Durham manager Lee Sanders and Lewes general manager Maggie Murphy explain why their part-time models can threaten under-resourced women’s teams with big names behind them, writes Jessy Parker Humphreys.
For all the arguments around whether or not the Women’s Super League is competitive, the division below is shaping up for a monumental title race.
Five points currently separate the top five teams, and the fight has been made all the more unique by the nature of the teams involved.
Cast your eye down the Championship league table and the familiar names will stick out; Crystal Palace and Liverpool are two of four Premier League teams whose women’s squads play in the second division.
But you will also encounter teams who are perhaps unfamiliar to you.
There are the London City Lionesses who eschewed their relationship with Millwall last season. Durham who are linked, not with a men’s team, but with the university. And Lewes whose men’s team plays five tiers below them in the Isthmian Premier League.
Clubs in this division have a range of different resources. Despite that, there is no sense of the richer teams running away with it.
“The Championship is really competitive, and perhaps a couple of teams who have put in the extra resources maybe thought it was going to be easier than it actually is,” says Maggie Murphy, general manager of Lewes. “That’s really exciting.”
Some teams, like Leicester City and Liverpool, train full-time despite the league being officially a part-time league. Others face the reality of having to work with players juggling a football career with a job.
“I think when we talk about full-time and professional, sometimes we merge both of those categories,” says Murphy.
“It’s quite helpful to think about what does [full-time] actually mean, in terms of ‘can everyone live off that?’ Or is it more ‘they’ve got the facilities and resources of a full-time club but they’re not paid enough.’ There’s some nuance in the professional – full-time stuff.”
Whilst Lewes are part-time, Durham, who currently sit top of the Championship, have embraced a ‘part-time plus’ model.
“I would describe us as probably two-thirds of the way [to being full-time],” says their manager, Lee Sanders, on the Offside Rule podcast. “We’re sort of bridging the gap so that when and if we do have to make that step up, it’s not as big a step as just going solely part time to full-time.”
Durham’s performances in particular have taken some by surprise, with the side currently unbeaten.
“I think people have a misconception about us because we’re not attached to a men’s team,” says Sanders. “I don’t think people really appreciate the wrap around care and support that we do have for our players.
“We have great facilities to work out of, great staff.”
Maggie Murphy agrees that Lewes are often underestimated in terms of what they offer their players.
“People assume our resources are less than others. I do think we’re actually competitive with the majority of teams in our leagues in terms of finances and resources.”
“From what I understand, I think that we pay our players better than a number of other teams in the league even though they are maybe big name clubs.”
Whilst their player care might be reaping benefits on the field, to gain promotion to the WSL Lewes and Durham would also need to qualify for a license. There have been concerns that this hurdle might ask too much of clubs without the financial backing of a large men’s side.
Durham had already been asked to make an application last season due to their position towards the top of the table, before it was curtailed as a result of coronavirus and Aston Villa were promoted on a points-per-game basis.
“We went through the process and were very very confident,” says Sanders.
“We’ve got absolutely outstanding training facilities. We’ve got everything in place. We just need to obviously make that next step from being part-time to full-time.
“We feel that we can do that, and at the end of the day, we’re not going to have the millions and millions of some clubs.
“But not every club’s going to have that anyway, regardless of whether they are attached to a men’s club.
“We’ve got a model that works, a model that has proven over time that it works. We don’t have a high turnover of staff, we don’t have a high turnover of players which I think says a lot about the club, and hopefully stands us in good stead if the opportunity comes along.”
Lewes are a bit further behind Durham in the process of fulfilling the requirements that would enable them to get a license if necessary.
“I think currently as it stands right now, we would not be able to get a Tier 1 license,” says Murphy.
“It requires things like an academy team set up – and that’s structural. You can’t just create a team.
“We’re not blind to it. There’s lots of work to do. Some of it is financial and some of it is having structures, and having the planning and preparation in place which is a huge amount of work.”
Whilst Murphy is emboldened by the start her team has made, she is realistic about the challenge ahead in terms of sustaining it across a whole season.
“I think the algorithm suggests that full-time teams should prevail over time,” she explains.
Murphy worries that those imbalances might end up taking away from the women’s game in general.
“I do worry that we might inadvertently create a situation where in order to be successful women’s clubs are more dependent on men’s clubs, not less dependent.
“For me, equality means being able to make decisions that are in our own interests.
“Sometimes, I feel sorry for a couple of the other clubs who have unsupportive big men’s clubs backing them, because they are held to standards they haven’t set themselves.”
It is certainly true that whilst the success of unique set-ups like Durham and Lewes should be celebrated, it also places a microscope on why the bigger name teams are not dominating at this level.
Yet it makes for an incredibly exciting league where it genuinely feels like anyone can beat anyone.
Durham are confident that they can continue to upset the odds and look to gain promotion to the WSL. Doing so would be a remarkable sporting feat.
“I think results against teams in the league above and teams who have gone up in recent years [mean that] we’ve proven we can compete on that stage as well,” says Sanders.
“I think we’re ready.”
Follow Jessy on Twitter @jessyjph