Ben Gilby spoke to Jay Bradford, General Manager of Coventry United about how a relatively new club has battled their way up to the FA Women’s Championship and are now determined to stay there and thrive.
Coventry United Women can trace their history back to 2013 when they were formed as Coventry City Ladies. Two years later, they merged with the comparatively new non-league men’s side Coventry United. Since that time, Jay Bradford reveals, the club has been on a “sharp rise”.
“By 2019 we had won the FA Women’s National League and compiling a successful Championship bid, something that had eluded us for a few years. We are now playing in the second tier women’s football and progressing on and off the field with an ambition to progress into The FA Women’s Super League.”
Like every other club, Coventry United’s progress was hampered by coronavirus and two subsequent lockdowns. Bradford though points to fantastic support from the board in the current situation: “The club have been excellent – they showed commitment to all players by honouring contracts at 100% pay. The owners Marcus Green and Jason Timms and the board deserve huge credit, people have no idea what goes into running a football club, particularly during a pandemic and they stand up to the challenge time after time and have shown their unwavering support to the women’s game. They made sure we had all the resources required to come back into training once the FA gave the go-ahead. Having no fans is difficult for any club as that is obviously a strong income source, particularly for us as we were pulling in crowds of 500+ for every home game. The owners have supported us fully and made sure that the lack of income hasn’t hindered our ability to go and make key signings so we can compete on the pitch.”
Of course, the club also relies on a vast army of volunteers to ensure that they keep progressing on and off the pitch. “I think of people like Jade Ogle that offer nothing but progression to the club and is constantly driving standards, all in her spare time. Our match day support staff, particularly Alan Howe and Harry Bragginton are brilliant. Without them our match day experience wouldn’t be what it is today,” Bradford explains.
Coventry United are fortunate in sharing the impressive 3,000 seater Butts Park Arena stadium with Coventry RFC, Coventry Bears RLFC as well as Coventry United’s men’s team.
Bradford explained the women’s club’s links with the various teams at the ground: “We have recently undergone some changes which have seen the men’s section appoint a new chairman. The new format sees the owners and board sit solely above the women’s team and we are continually grateful for their support. We have a great working relationship with all the teams that operate out of The Butts Park Arena, it’s a superb facility and one we are happy to share.”
Bradford sees Coventry United as very much a work in progress – and one which could develop in many exciting ways in the future: “I think our biggest challenge is how we choose to evolve over the next few seasons, we have lots of excellent ideas and avenues we are exploring so I think it’s important we pursue the correct targets and go at them full force. We have a great board and they are constantly striving for me, it’s an exciting time to be part of Coventry United.”
The Midlands club are establishing themselves as an FA Women’s Championship club – a league that is notoriously tough with clubs with differing resources. Liverpool have just dropped down from the FAWSL and Leicester City have just invested greatly into their women’s side.
I asked Bradford how she sees Coventry United within this league and what the club’s aims and ambitions were – both at the present time and for the short term future. “It’s a great league for competitive value,” she said. “I don’t see anyone in this league not being able to compete and take points off other teams. I think for me right now, Coventry United are in a space where we are striving to become a solid Championship side that doesn’t flirt with relegation and year on year will progress and compete at a sustainable level.”
“Within the Championship, I think the strengths are the teams. Most of them have come through the football pyramid and are run by great people that drive the ambition of women’s football. I think ultimately the Championship has to keep driving standards and not be happy to just settle as a part-time league. We have to want to close the gap with the WSL teams. The gap will always be there of course, but can the Championship close that gap and make small steps every season to be sustainable and ultimately exciting on the pitch that fans want to engage with it regularly? That’s the challenge.
The Championship still contains sides either unaligned to men’s clubs or not linked to professional men’s clubs – Coventry United being one such team. With the WSL no longer containing clubs from those categories I asked Jay Bradford what clubs such as hers need to do to enable themselves to first establish themselves in the Championship and then thrive: “I don’t think being supported by a men’s team is imperative, although naturally, it helps. For me, the teams that are not aligned to that level of structure have to be smart and create relationships with other parties that can offer them facilities or staff to help drive the sport forward. I think Championship clubs show how resourceful they can be without being handed a big cheque to spend on whatever they like.”
Player development is a key part of any women’s club, and Bradford was keen to highlight what United offer for players from the youngest of ages: “We host several age groups for both boys and girls. We offer the opportunity to play for Coventry United from the age of four and so have a clear pathway of progression for those that want to stay with us and then ultimately play for the first team.”
Our conversation ended by examining the future for the women’s game, and more specifically, Coventry United. “Women’s football in five years’ time has the opportunity to be a real force and I think people are doing great work to draw in big sponsors and ultimately showcase the sport,” said Bradford. “I would like to see the Championship operating a full-time league and I would like to think Coventry United will be driving that forward and competing week in week out.”