In This Modern World, It’s Time For Tails To Stop Wagging Dogs27 Apr, 2022
One of the key objectives we surely all share as followers of Women’s football is to grow the game. We might have differing opinions on priorities for doing so, but doing it – full stop – is not at issue.
So it’s concerning when governing bodies sometimes don’t appear to share that aim. The saga of Barnsley’s County Cup Final is one recent example of a tail appearing to wag the dog to nobody’s benefit, but it’s not the only one.
My club, Stourbridge Ladies, have been fortunate enough to reach the final of this season’s West Midlands League Premier Division Cup, and in a Division with a geographical footprint stretching from Coventry to Worcester to Stoke, fate has provided us with one of our nearest neighbours, Kidderminster Harriers, as opposition.
The clubs lie no more than seven miles apart, to the South West of the Birmingham and Black Country conurbation. There is a rivalry at play – the teams battled it out win-for-win at Tier 6 over the last two truncated seasons, and both gained a place at Tier 5 this season through the ‘Upward Movement’ process.
Stourbridge have prospered this season whilst Kidderminster perhaps haven’t fared quite so well, and the Glassgirls have won all three meetings so far, including a Women’s FA Cup tie which notably attracted a crowd of close to 300.
In the men’s game the clubs were rivals in the West Midlands League and then Southern League for many years, until Harriers made their way into the Conference in the early 1980s, and then into the Football League, but more recently Stourbridge gained two notable FA Cup ‘giant killings’ against the higher ranked Harriers, and that ‘tingle’ persists despite almost forty years of never meeting in a League fixture.
That may or may not be relevant to the women’s teams, but what it does mean is that Stourbridge and Kidderminster is a pairing which has ‘currency’ amongst the wider supporter base of both clubs. In short, this is a fixture with ‘something about it’.
So it may be a little baffling at first glance to note that the match will be played 40 miles away on the other side of Birmingham, at Lichfield City FC. Get your Google Maps up and have a look, it’s not an obvious choice of venue!
The reasoning has a modicum – ok, a speck – of logic. The West Midlands League holds three separate ‘Divisional’ League Cups, and it likes to hold all three on the same day at the same venue. I can see some attraction in that, but in this instance it feels incongruous to say the least. It’s a one-size-fits-all solution that fits literally nobody.
Because there’s more. The Division 1 South Final will see Solihull Sporting take on Leamington, roughly 15 miles apart, and both 25 miles or more from Lichfield. Meanwhile, the Division 1 North Final is yet to be determined, but on paper there’s every chance it will be between Shrewsbury Town and Shifnal Town. Again, two teams not a million miles from each other who would both have to travel a fair distance.
There are many good reasons for these matches to be held individually at more local venues to the competing teams. Travel costs, environmental impact, parking (facilities at Lichfield are minimal and players turning up for the second and third matches of the day could easily be driving around looking for space on residential side-streets some distance away), the fact that two teams will need to be out of the house at dawn for a 10.30 kick-off – yes, I know that hundreds of Sunday teams do this every week, but this is a Cup Final for a Sunday AFTERNOON League.
But more than all of those, football is a spectator sport. If Kidderminster and Stourbridge were to meet at Aggborough, Harriers’ ‘home’ stadium (albeit the women’s team rarely plays there), the match could easily attract a crowd of 300, or maybe even 500. Granted, it’s not quite a neutral venue, but I understand Stourbridge made the suggestion and Kidderminster were amenable. Happy days!
Instead, the game will likely be played in front of families and a smattering of others. ‘Crossover’ support for all three games will be minimal, and the atmosphere will be as flat as the flattest pancake.
I’ve tried my best and I can really think of only one reason why it needs to be this way – to make life easier, and presumably cheaper, for ‘The League’.
I get the cost point, I really do. Women’s football at this level is not awash with cash. But play the Premier Division final at Kidderminster (every chance there would be a deal to be done on the cost of using the ground, given that the home team are involved), charge a fiver, and the costs are likely covered. Added to which 300-plus people have had the chance to support their teams. Hey presto, you’ve done something to grow interest in the game.
Ditto Shrewsbury (if they get to the final). The Shrews women have romped to their Divisional Title, had a decent FA Cup run, and are on a roll. There’s a good news story to be built on, so build on it! Try the New Meadow on a similar basis to ‘the Kiddy Principle’!
All this takes a little bit more organisational effort, of course it does, but the scenarios outlined above might reasonably rely on the venues themselves pulling a bit of weight and taking some of the workloads off the League. With the right mindset, it’s not impossible to make it work.
And if two or more Finals are held on the same day, meaning a division of labour among League officials then so be it. We have got to get away from the cosy idea that ‘we’ve always done it like this’. Ten years ago these games may well have attracted minimal interest wherever they were played, but that is no longer the case. The World is moving, women’s football is moving with it, and governing bodies need to keep pace!