West Ham Women
Last night I attended my first West Ham United Ladies football match as they took on Tottenham Hotspur Ladies underneath the floodlights of Mill Field in Aveley. It also happened to be their first home game with Julian Dicks in charge since he took over as First Team Manager 12 weeks ago.
When we arrived the Ladies’ teams were warming up on the pitch and the WHL junior squad were also demonstrating some of their skills in the corner of the field. The first thing that struck me was the buoyancy of the supporting crowd; music was playing, there were strains of ‘Bubbles’ and shouts of ‘Irons!’ from all directions and the sense of anticipation and good humour was tangible. In fact the crowd of 150 – 200 fans were creating more atmosphere than I often experience in my seat in the West Stand at Upton Park. I was pleased to see that Tommy Wathen from Tommy Wathen TV and Martin Green from West Ham TV were there to record the proceedings but I hoped that it was the growing rise in popularity of women’s football that was the focus rather than a Julian Dicks shaped publicity opportunity for the men’s team.
As kick off approached it was very humbling to see Julian Dicks going around collecting all the warm-up tops, cones and practise balls himself. He even took 5 minutes out to play a gentle game of passing with a tiny pitch invader dressed in a claret shirt; no doubt the next generation to have the Hammers etched on his heart.
As the game got underway the next thing I noticed was the inadequacy of the facilities. The lines on the pitch were barely visible, making the officials job a difficult one, and the edge of the pitch is so close to the surrounding fences that I lost count of the number of times a new ball had to be introduced. Collecting wayward balls seems to be a full time job for the assistant coach and it must cost the team a small fortune in lost balls alone! During the first half I was slightly distracted by the industriousness of the junior squad; lots of little girls running around in full kit with collection buckets and raffle tickets, trying to raise the much needed funds to keep the team afloat.
By half time we were 0-2 down with Spurs Ladies looking the stronger and more organised team. We did show glimpses of potential however, with some very skilful touches, particularly from captain and midfielder Stacey Little and forward Kelley Blanchflower. Our keeper Nikita Runnacles also made a cracking save just before the whistle, only for us to concede a couple of minutes later. Throughout all of this the crowd had kept up the atmosphere with cheering, shouts of encouragement and an indefatigable round of ‘Bubbles’ lead by a troop of little girls in Hammers kits sitting in the stand.
The Terminator made a couple of subs and we came out fighting for the second half and looked like a different team. We managed to pull it back to 1-2 with a goal from midfielder Sarah McCrae and again Nikita Runnacles prevented a bigger goal difference with a save that Adrian would have been proud of but unfortunately it wasn’t enough and the game ended at 1-2 to the Spuds.
No doubt Julian Dicks was disappointed to have lost his first home game but it was clear that West Ham Ladies have lots of potential and passion. What they need now is investment. If they are ever to reach the level of the Women’s Super League to which they aspire they are going to need money and resources. Having thoroughly enjoyed my first experience of live ladies’ football I came home inspired to learn more about the history of the Women’s Super League and the teams in it.
Top of the league are Chelsea Ladies FC, no surprise there; no doubt they have a bottomless pit of money to spend on resources and development. They have their own section on the Chelsea FC website where they are described as “… a fully integrated female club with performance-based and developmental objectives.” It goes on to say that “The Ladies club, a constituent part of the comprehensive Community Development Programme at Chelsea, is committed to producing a first team capable of finishing in the Country’s top four sides.” A quick glance at the mind-blowing Chelsea Football Club’s Girls’ Centre of Excellence shows that the club certainly put their money where their mouth is. So far, so predictable.
Second in the WSL and slightly more intriguing, are Birmingham City Ladies and the background to their success story proved to be very interesting to somebody concerned with West Ham Ladies current situation. After a brief outline of their early years their Club History page goes on to say this:
“The Club ran into difficult times during the 90’s, with many staff and player changes. As a result it created an academy of young players to try to regain stability. Many eventually played for the senior team.
In 1998 Birmingham City Ladies was promoted to the newly created Midland Combination League and in their first season won the league, thus gaining automatic promotion into the National Northern Division. After two seasons, Birmingham Ladies gained promotion to the top flight of women’s football, joining the FA Women’s Premier League. The academy had begun to produce players for the first team at this point, and Laura Bassett became the first Birmingham City Ladies player, from the academy or otherwise, to appear for England at full international level.
