On Monday 16th September at the Scottish Women’s Football EGM changes in relation to the structure of the women’s game in Scotland were ratified by member clubs. Here at Leading the Line we’ve looked over the announcement to bring you the three key headlines ahead changes that will come into play for the start of the 2020 season and what they could mean for the evolution of the game in Scotland.
- A separation between the ‘Performance’ and ‘Recreational’ parts of the senior game and the creation of a new Championship level
Women’s football in Scotland, like football in any country, is spread geographically far and wide with the range of player ability equally diverse. In the men’s set up decades of shuffling and the introduction of professionalism has meant that clubs can, and have, quickly found their level. Meanwhile, for the still relatively young women’s game encounters between the top and bottom can be a far more regular occurrence. You only need to look at some of the heavy defeats handed out by the likes of Glasgow City, Celtic and Hearts in this season’s Scottish Cup to see that. These results were a consequence of the mandatory nature of entry for all sides that sat under the SWF (Scottish Women’s Football) umbrella with some clubs not even making it to their drubbings as player availability, the travel involved or even just the cost proved too prohibitive to make the continuation of their cup run a worthwhile venture.
The split into Performance and Recreational levels will in theory at least, eliminate some of the challenges both the sides and the organisation currently face. Entry at Performance level will be subject to an approved application with confirmation that the required entry criteria will be met and, most importantly, maintained. The SWPL1 will remain the same in construction with eight sides taking part. Underneath that, in SWPL2, the league will expand from eight to ten teams meaning that despite what has been a horror season for Hutchison Vale their place in the second tier should remain for at least one more season.
The remaining two places will be made up of the top two sides (who are not development arms of clubs higher up the food chain) from the SWFL 1 North and South, with these spots currently populated by Aberdeen and Queen’s Park. These leagues will be rebranded as the North and South Championships and will form the bottom tier of the Performance level.
Outside of this will sit a regionalised recreational structure with no promotion or relegation. Clubs will have the option, but will not be obliged, to participate in national competitions, meaning that hopefully unfulfilled fixtures become a thing of the past. The relaxed approach to governance at this level will allow for innovations such as rolling substitutions and potentially for games to be played at far more travel friendly neutral venues.
Perhaps the biggest change though is the removal of the Development sides from the new Performance structure. The top four sides in the third tier SWFL 1 South are essentially colt sides for Glasgow City, Hibernian, Celtic and Rangers but these sides can’t go any higher and, in the opinion of some, stunt the growth of those just below who are operating at a far more modest level.
The decision those in charge of these “colt” sides now face is to either fall into the recreational arm of the new structure, where in reality the quality of opposition will not be at the required level. To put more focus on the National Performance Leagues, which remain unchanged but have a clearly defined age categorisation at each level or, use the loan market to ensure players continue to get competitive games. Other options may become available in the future but for now, those in charge of the academies face a tricky decision as to how best ensure their young talent continue to progress.
2. Relegation/Promotion play offs
I liked these when they were brought into the men’s game. I know comparisons between the genders isn’t the done thing, but its relevant both here and in point three. They have rejuvenated the lower leagues in the SPFL as well as most importantly ensuring clubs are not allowed to stagnate in mediocrity, increasing the fluidity of movement for those with the ability and ambition to progress.
In the current SWF structure only one of Hearts or Hamilton Academical will be promoted from SWPL2, a cruel outcome for one of the two sides who have been the class of the division and would quite rightly more than fancy their chances against the current bottom two in SWPL1.
Under the new format the runners-up in this battle would face the 7th placed side in SWPL1 for a chance at promotion. In SWPL2, the bottom two would automatically be relegated with the winners of the respective regional Championships promoted. A play off would then take place between the two second placed sides in these divisions with the winner taking on the 8th placed SWPL2 side with promotion on the line.
There is no doubting the added excitement the play-offs have brought to the SPFL and there will be hope that it will elongate the season for those clubs who currently find themselves having very little to play for at a relatively early stage. Commercially it also opens up a potential marketing opportunity with the option to make Playoff Day one of the marquee events of the Scottish women’s football calendar, an avenue that the men’s game has only really scratched the surface of.
3. A new format for the SWPL Cup
The general consensus at the start of this season, as each of the SWPL2 sides fell to SWPL1 opposition in the opening round of this season’s competition, was that the SWPL Cup needed a re-think. With smaller numbers to play with than in the men’s game, early elimination often results in a false start to the season.
The change to mirror the Betfred Cup format perhaps benefits the women’s game more than it has the male equivalent. The draw itself will see the sides that finish 1st and 2nd in the SWPL in the preceding season receive a bye into the quarter final stage, adding a reward element to second place whilst also allowing those sides to use the free cup dates to arrange fixtures against stronger opposition ahead of European competition.
There is an argument that this could lead to a widening of the gap at the top level but the opportunity for our best to test themselves more regularly should be seen as a key component in developing the game. For the remaining SWPL1 and SWPL2 sides, the opportunity will open up to finish top of a competitive table in elite national competition, something that only Glasgow City have done over the last 12 seasons.
The draw for the group stages will see SWPL1 and SWPL2 sides split evenly across the four groups with the best placed competing for the SWPL Cup. Those who just miss out will compete for the newly created SWPL Plate again providing opportunities for silverware where perhaps, realistically, there has been none before.
Again there are counters for this, will fans and players care about a Plate tournament that is ultimately a lesser version of the cup? Perhaps not, but the prizes in women’s football have been dominated by a small percentage of clubs for so long that initially at least I think it will be well received. It is also a format that has worked in other sports and, as is often the way in women’s football in Scotland, the chance to review it in the future will continue to remain.
These changes have to be viewed positively. Whilst it is in vogue to be cynical and focus on the doubt, the need for change in Scotland, as the women’s game evolves at an ever quickening pace across the globe, has been identified and action taken quickly.
Of course these changes will mean very little if they aren’t properly embedded, if the clubs don’t get on board with those ideas that they have voted for, if large swathes of the media continue to pay lip service to covering the game and if ultimately more fans and those participating don’t become more engaged.
But I’m positive, after all it’s women’s football, you have to be.
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