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As Spurs Ladies go up, don’t forget the pioneers left behind in the FA-WSL’s restructuring

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Tottenham’s fantastic ascent to the WSL comes at the expense of smaller clubs pushed aside by the FA along the way.

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Tottenham Hotspur are going to the Women’s Super League!

It’s a massive accomplishment for the club and is a signal of a bright future, to be in the top flight next season and going fully professional. They have a Head of Women’s Football for the first time and, hopefully, they will fully absorb the Ladies (soon-to-be Women) instead of merely having them as an affiliate.

From the moment the season kicked off on August 18, until the final whistle blew on a 1-1 draw with Aston Villa 256 days later, Spurs have completely earned promotion. But, well, to be frank, it wasn’t entirely fair.

Let’s go back to the summer, because that’s where this story starts.*

That’s when Doncaster were relegated to the third division. The hiccup? They had just won the Championship (then WSL 2).

Sheffield, who finished fifth, were also relegated. So were Oxford United, who finished eighth. Second-from-bottom Aston Villa got to stay in the second division, though.

And who was relegated from the top flight to the Championship? Nobody, because Sunderland finished seventh, but had their license rejected by the FA so they were sent down two divisions and nobody dropped from the WSL to the Championship for the 2018-19 season.

What happened, in effect, was a drastically weakened Championship. Solid teams were sent down — even the reigning champions — all while nobody from the top flight dropped down so there was no heavyweight to compete (Manchester United the obvious exception here, a giant who didn’t have to earn their way into the second division).

This was all a product of the FA’s decision to restructure women’s football and set new standards, which is great on the face. Getting more investment in the sport, creating higher standards and further professionalizing it all is terrific. But the FA did not go about things in a fair, or even reasonable manner.

They set arbitrary amounts of financial capital to get into the top two flights and specified where it had to be allocated. That is unless you just had a ton of money, then you could skip over all the specifics and just hop on through. This was to weed out the smaller clubs, who do not have the riches of Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal to be sure, but don’t even have the money of a club like Tottenham, whose commitment to the Ladies until now (and even now) has been, well, underwhelming, if we’re being kind.

The FA decided the rich clubs should get spots in the top two tiers. Not the best clubs. Not the clubs who earned it. Not the clubs who built English women’s football.

That last part is important, because the clubs who are being made to pay for an inability to meet the FA’s new standards are the ones who built the foundation of the sport in the country and, quite literally paid to build that foundation.

Sunderland’s academy has produced more players for the national team than anyone else, while Doncaster are twice top flight champions with six FA Cups to their name. Their unceremonial relegation to the third division despite winning the Championship? It came on their 50th season in existence.

For years, when the FA and the moneyed clubs did not care about women’s football, it was these clubs who were running academies, developing players and keeping the sport growing. They landed the first TV deals, to give the sport exposure, and spent money on the facilities and infrastructure so those players and broadcasts could be featured. The recent success of the Lionesses, which has fueled interest in the sport, was due to their developing of talent and support of women’s football.

The reason the FA and rich clubs have decided to invest in women’s football is because of these clubs. They opened the door that the power brokers walked through and then closed on many of the original builders.

The FA didn’t have to do this either.

That they have decided to invest and support women’s football is fantastic, albeit overdue. And getting bigger clubs with resources into the sport is vital. Incentivizing them is good for the sport, but the FA’s financial licensing requirements weren’t just cruel, they were unnecessary and rash.

If the FA wanted clubs to have big sums of money in certain areas, or to have a specific amount of back-up cash, they could have provided a runway for clubs to build up to it. Instead, clubs had one month to commit to these gigantic financial investments and one year to meet the new standard, or be relegated. The FA also could have used their large sum of cash for women’s grassroots football as a rainy day fund for these clubs, allowing those who are solvent to continue to operate as they had been with that as a backstop until they built to the standards being required (many of which, from facilities, to coaching, to academies, are good for the sport) over several years.

The FA did none of this. They made huge financial demands of good, solvent clubs that had proven they could develop players, win and continue running year after year, decade after decade. And they gave them one year to come up with the cash.

The future of women’s football looks bright, and Tottenham are part of that. Spurs will be in the top flight and fully professional, with the opportunity to compete against the best as the sport pushes on to new heights. That’s marvelous, and it was earned over the course of an entire season of play. The coaches, players and everyone involved in the club put in the work to make the WSL and every bit of the celebration that has taken place since the final whistle blew on Wednesday to clinch promotion has been deserved.

But it’s also worth remembering the past. A past that saw many good clubs pushed out, and the road to the top be more about money than merit. Spurs benefitted from that, as did other clubs. And as important we don’t forget that, it’s even more important we are grateful to those who brought women’s football to this point and were unceremoniously pushed down. They made this possible, FA shenanigans or not.


* The story really starts several years ago when the FA implemented a true national second division, with the top flight going fully professional, and it was then that they started gifting rich clubs undeserved status like letting Man City get into the top flight over a Sunderland team that finished ahead of them. But, the Tottenham-related part is largely contained to the last year.