Brighton’s Women’s team – aspiration and inspiration

With the Brighton starting their first season in the revamped WSL 1 it felt like a good time to write my first blog about the Albion’s Women team.

The story begins in the 1960’s; in those days Brighton was represented in Women’s football by Brighton GPO, a team formed by several workers from the local post office’s telephone exchange. There was no Albion Women’s team then as the state of play in Women’s football was very different. Men’s teams weren’t involved in women’s football due a ban on women’s football taking place at football league grounds that had existed since 1921. And it wasn’t until the formation of an independent body the Women’s FA in 1969 that there was an official national organisation behind Women’s football giving teams like Brighton GPO the opportunity to compete in a formalised national competition.

In 1971 the FA lifted its ban on Women’s football taking place in football league stadiums and in 1983 the WFA became officially affiliated as part of the FA. However, it wasn’t until 1991 that the FA fully integrated Women’s football within its national structure and a national league was formed. Therefore, in 1990 the Brighton Women’s football team was affiliated under the Brighton and Hove Albion F.C. umbrella. This affiliation was funded as part of the Albion in the Community scheme and following this the Albion became a founding members of the Women’s Premier League in the 1991–92 season, starting within the regionalised second tier, the Division 1 South.

Despite this being relatively recent history in the terms of English football, in the early 90s Women’s football was very much in its infancy following decades of oppression from the hands of organisations like the FA deeming football ‘unsuitable for females’. For example it would be another five years until Women’s football would be played at the Olympics during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, despite the men’s tournament existing at all but one Olympics since 1900.

Whilst since the 90’s and particularly the turn of the Millennium women’s football has continued to grow rapidly, there were still limited resources at Brighton to provide much investment in the team. With the men’s senior team struggling to make ends meet at Withdean this left little funds for the Women’s team and left them still reliant on AITC fundraising to support the team. This meant whilst teams like Arsenal were going professional, Brighton were still semi-professional and most fans who went to watch the men’s team were lucky if they saw a page devoted to them in the match day programme or an advert for the odd cup game against a big side to be played at the Withdean Stadium.

There were successes though. In 2001 Brighton won the Premier League South and were promoted to the top-level Premier League National. However, the small semi-pro outfit found themselves out of their depth, and after a season of narrow survival from the drop, they were relegated in their second season with a measly 4 points from 18 games.

They then spent the next decade in the second tier only to be effectively demoted to the third tier, when after the establishment of a breakaway league the WSL, this was incorporated into the football pyramid in 2014 and expanded into two divisions. At the same time the Premier League National was disbanded, and it meant the Albion had to win the Premier League South Division and then a playoff against the winners of the North Division to get promotion to WSL 2.

Whilst during this time the team was a small operation, it would be wrong to write off the good work done by those at the club on a shoestring during those times. The work done by those including many at AITC enabled the Women’s team to exist and compete at a good level within the women’s football pyramid for around two decades. That said, much like I said in a previous blog, whilst in those years the women’s team was an afterthought in the club’s overall strategy, it is now a well integrated and invested-in element of the club.

Tony Bloom’s investment plan after initially taking over the club in 2009 and moving the club into the new stadium at Falmer in 2011, then included ambitious goals for the Women’s team. The club stated in 2015 the aim was to achieve promotion to WSL 1 and qualify for Champions league football in 5 years. But at this point the club was still playing in the third tier of Women’s football, the Premier League Southern Division, along with not so esteemed colleagues like Lewes, Basildon and Forest Green Rovers, making this a bold statement to make at the time, but one that now looks crucial to setting an ambitious mindset amongst the team.

After the club missed out on promotion to WSL 2 via the playoffs in 2015, they were then promoted the following year and started the 17/18 season as a part of the WSL 2. This time winning the playoffs with a 4-2 win over West Bromwich Albion’s Women’s team, then known as Sporting Club Albion. To demonstrate the low level of interest in the Albion Women’s team at this point, such a high profile and historic game in the team’s history managed to gain an attendance of only 648. Albeit that crowd was slightly diminished because the game one-off game was played at High Wycombe, a two-hour drive from either Brighton or West Bromwich.

The Albion’s promotion to WSL 2 coincided with promotion and relegation being suspended for one season to enable another restructuring of Women’s domestic football. This time it was to enable the creation of a ‘franchised’ full-time top-flight WSL 1 league. Something the Albion later successfully applied for a place within for the start of the coming season, but I will come onto this later.

Despite the successes, the progress to date hadn’t been without its bumps in the road. Following allegations of disciplinary breaches made to the Sussex FA about team manager James Marrs, he was sacked in June 2017. But in response the club made its biggest statement to that point by appointing possibly the most experienced British manager in the Women’s game, former England and Great Britain manager Hope Powell. With this appointment, the club started the season in WSL 2, going from newly promoted chancers to suddenly being the team to watch.

And after joining she spoke to the Guardian about her positive experiences at the club and the seriousness with which the club was now treating Women’s football. “We are very integrated. They’re looking to invest in the future which is fantastic – I’m part of that. I’ve met the owner and I’ve met the board members, I’ve sat down in London and they really want to integrate the women.”

Bloom and Barber have clearly appointed the right people in the right areas at the club across the board and the women’s team is no different. For instance, Powell has stated the importance to the team of assistant manager Amy Merricks. Following Powell’s appointment and prior to her formerly beginning work she said: “I was in very close contact with Amy Merricks, who has done a fantastic job and I can’t speak highly enough of her. We were in regular contact once it was announced. She’s done all of the work, she knows the club, she knows the culture.”

Soon after joining Powell was quick to imprint her vision on the club, and one of the first things she focused on was the club’s style of play. “The speed of play is one of the things I really wanted to increase; we need to up the tempo, do everything so much quicker, because that is what they are going to face going forward.” And the Albion game certainly upped the tempo since, finishing second in last season’s WSL 2 in their first season back at that level.

