions need to be made but we’ve all suffered immensely over the last twelve months but fans, players, coaches and staff need and deserve something to look forward to. We need the FA to be positive, think outside the box and not just write off these important levels within the women’s football pyramid again.

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