George Orwell once famously warned that “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” and although it is to be hoped that the foot will eventually be lifted it feels like this premonition has come shockingly true for women’s football in the city of Nottingham in 2013.
In the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics, during which the USA and Japan played out an exciting and competitive final that showed the potential of the game and Great Britain’s own ladies attracted more than 70,000 spectators to Wembley as they beat Brazil in the earlier rounds, optimism for the game was high amongst those locally who had committed years to grass roots development of the game, but first the Football Association and then Nottingham Forest put the boot firmly in the face of Nottingham Forest Ladies.
The year began with bids being prepared for the expansion of the Women’s Super League (WSL), the country’s leading football competition for women, as part of the FA’s “Game Changer” strategy for re-structuring and expanding the appeal of the game in England. The WSL was to expand from a single division of 8 teams to two divisions with a total of 18 teams, releasing a further 10 spaces for bids.
As the established club in Nottingham with a proud history over 30 years of developing coaches and players, including England’s Sophie Bradley who played in the summer’s Olympics, the Forest Ladies put together a compelling bid that demonstrated support from the men’s club, the City Council and a host of other partners and sporting clubs in the city. Assured by the FA that they were the only Nottingham based bid they confidently sold the city as a must-have location for a Super League club.
Behind the scenes, however, there was an alternative plan for Nottingham being hatched that went against the advice that Forest had been given. The long established Lady Imps of Lincoln were to be transplanted to Nottingham, in a move reminiscent of the formation of the MK Dons, and renamed Notts County Ladies.
Rather than support the established local club, which not only had the track record but also the backing of its local FA, the national football authorities conspired instead with Ray Trew, the Chairman of Notts County men’s club and Lincoln Ladies, to discard the combined history of two long running organisations and create another franchise football club.
Whilst trumpeting its new strategy for the game that aimed to increase participation the FA in fact stripped Lincoln of its club and set in motion a chain of events that could see an entire structure of coaching across all ages from under 9 to adult destroyed in Nottingham. Meanwhile Forest Ladies underlined their regional position by making a clean sweep of the County Cup competitions at all age levels including a 16-1 cup final victory for the adult side against the existing Notts County team, which until it is transplanted in 2014 plays several divisions below Forest.
Despite the shock of being turned down for the WSL and realising that they had been misled by the very authorities they were applying to, the Forest Ladies picked themselves up buoyed by the assurance of continued financial backing from the men’s club who advised that they would support them in building towards a fresh bid in the future when additional WSL places are due to become available.
On this basis the club appointed Graham Abercrombie as its new manager and set about building a squad to challenge for the Premier League title. At present they are the only unbeaten team in that league and have picked up 11 points from their 5 games to date. On 1st October, however, they received another crushing blow as the men’s club announced that they were withdrawing funding for the current season immediately and would not be supplying any new kit. Indeed the announcement from Forest went as far as to say that they were making their own plans for a women’s team and if the existing club, with its years of investment of blood, sweat and tears from legions of volunteers, was to fold “so be it”.
Ironically the announcement that Forest would be happy to see the Ladies fall by the wayside came in the same week that Fay Glover, who has served Forest Ladies as a player, coach and administrator over the years, was presented with a special award by the Football Association (the same authority that began the process of dismantling their club) for her “outstanding contribution and service” to grassroots football.
The whole sorry saga reflects badly on both the Football Association, who have embraced wholesale transportation of “franchises” between cities in a way that demonstrates why MK Dons (and now Notts County Ladies) should never be accepted by football fans, and Nottingham Forest, who have displayed a saddening disregard for the women and girls who have proudly worn their garibaldi shirts for decades.
The Forest Ladies are now left to pick up the pieces and try to raise the necessary funds to see out the season and plan a new way forward. Facing the twin threats of an imported WSL team from Lincoln and a potential new Forest branded club it is difficult to picture at this stage what that will look like. With the new vision for women’s football making early, tentative steps it already feels tainted In Nottingham and the people suffering are the passionate players and volunteers who make up the current Nottingham Forest Ladies.