It Is Now Time To Restructure The Conti-Cup to Welcome The FA Women’s National League

Photo: Jon D Barker

As the referee blew for full time at the Eppleton Colliery Football Ground, I imagine that Carla Ward’s team left the pitch suitably proud of their performance and result. They overpowered Barclays Women’s Championship (WC) side Sunderland in the Conti Cup by seven goals to nil, with six different goalscorers.

It wasn’t long after the final whistle when speculation began suggesting that Aston Villa had fielded an ineligible player – Noelle Maritz.

Signed by Villa earlier this month, Maritz had previously made three appearances in the competition for her parent club Arsenal. This is quite a staggering error as it wasn’t like Maritz made just the one late substitute appearance, she’d made three starts against Bristol City, Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur.

Given that Reading were expelled from the competition in 2014 when Bonnie Horwood started a match after previously appearing for Watford earlier in the competition, even the most optimistic of Villa fans will have feared the same result.

While I don’t have access to the competition’s rules for 2014 it does currently state that any breaches will be referred to an independent tribunal which may “order that the Cup match or Cup matches be awarded to the opposition club, or make any such other order that the independent tribunal may decide.

The preceding FA Investigation this week confirmed in a short statement that, “An independent tribunal has deducted three points from Aston Villa for fielding an ineligible player during their FA Women’s Continental Tyres League Cup group stage fixture against Sunderland on Wednesday 24 January 2024.

“The FA alleged that the player was ineligible for this game, as she had previously featured in the competition for her former club, which constitutes a breach of Cup Rule 8.19.

“Aston Villa admitted this charge and acknowledged the breach had occurred. The independent tribunal ordered that the points deducted from Aston Villa be awarded to their opponents Sunderland, while the 7-0 scoreline is to be expunged from the record.

“As a result, Sunderland will finish as Group A Winners, with Aston Villa progressing to the quarter finals as one of the two best-placed runners-up alongside Tottenham Hotspur.”

While all the headlines have been about Manchester United’s subsequent elimination as a result, I think the real story should focus on a review of the suitability of the Conti Cup as a competition.

I believe that the competition should be reformed at the earliest opportunity to make it more significant.

I would like to do away with the regionalised group stage. We see a Manchester derby pretty much every season as the two clubs are paired in the same group. Given that both teams ordinarily qualify for the knock out stages irrespective of the outcome, the stakes should be raised and the best way to do that would be to make the competition a straight knock out from day one.

If the money grabbers wanted to make more money then you could put the semi-finals over two legs, something that occurs in the men’s equivalent competition, the Carabao Cup but in a busy calendar I don’t believe that two legs would be needed.

I would also like to see the Conti Cup mirror the Carabao Cup by increasing the number of participants to include the top four divisions. So this would see the introduction of the FA Women’s National League (WNL).

Doing this is not straightforward due to the number of clubs involved but with the assistance of Chris Gadsby, the host of the wonderful Women’s Football Chat, he came up with a proposed format that could work and would incorporate WNL teams.

Round One would consist of all fourth tier teams along with sixteen third tier teams that that finished fifth through to tenth in the previous season – those relegated would be from within the fourth tier group.

Round Two would feature the thirty-two winners from the previous round and they would be joined by twenty-four WSL and WC teams, along with the outstanding tier teams. From here the competition continues to be a straight knock-out competition with seven rounds in total.

With next season’s increase in Adobe Women’s FA Cup prize money targeted at clubs from within the latter stages threatening to widen the gap between those at semi-professional and amateur level the prospect of drawing a big club early in the campaign would be appealing to clubs at WNL level.

While I do recognise that there are complaints about the amount of matches being played and I am very much looking at this from a fan’s point of view but I struggle to find any drawbacks with this plan as it benefits everyone. There will be new opponents for those at WSL and WC levels and exciting matches which will draw fans to clubs at WNL level.

I understand that there could be an argument against this on the grounds of midweek matches being difficult for some teams to accommodate but I think it is important that the FA and the league support clubs to make this happen because it is important for the long-term health of the pyramid.

With NewCo coming in to take over the management of the WSL and WC next season I do not expect any changes to the domestic women’s football calendar but let’s all keep our fingers crossed.

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