The date is the 15th of April 2012, and Watford Ladies have just won 2-1 at Nottingham Forest Ladies to give themselves a fighting chance of pulling off a huge escape from relegation, when earlier in the season it looked nailed on they would be dropping into the Premier League Southern Division.
Then coach John Salomon and his staff had installed a confidence in their side that saw Watford win five of their last six games of the season, having lost their opening five under previous coach, Neil Hart.
But five years ago there were games postponed left, right and centre over the winter period, which meant a backlog of fixtures to be completed, meaning a nervous wait for Watford’s players as they pinned their hopes on Cardiff City and Nottingham Forest failing to win their final fixture.
So on May 6th, staff from Watford were at Nottingham Forest Ladies vs Coventry Ladies and Aston Villa Ladies v Cardiff City Ladies hoping for anything but a victory for their relegation rivals.
Both games unbelievably ended in a draw, which meant relegation to the Premier League North for Forest, who finished bottom of the league, with Cardiff’s draw sending Reading down to the Premier League South – a Reading side that contained current England forward Fran Kirby.
It was one of the great escapes in women’s football outside of the top flight and contributed to John Salomon winning the National Premier League Coach of the Year. Watford would go onto build on that escape and finish runners-up to Sunderland the following season.
I was volunteering for the club that 2012/2013 season, helping out with their media and digital, which is when the news had been made public from the FA that there would be an application process for the FA WSL, in a revamped two tier league.
What followed was a number of late nights for myself and staff in John’s flat and in restaurants, discussing and working on an application for Watford to be a WSL 2 club. How would we get people through the turnstiles? What incentives could we offer fans? What was our media and marketing strategy? There was much to think about and the application form itself was a monster document. But we completed it, and we were successful, and this was supposed to be the beginning of Watford Ladies becoming an established and progressive women’s football club.
Fast forward to November 7th 2017, five years and seven months after Watford avoided dropping into the Premier League South, and the club announced it will be playing there from 2018/2019 – through choice.
This choice comes off the back of a rushed through proposal from the FA to introduce a fully professional league from next season, with a division of up to 14 clubs having to meet strict criteria set out by the governing body.
The FA plans to restructure the women's football pyramid at the elite level: https://t.co/q5tV5kIYUI
— The FA (@FA) September 27, 2017
My understanding is that the first clubs knew about the new proposal was at the end of July, but only saw the final criteria set out at the start of September, 3-4 weeks before the public announcement. With the deadline set for November 10th for applications, that gave clubs roughly 8-10 weeks to put their plans in place.
Clubs like Yeovil have been forced to set up Crowd Funding pages to try and put the necessary resources in place for a push into professional football, while the likes of Sunderland are having to seek out possible joint applications with a second club.
The whole process feels rushed, and unless you’re one of the established clubs at the top of the FA WSL, it’s a big ask to expect clubs to put robust plans together and meet criteria in such a short space of time, which in some areas, is fairly unrealistic. Clubs are being asked to drive more fans through the turnstiles, but how is that possible with games being streamed for free on Facebook? Clubs like Reading, who play in Wycombe, and Liverpool and Everton, in Widnes, are not even playing in areas were their main fanbase is located. So how do they meet the criteria set out?
While some believe the FA has put some clubs in an impossible position, there are many that feel Watford have shown a complete lack of support for their women’s programme by announcing in a statement full of PR spin, that they would not be pursuing a WSL licence.
— Watford FC (@WatfordFC) November 7, 2017
It was disappointing, to say the least, with little explanation as to what the defining factors were for the decision, and who it was that ultimately made the call.
Those were questions I did not receive the answer to when I spoke to Watford FC, with this very much being pushed as a “club decision,” with the aim of continuing to offer support to the women’s team, but it would appear not at the levels required for a top tier licence.
The timing of the announcement could also have been handled better, with players receiving an email around 40 minutes before the news was made public. Ironically, the decision was also made public during the FA driven Girls’ Football Week.
