Stuart Barker looks at AFC Fylde’s decision to disband their women’s team due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week AFC Fylde announced that their women’s side will be disbanded. Jonty Castle, the club’s CEO, claimed in an official statement that this was due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
This is despite the fact that just over a month ago club chairman David Haythornthwaite assured supporters “[AFC Fylde] is wholeheartedly committed to its women’s team and will ensure it remains a part of the club.”
Since the announcement was made public, Haythornthwaite has also come out and said “…when you come down to saying can we live with a ladies’ team or can we live without them? The answer is we can live without a ladies’ team.”
This, coupled with the blasé statement released by the club, shows that within the boardroom there is little or no respect for the hard work put in by Conrad Prendergast, his players and his coaching staff.
The statement continued: “We have spoken with Conrad and he is aware of the plans we have put in place, and we thank him for his understanding at this difficult and uncertain time.” A source at the club explained to me that this contradicts what actually happened and the women’s management team were only told about this news less than an hour before it was shared publicly. There wasn’t even an attempt to sit down with Conrad and his team to discuss budgets or other options.
The players and staff are understandably heartbroken and will no doubt feel angry and betrayed.
Drew Diamond, founder of Her Football Hub, told me that his heart dropped when he discovered the news. He added: “Fylde were one of the most accommodating clubs we worked with. Conrad, his coaching staff and his players opened their doors and experiences to us for an all access behind the scenes documentary.
“Since that day the club held a special feeling for myself and the crew we took down there that day.”
Until 2016 the side played under the banner of Preston North End. It was Luke Swindlehurst, the manager at the time, who played an important role in the move to join the AFC Fylde set up.
At the time of the move AFC Fylde chief executive David Chell said: “We have plenty to offer the team, not least a state-of-the-art stadium [Mill Farm], the likes of which will be unparalleled in the women’s game. We are now looking forward to working with the team and helping them realise their ambitions.”
This season the Fylde players have seen very little of Mill Farm. The first three games of the season were played at new state of the art stadium but then all other home games were played at Kellamergh Park, the former home of AFC Fylde and a much inferior ground with a pitch ravaged by the winter weather.
When I spoke to former Fylde Women’s boss Luke Swindlehurst, he told me that he was initially shocked by the news but not surprised given the current climate, in particular women’s teams who survive at their current level due to financial support from their men’s team.
Swindlehurst said: “My experience at AFC Fylde and [of] the chairman David Haythornthwaite was positive in terms of their desire to run and support a women’s team. He was very keen personally and did fully understand finances he’d need to invest for a successful team. From the outside looking in three years on the financial landscape seems to have changed and the impact on the women has changed dramatically.
“AFC Fylde men’s team missed out on two consecutive play-off finals which would have promoted them to the Football League. This could have been a massive boost for the club and in term all areas benefit when the team is doing well.
“Increased revenue, higher attendance, higher foot fall at the stadium and there is more opportunity for TV games within League 2 which helps to fund the club.
“Having missed out on those promotions the team hit a rocky start to 2019-20 season and slipping down into relegation also had to sack their manager David Challinor. The men’s current situation is one of uncertainty with no clear answer about relegation which has obviously sparked the club chairman and board to make savings where possible.”
What next for the players? Just scouting the local area, if players fancy challenging themselves in the league above then there is Championship side Blackburn Rovers at approximately twenty miles away. Otherwise to remain in the National League North the options are Burnley, Bradford or Huddersfield. The first being a realistic distance for travelling but the latter two clubs are both located just over sixty miles from Fylde, that equates to a round trip of about three hours in good traffic.
If there are any players located outside of Fylde then they might be able to work with those distances, otherwise players will be forced to relocate or more realistically drop down the divisions. Those involved with Chorley and Brighouse Town would no doubt welcome players who have proved themselves in the league above their own.
I think that it’s fair to say that we should all be concerned that Fylde might not be the last women’s team considered expendable by their male counterparts. Post Covid-19, men’s clubs up and down the football pyramid will suffer due to a decrease in income through sponsorship, TV revenue and a potential loss of gate receipts if games are played behind closed doors.
This is something that Swindlehurst echoes: “Having spoken to other clubs and managers I know there is a similar pressure for some in terms of revenue streams. Sponsors of clubs and leagues are more than entitled to withhold money if they are suffering or because the fixture schedule has not been fulfilled. Cuts are inevitable across the game and I’d not be surprised if more clubs either go bust or plead with the local community for crowdfunding or donations.”
We all understand the difficult position that clubs will be in but they have a responsibility to look after all those involved in their club. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed that other clubs can consider a range of options to save money instead of the easy option of dropping the women’s side.
Follow Stuart on Twitter at @_chubarker