The club’s high-profile manager of the time, Marcus Bignot, signed big name players including Rachel Yankey and Alex Scott for the 2004/05 season and Birmingham finished fourth. The club ran into financial problems when Birmingham City withdrew its support, and had to let major players go before the start of the 2005/06 season, which they finished in sixth position. The Club was only able to continue after a player’s parent donated £10,000.
Also in 2005, the Club’s junior sides joined the newly-formed Centre of Excellence league in the Central Warwickshire area. Birmingham won their eighth consecutive Birmingham FA County Cup in 2008 before a number of established players either retired from the game or moved on to other clubs.
They began to rebuild and finished 2008–09 in fifth place (losing out on fourth place only through inferior goal difference) and have left Redditch United for a new stadium at Stratford upon Avon.
In March 2010 the Club was announced as a founder member of the FA WSL. The Club’s successful application was underwritten by Birmingham City’s owner Carson Yeung.”
So, despite their great achievements and high profile at the beginning of this century, Birmingham City’s owners took the decision in 2005 to pull the plug on the women’s funding and they only survived because they were bailed out by a player’s parent to the tune of £10,000. Well they didn’t just survive; they went on to become founding members of the WSL and are now contenders for the title. No thanks to Birmingham City’s owners. Remind me again who they were?
A quick glance at the other two teams in the top four of the Women’s Super League reveals that Liverpool Ladies and Arsenal Ladies FC are also fully integrated with the men’s teams with resources and support that our girls in claret and blue can only dream of.
Which brings me full circle back to the fund raising appeal set up by West Ham Ladies captain Stacey Little this week; as outlined in Tommy Wathen’s article on WHTID:
“The Ladies side are a totally self-funded team that play in the FA Women’s Premier League Southern Division and various cup competitions. All the current players and staff, including first team manager Julian Dicks, are all completely voluntary and take no payment for their services.
All the players have recently been asked for a generous donation towards the running costs of the club (kit, pitch fees, equipment costs), but are also asking whether fans would like to help support the women’s club by making a small donation.”
At the time of writing Stacey’s appeal has raised £1,160, with donations by 57 people in 2 days. They have a long way to go before they reach their target of £10,000. Never mind, their raffle last night raised £40, so hopefully they’ll get there before the club has to fold.
News of WHL’s plight reached the mainstream media yesterday and an article highlighting their fundraising appeal appeared on the Guardian website. By lunchtime yesterday it had disappeared with the advice that it had been “removed pending investigation” in its place. This morning I followed a link that was posted yesterday and which said it would take me to a news item on the West Ham website about Julian Dicks’ debut as the voluntary manager of West Ham Ladies. Strangely this had also disappeared. Clearly something is afoot.
When I made my donation to the WHL fundraising appeal yesterday I challenged West Ham United FC to match the amount raised and also to provide regular financial support to West Ham Ladies and I added the hashtag #westhamfamily. I reiterate that challenge now and I hope that David Gold, David Sullivan and Karren Brady agree that West Ham United Ladies deserve the same support that the women’s factions of the big London clubs enjoy and that they should ultimately become fully integrated with the men’s side. After all, don’t we aspire to be one of the big London clubs one day too? To be fair to the club they do currently provide a training pitch twice a week.
Without significant investment and support West Ham Ladies won’t even survive, let alone have a chance to reach the Women’s Super League. With every unfunded day that passes the gulf between them and the women’s teams in the WSL grows wider and wider. They need investment and they need it now.
I have no affiliation with the West Ham Ladies team whatsoever; I’ve never even met any of the players or their families. I’m just a football fan who wants to see the women’s team of the club I have supported my whole life get the chance to play on a level field.
If you would like to make a donation to the WHL fund you can find a link to their donation page here. I also noticed in last night’s programme that there are player sponsorship opportunities. The only girl sponsored at the moment is Lindsey Morgan who is being supported by Scandinavian Hammers and DB Autos. If you are interested in sponsoring a player or a match day please email email@example.com