A Welsh football team which has played in Wales’ top domestic league for almost a decade is “heartbroken” at being relegated as part of a major restructure – while a club without a team is awarded a spot.
Abergavenny Women’s FC finished fourth in the Welsh Premier Women’s League (WPWL) this season, but are being removed from the top women’s division – along with Caerphilly’s Cascade Ladies YC and Briton Ferry Llansawel Ladies – as the league is cut from nine to eight clubs.
On the flip side, Barry Town United Ladies FC will join the FAW-organised league, along with The New Saints – who are recruiting players after splitting from their women’s team last year.
The league includes Swansea City, Cardiff City and Cardiff Met, with the winners qualifying for the prestigious Women’s Champions League.
TNS, whose women’s team cut ties with the club and formed under a new identity just last summer, shared an advert on social media in May confirming it was “looking for ambitious players wanting to join the senior women’s first team for 2021-22”.
The FAW announced the reformatting of the top two tiers of women’s football in May 2020, when an open application process was announced.
Lowri Roberts, FAW head of women’s football, said she sympathised with the clubs involved but FIFA had been advising on the year-long process, and support and feedback had been offered to clubs throughout.
She told the BBC: “We have spent an awful long time communicating this process with the clubs that it wasn’t all on sporting merit.
“This is the starting point for the 21-22 season… there will be promotion and relegation so it might just be one season for them.”
Clubs’ hard work ‘recklessly thrown away’
A statement from Abergavenny said: “After participating in the top tier of Welsh women’s football since its inception, Abergavenny has statistically been the fourth most successful club in the competition’s history.
“This season, even with all the stress and unjustified decisions in the last month or so, we finished in fourth position.
“We believe this should automatically cement our place in the upcoming top tier of Welsh women’s football. Unfortunately, the FAW do not agree.
“We passed the FAW tier 1 licence application, a process that was levied at clubs during a global pandemic. This meant that our infrastructure and facilities were not in question.
“Devastatingly we were not handpicked as one of the eight teams. However, two clubs that have been selected have never played in the top tier of Welsh women’s football.”
The independent club, who ended their season with a 0-0 draw against league champions Swansea City at the weekend, claim they have not seen the scoring matrix used by the FAW, claiming it is an “unfair process which is unclear and not transparent”.
“Along with our fellow eight WPWL teams that competed in 2020/21, we have all shown that the women’s game in Wales is on a very strong footing,” the statement adds.
“To now see the hard work of some of those clubs be recklessly thrown away in the upcoming restructure by the FAW goes against everything a competitive sport deserves and stands for.
“We strongly believe that selection to any competitive league should be on ‘sporting merit’. Any other process (such as that used here by the FAW) destroys the essence of any competitive sport.”
Thanking their supporters, they added: “The club will continue to fight for what we believe we have earned. We will push for the true values of sport and for the game of football in Wales to shine through.”
Club captain Ceri Hudson admitted her team-mates were “heartbroken”, claiming the development was “extremely damaging for us as a club, Abergavenny as a community and the whole of Gwent.”
Concerns were also shared by the two other teams being relegated, with Cascade YC Ladies – who finished sixth in the table – comparing the debacle to the thwarted European Super League plans in the men’s game.
A club statement said: “To play at the top level must always come down to sporting merit, clubs should always earn their place through on field performances. However, it now seems that ‘brand’ and ‘badges’ are more important than hard work, determination and results.
“We have recently seen the reversal of plans for proposed leagues that ‘invite’ an elite few teams to go against the core principles of competitive sport and look after their own interests by competing in these leagues that exclude the smaller teams and organisations. Healthy competition should be the only deciding factor when teams have satisfied the requirements for a league and not the size of the club or the whim of those making the decisions.
“As a club we do not and will never support decisions made to recognise a league on a selective non-competitive basis.”
Briton Ferry Llansawel Ladies FC described the decision as “unjust, ethically wrong and discriminatory”.
“Sport is all about level playing fields. What is the future of ladies’ football in Wales if success is determined by decisions made in the boardroom of the FAW and not on playing fields across Wales?
“It will have, in some cases, an irreparable impact on our community and our ability to provide opportunities to young players and coaches.”
TNS’ admission to top division
TNS have been admitted to the top flight of Welsh domestic women’s football, less than a year after their women’s team split from the club and formed under a new name.
In August 2020, The New Saints Ladies in Oswestry, Shropshire, reformed as Wem Town LFC to play in the Division 1 Midlands section of the FA Women’s National League.
Wem Town LFC said at the time they had taken the decision after being informed “that TNS would be folding the English section of the ladies”, adding: “TNS have made it clear that the ladies’ section wasn’t (and never was) high on their list of priorities.
“Unfortunately, we have not been allowed to bring across the prize money won by the ladies in the 2019/20 Women’s FA Cup as that is now ‘club money’ at TNS.”
However, TNS’ newly-appointed full-time head of women’s and girls’ football, Andy Williams, welcomed the “start of a new chapter in our history that everyone is looking forward to”.
He said: “The New Saints have supported and developed a successful pathway for the Women and Girls’ game for over 20 years and the opportunity, as the only North Wales based side selected to participate in the top flight of the women’s game in Wales, mirroring the men’s team, is an exciting challenge.”
He told the BBC he understood why teams may feel aggrieved but the club had taken part in a fair and independent application process.
Addressing “ambitious” plans to build on their grassroots girls’ football at the club, he said: “We want those players to have a clear pathway into our first team.”
How the leagues will work and who’s competing
The top tier of women’s domestic football remains a national league, while the second tier will be regionalised.
Cyncoed, who were part of the WWPL, have now merged with Pontypridd Town who maintain their place in the highest division.
A new U19s league is also being set up in north and south Wales, with one of the pyramid review outcomes pointing towards a significant gap between U16s and senior football.
The FAW is set to unveil a “new visual identity and name” for the leagues in August.
Tier 1: Aberystwyth Town, Barry Town United, Cardiff City, Cardiff Met University, Pontypridd Town, Port Talbot Town, Swansea City, The New Saints.
Tier 2 North : Airbus UK Broughton, Bethel, Connah’s Quay Nomads, Denbigh Town, Llandudno, Llanfair United, Pwllheli, Wrexham.
Tier 2 South: Abergavenny, Briton Ferry Llansawel, Caldicot Town, Cardiff Bluebelles, Cascade YC, Merthyr Town, Talycopa, Swansea University.
The FAW process
The application process to secure places in the two leagues involved two stages: an initial standard domestic licence award, before applicants had to present their club development plan to a panel of FAW, FAW Trust and FIFA experts who assessed clubs across seven “key areas” – including ‘core’ areas financial sustainability, human resources and awarding double marks for sporting (factoring in previous performance in the league). The other assessment areas were partnerships, facilities, marketing and communication and overall presentation and plan.
FAW boss Lowri Roberts said: “It’s been inspiring to see the level of work clubs have put into their application.
“We’ve seen a real shift in mindset from the clubs in how they are developing elite environments for players and how they are building for a sustainable future.
“Through implementing an open application process for entry into the new leagues, a club’s place was not solely down to sporting merit but also robust club structures. It has made clubs review their entire structure, playing pathways and the provision they provide players.
“As a result, all clubs will be collectively striving to continuously improve standards in a competitive environment.”
Andrew Howard, FAW head of competitions, added: “Throughout this process we have seen clubs securing significant investment into their women’s programmes and strong commitments in terms of resources being made available within the clubs, from appointing full time staff to long term partnership agreements.
“Clubs should be very proud of what they have achieved off the field over the last year and we look forward to this exciting new chapter for women’s domestic football in Wales.”