Two Up, Two Down: Is Women’s Football Ready To Increase Relegation Places?

The Women’s National League (WNL) have shared that the Championship Play-Off Final, the biggest event in the league’s calendar, will be hosted at Stadium MK on Saturday 20th May (13:00 KO).

The winner takes all Play-Off Final will see the champions of The FA WNL Northern and Southern Premier Divisions go head-to-head and battle it out for the overall National League title and a place in the Barclays Women’s Championship.

This has reignited the argument that both Northern and Southern Premier Division winners should be promoted automatically by virtue of being successful in finishing top of their respective divisions. I completely agree with this statement but I also think that it is important to remember that relegation is almost like a death sentence to a club and downward movement also needs to be managed sensibly.

“The system doesn’t help and everyone is a bit baffled that the opportunity for teams to come up isn’t there. Again, we are going to have a team that will win their league that doesn’t get promoted and it does seem unfair. If you win your league then you deserve to get promoted.”

Coventry United boss, Lee Burch speaking to Since 71’s Paul Wheeler

The Women’s Pyramid is governed and bound by Pyramid Regulations set by The FA. The one up, one down format is not something that the National League support and they have recommended it changes to two up, two down. At present, only one place is made available through the Pyramid Regulations which is why there is still a requirement for a Play-Off and the WNL is powerless to change with without further support from the FA.

Without the benefit of large parachute payments that are offered in the men’s game, clubs that have been relegated have had to nearly completely rebuild themselves and that model is not sustainable either. It damages clubs and could put many off from even applying to meet the promotion criteria irrespective of whether they do win their division or not.

Just look at London Bees and Yeovil Town, who have gone through two identity changes since and are now competing as Bridgwater United, Watford are the only club in recent time who have managed to ride the storm of relegation from the Championship to the third tier. Their infrastructure, which is the envy of many in their division, is likely to have had a large impact on this.

With Coventry United in a precarious position in the Championship, I fear for their future should they be relegated. The hierarchy is going to be faced with a tough question this winter break, do they gamble by investing in an attempt to retain their place in the division or prepare for relegation by making the club sustainable in the third tier?

Burch moved to reassure us by adding that the long-term future of the club is at the forefront of the club’s thoughts. “We knew that this was going to be a tough season. We want to recruit to stay in the division, if the worst happens it shouldn’t spell the end of Coventry United at all. I believe that the club is in good hands and that is why I came to the club. This wasn’t a one season thing, I came here to be part of a longer-term project.”

While there is no doubt that Coventry United will fight to retain their place, without investment from a cash-rich men’s side that can absorb losses caused by relegation and if the worst happens then this will likely mean that there will be an exodus of players and staff. As well as the obvious inconvenience to recruiting, this has a negative impact on growing a fan base. Fans need to build relationships and if there is a revolving door of personnel then fans will struggle to build a bond with the club.

Wolves will be hoping that it's not heartbreak for the second year running. Photos Jeff Bennett and Grifftersworld Photography

We all want upward movement and for leagues to increase in size and I am not suggesting parachute payments are the answer, quite the opposite, I don’t believe that is fair. I’d like to see investment going down the pyramid so that clubs which are relegated have the chance to sustain their levels on and off the pitch so they can fight to bounce straight back up without a full rebuild.

My vision of the short-term future would see one club relegated from the Women’s Super League, while the Championship winner earns promotion along with a play-off winner between the second and third-place teams. As well as one team being relegated from the Championship and their places taken by the Northern and Southern Premier Division winners. Once the respective divisions have grown to a more suitable size then the number of relegated teams can be increased to two.

I can hear you all now, ‘What about the leagues further down the pyramid?’ That is a conversation for another day as regional restructures are complicated and today I am focusing on the second and third tiers of the pyramid.

By dinner time on May 20th there will be one club on cloud nine and another club disappointed, frustrated and angry. While there are clearly conversations going on behind the scenes about changing the current system it will be of little comfort to those involved at the end of the season.

We will have to be patient as I fear that nothing will change until after the Women’s Game Review but I will be over the moon if I am proved wrong.