When the WSL 1 licence status was granted for the upcoming 18/19 season last December Albion chief executive Paul Barber said on reacting to the news: “We have always wanted to achieve equal status for women’s and girls’ football at the club and acquiring tier one status will now enable us to make this a reality.”

In comparison to the Albion, Doncaster Belles who finished ahead of the Albion to win WSL 2 last season, decided not to apply for WSL 1 status, citing the costs being beyond their budget. Another key comparison is Man Utd, the biggest name in domestic men’s football who up until this restructure had gone many years without a Women’s senior team, and now have been fast-tracked up the pyramid and granted a place in this season’s WSL 2, alongside our local rivals Lewes.

It says something of the lack of ambition for Women’s football that clubs like United, Spurs, Sunderland and Palace are playing in WSL 2 or in some cases lower. The fact that clubs like those with the brand and infrastructure that they have are only granted equal or in some cases lower status to a small fan-owned semi-professional club like Lewes is telling. Lewes in comparison whose men’s team played in the 8th tier of English football last year, have an average attendance in men’s football of just over 700, which to put that in context is around 1% of that of Man Utd’s average attendance.

The reality is only the established professional clubs can compete at WSL 1 level. As a top-flight club, the Albion will be required to provide players with a minimum of 16 contact hours per week, rising to 20 hours per week by 2020-21. There are also minimum financial investment rules, whilst in conjunction clubs are also be required to meet Financial Fair Play regulations and a squad salary cap. Further rules mean that whereas second-tier sides will have lower requirements such as only being required to run a reserve team, a WSL 1 level club like the Albion will also be required to run a youth academy. Something the Albion already has in place.

Whilst the women’s game has been in a period of growth in general, the domestic club game has been in a period of disorganised flux since the turn of the millennium. This constant flux, typified by the FA and it’s constant need to restructure domestic club football, means even the big clubs like Chelsea, Arsenal and City despite investing large amounts in their Women’s team have struggled to establish a significant match day following. Average attendances for each are incomparable to those of the men’s first team and more similar to those of many non-league men’s first teams.

But Brighton’s manager Hope Powell is behind the current reorganisation plans. “I understand it because a lot of clubs in WSL 2 are saying: ‘If we get promoted there’s every chance we can’t [compete] in WSL 1 anyway so what’s the point?’ So, I think they’ve had to look at it, revamp it, and try and offer it out to those clubs that can afford to be a WSL1 club, fulfil the criteria and meet the needs of being full-time. I think it’s a sensible decision.”.

The one anomaly to this is Yeovil, who whilst have a professional men’s team, are a much smaller club than any of their WSL competitors and have struggled but just about managed to meet the WSL 1 requirements. On being grant status the club stated: “Whilst the last 18 months have been testing for the Ladies both on and off the pitch, the stability of being granted a professional license should allow them to head into their next chapter.”

The Albion will be playing their home games this season at Crawley Town’s Broadfield Stadium. Having previously switched home games between there and Lancing, means the club is currently representing Brighton as a city whilst not playing within it. But as the Men’s team’s current appeal shows, the club is as much a team for the county of Sussex as it is the City is Brighton. That said the Women’s team are yet to gain the same following as the men’s team with attendances last season regularly totalling only a few hundred.

The Albion’s current group of players is most definitely the best in the club’s history. This includes Ini Umotong, scorer of 13 goals in 19 league games last season, she was signed with fellow teammate Danielle Buet from Notts County when the club folded before the beginning of last season. Ini, the Albion’s number 9 is one of the club’s star players and as such features on the poster advertising this season’s home and away shirts at the entrance of the club shop at the AMEX stadium. However, Ini recognises the challenge ahead of the club this season: “It will be a big step up. We have a few girls that have experience of playing in the top flight, but a lot of us haven’t played in the division before now.”

One face most Albion fans will know is that of AITC ambassador and Northern Ireland international Laura Rafferty. She signed for the club in 2017 from Chelsea where she made only one first team appearance. But since signing for the Albion she’s become a regular in an Albion defence that conceded only 26 goals in the league last season – the joint third lowest total in WSL 2 last season. Laura is a regular face in club media output as well as the local news for her good work as AITC ambassador, but she’ll be hoping this season she gets as much coverage for her good work on the pitch as she has previously off it.

However, there are many players like last season’s club captain Vicky Ashton‑Jones who faced the choice whether to commit to the club full-time because of the club’s new-found WSL 1 status. Whilst playing with the Albion Vicky, a police firearms officer by trade commuted 57 miles door-to-door from London because of her job. Prior to the club gaining WSL status she said: “It’s a nice dilemma. Certainly, when I was playing I didn’t have that option; all I wanted to do was be a professional footballer. For me it’s better to have the dilemma than not at all. The opportunities that are ahead of these players now are incredible, the likes of which I could only dream of. It’s going to be difficult for some, we absolutely understand that, but it’s a decision they’re going to have to make.” However, unfortunately for the Albion, Vicky has decided to concentrate on her job in the Police and not continue with the Albion this season rather than going full-time.

With the changes that are taking place at the club over the summer still being managed and the club coming up against a higher level of opposition than ever before on a weekly basis it’s hard to judge the prospects for this coming season, but there is plenty of optimism for the short to medium term future of the team.

That said, despite Albion’s heavy investment in the Women’s team in recent years and the already stated ambitious goals from the top of the club, the team will be judged this season on more than the on-field results. As manager Hope Powell says herself: “I think it’s really important that there are women role models and that people have someone to aspire to.”

Author: tweetingseagull

A Fan of Brighton and Hove Albion and all things Football. Follow my tweets here: https://mobile.twitter.com/TweetingSeagull

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