As you can imagine, the news came as a bitter blow, with many expecting the club to keep progressing under the leadership of Head Coach Keith Boanas and General Manager, Ed Henderson.
The pair have been excellent for the club, bringing stability to a ship that was very much on rocky waters and in danger of sinking. There were strong rumours the club would fold after it was forced to pull out of an FA Cup tie with Doncaster Rovers Belles earlier this year – relinquishing its place in the competition in the process.
Henderson has worked wonders off the field, while Boanas has worked hard to bring in a mix of young internationals such as Rinsola Babajide, and experienced heads such as Wales pair Helen Ward and Kylie McCarthy.
I’m reliably informed England youth international Babajide turned down two clubs in WSL 1 to sign with Watford – the news of the Hornets dropping to the third tier will only intensify interest from other clubs and its likely she will leave in the winter transfer window.
The players felt let down, because with the developments and improvement in 2017, they were under the impression that the club would push on for top flight status.
Watford FC were quick to stress that “no promises were made to anyone” about an application for WSL 1 status, admitting that “the only thing we’re probably guilty of is saying we’d discuss the possibility.”
That is not the impression of Head Coach Keith Boanas, who said he was told that if he committed to the club, they would be putting an application forward for a top tier licence.
“I was told that if I stayed, then we would go for the WSL licence. Players have come here on that understanding too, so I’m hugely disappointed with the decision the club has made.”
The reality of the situation is, Watford Ladies cannot survive on its own, and needs financial support and resources from the men’s club.
It was announced in February last year that the ladies side would fall under the umbrella of the men’s club, offering its “fullest support”.
At the time, Chief Executive Scott Duxbury said: “We want Watford Ladies FC to offer a pathway for talented local female footballers into top-level women’s football.
“Watford FC wishes the club every success for the forthcoming season and, in partnership with our Community Trust, will offer the fullest possible support to the set-up.”
The key in that statement is the pathway for local players to enter top flight football. Nowhere in that statement does it say that top flight football will be with Watford.
As reported by Glenn Moore in the independent, Watford are due to make around £120 million in TV revenue next year, and as a Premier League club, financially, the Hornets are in the best position it has ever been in since it formed in 1881.
Figures bandied about to run a competitive women’s football team vary, but Moore’s piece states the cost is around £600,000. To be competitive with the top clubs, that sum is likely to top £1 million if you want to attract the best talent.
Watford FC’s net spend on new signings this past summer was over £51 million on 13 players. So for one 50th of Watford’s transfer spend, you could potentially run a whole women’s football programme and offer a pathway for players to become professional.
The argument here is one that many clubs will have been discussing when deciding whether to apply for a place in the top tier – why should the men’s team fund the women’s? It may seem a harsh question, but how is it that clubs in other countries can operate on a professional, full-time model without support of a men’s side. Six of the ten NWSL clubs in the USA are not affiliated with a men’s team, but operate as a professional outlet.
FFC Frankfurt and Turbine Potsdam in Germany are also not affiliated with a men’s side in the German Frauen Bundesliga, yet both have been in Champions League finals this decade.
The reality is, Watford as a Premier League club, can afford to have their women’s team in the top division, but have chosen not to. Unless the club comes out and stipulates why, then people will draw their own conclusions and put it down to money. The community focused statement released has been bought into by very few – it doesn’t benefit the current players, especially those with ambitions of being professional, and it doesn’t benefit the club, who will drop to the third tier of women’s football in England.
The question on many people’s lips is can the new league be sustainable? If a Premier League club like Watford are not applying, what does that say for others outside of the top men’s division? The Hornets clearly don’t see it as sustainable, and have made their decision public. There is nothing to suggest a few surprises are around the corner, and other clubs follow suit.
As for Keith Boanas. He’s won the FA Cup and is respected throughout the game. If he sees out the season, Watford will be lucky, but don’t be surprised to see him go before that.
As Watford’s most famous fan, Elton John, once sung, “It’s sad, so sad, its’s a sad, sad situation,” and many will feel that the decision made by the club, is indeed “absurd.”