Millwall Lionesses the next victim of professionalisation in women’s football
With Millwall Lionesses announcing financial difficulties this week, RealSport brings you exclusive interviews with players and staff.
It’s been a busy few days for anyone involved with Millwall’s female side, the Lionesses.
News broke in a club statement on Tuesday afternoon describing that the club, unbeaten in more than twelve months in league fixtures, may not be able to see out the remaining games of the Womens’ Super League 2 season.
The statement described ‘serious financial discrepancies’, with players and staff alike now remaining without remuneration for the rest of this campaign.
This weekend, they face their longest away trip of the season and will need to stay overnight, with travel and most accommodation expenses to be funded by the squad themselves.
Professionalism bites for smaller clubs
Once again, this shows the financial insecurity inherent within the womens’ game as it stands.
With the restructuring of the leagues coming next season, the Womens Super League 2 will be converted into the Championship, with Manchester United and Southampton bidding for a place within the second tier.
With their training facilities, academy centres and, most importantly, their financial backing, it is obviously a good thing in the long term for elite clubs to make the move into the womens’ game.
However, the immediate impact will see smaller clubs put at risk, with teams such as Millwall and Doncaster Belles having their chances of promotion this season called into question due to the restructuring.
“Time will tell”
On the restructuring of the league, Lionesses manager Lee Burch stated: “Time will tell and I think there are lots of issues with the restructure. Teams deserve rewards for their on the field progress and this group if they were to have finished in the top two deserve to go up and play WSL1 football.
“Eventually, I think the league will become stronger, new clubs like Manchester United will help that. WSL2 is such a strong competitive league and was working and developing well, I’m hoping the division doesn’t go backwards because of changes.
“I think the clubs coming in will add to it but it’s happened before and the league was ultimately better for it. I’m all for new sides and we need more fixtures etc. but promotion and relegation should be in there.
“Semi-professional sides have shown they can do better than the professional sides in these divisions and players and clubs should be given the chance. The biggest issue is sorting out the fixtures and consistency of games, the league will always be on a back foot until that’s sorted.”
How to save a life?
When news first broke, a JustGiving page was set up to help fund the Lionesses for the rest of the season with the aim of raising the £10,000 needed to keep the side afloat financially.
On Wednesday night, by the time Millwall faced Aston Villa at St Paul’s Sports Ground, that target had been reached before a ball was even kicked.
This should allow the Lionesses to finish this season but debt levels are much higher and the Lionesses will need help from their creditors. As a result, the long-term future of the club remains uncertain and they need to attract sponsors.
Help has also come from other parts of the football family and, although we would hope for it in better circumstances, the way that clubs and supporters groups around the country have pulled together offers some hope for the future.
Turning things around
The same can be said for manager, Lee Burch.
When he took over in 2016, the club had been struggling in the league but he has galvanised the group and added excellent players at this level.
This has led to the Lionesses having a shot at winning this season’s Womens Super League 2 title, even if it will not mean promotion this time around.
“It’s another big blow to add to the loss of three points due to an admin error and getting told after one week that we couldn’t get promotion this season due to WSL Licence changes,” says Burch. “It’s gone so well on the pitch (not just this season) and we haven’t lost in the league in 14 months. To now potentially not be able to finish what we have started would be terrible for this group of players.
“We are over halfway and certainly have the ability to beat anyone in this league and we have done that over the last year. We take it game by game and still have a lot of tough away fixtures.
“Each team is now also going to want to be the ones to break the streak so each game is getting harder. Chasing the title is more important than being unbeaten and we can’t drop many points as I don’t see Doncaster slipping up much.”
From messages seen on Twitter and other social media, it is clear to see how much this means to the players.
They have the chance to do something special and arguably be one of Millwall’s most successful female sides with their on-pitch quality but there are issues on the other side of the club that need to be solved.
Captain Ashlee Hincks had this to say: “Disappointed, heartbroken and deflated. We all dedicate so much time alongside our full-time jobs to play for this club. We’re sat second in the league unbeaten and have a chance to win the league. However, that could all be snatched away from us due to external financial factors that we were completely unaware of.
“This has to stop happening in the women’s game – how a club in the Womens Super League 2 whose male and female sides are exceeding the way both squads are, to find ourselves in this position is ridiculous.
“I just hope we can raise some funds and keeps our hopes of a league finish alive. We now face Durham away [possibly] having to travel on the day, with people having to drive themselves.”
Saving a much-loved club
In conversation with the Lionesses assistant manager Lauren Phillips, it is easy to see why those who attend their fixtures are so content with the side.
A winner with the last kick of the game from Leigh-Anne Robe in Wednesday evening’s game seemed extremely fitting, summing up the resilience and determination across all staff and players.
“Tuesday afternoon’s news was extremely disappointing. The girls and staff have had quite a few challenges to overcome due to things off the pitch, beyond our control,” Phillips said. “So this again is another bump in the road that is no different and difficult to take especially given how the group have been continuing to reach new heights with results on the pitch, remaining unbeaten to date in 2017/18. If anything, this has made the squad even more determined to continue what we have started.
“We, especially the players, have been overwhelmed by the support that has been shown towards our current situation- past players, players and staff from other WSL clubs and the football family. We would like to thank them for their continued support and donations and hope they continue to do so to pull us through this period.
“To the Millwall Family, a family like no other. We thank you for your continued support for the girls and making us one of your own. We are proud to represent the club, the badge and shirt and everything playing for Millwall represents and we hope you all continue to support us through this time.”
If you would like to donate to the Millwall Lionesses JustGiving page, click here.