BY RICHARD CAWLEY
Charlton Athletic Women managed to exceed expectations in their first season in the FA Women’s Championship.
That is the verdict of chairman Stephen King, who saw the Addicks push Tottenham Hotspur all the way until the closing weeks of the campaign for the second promotion slot.
Charlton finished third and 20 points ahead of Leicester City Women. Crystal Palace Ladies, another side affiliated to their Premier League men, were 30 points behind.
Riteesh Mishra’s side won promotion to the Championship after a play-off final win over Blackburn in May 2018.
But nearly all the other ups and downs were decided as part of a rebranding process – West Ham United Ladies jumping a division to go straight into the Super League.
“Given our financial limitations it was an achievement to finish third,” said King. “We outperformed our own expectations. If there was a league table of budgets available we would’ve been in the bottom half of that.
“It was difficult to gauge before where we might be. Some clubs had come into the Championship because they were already a WSL 2 team while others came in on the strength of their bids.
“We were the only ones who got there by promotion. We thought we would be north of mid-table but not be fighting for the top two with a couple of games to go.
“I think it was a combination of momentum from last season and retaining a good nucleus of that squad. There were some shrewd additions that Riteesh brought in to give us a blend of youth and experience.
“We have got a base to build on for next season, although what that will bring I don’t know.”
The promotion of Tottenham and Manchester United Women – who topped the table – is a double-edged sword.
King said: “Our prospects are better but on the financial side they were good games for us – particularly Man Utd, we got decent gate money. We don’t have that fixture now.
“Blackburn and Coventry United come into the league. We’ve got recent history with Blackburn, they are a good side, but they won’t bring in people through the gate – likewise Coventry. That is a bit of a shame.
“The games we are looking to attract supporters are going to be the local derbies – Crystal Palace and the newly-formed team formerly known as Millwall.
“We should be quite competitive. I’d like to think we’ll have a good season and the possibility of a top-two place.”
Manchester United Women were founded in May 2018. Owned by Manchester United plc – with Joel and Avram Glazer as co-chairmen – it always looked a formality that the title was a formality.
King said: “It would have been a major surprise if that hadn’t happened, partly because the resources but also because of the fact they were effectively a full-time team. That gives you a lot in terms of fitness but also team-bonding and playing as a unit.
“With Casey Stoney as their head coach, who better in women’s football? There isn’t anyone more experienced and qualified than her to run a women’s football team.
“On the one hand there were people saying: ‘Man Utd coming into the league from nowhere and storming away with it’. But it’s a bit like when Rangers men had to start in the bottom league in Scotland. Everyone knew they were going to win the league. But even though you knew you were going to get thrashed 5-0, you also knew you’d get decent gates for those games.
“The women’s FA and everyone in women’s football were saying: ‘Why won’t Manchester United put a team in?’ Well, they did. And they didn’t do a West Ham United and go straight into the top tier. They earned the right to get there and at least gave everyone a little bit of reflected glory, if you like. Because the only time we got serious national coverage was when we played Man Utd. That’s the same with a lot of our clubs.”
If Charlton had managed to overtake Tottenham in the closing weeks, King is at pains to point out that the Super League is the not the money-laden promised land, like the men’s top-flight.
“If you go back to a year or so ago, I said at that time I thought it would cost about an extra £100k to run this season compared to last season,” said King. “Our year end is June 30, so it’s not finalised yet, but I don’t think that was far off the mark.
“Of that, just under two-thirds of it was financed by the FA grant. The other third is additional money that has had to be found.
“Women’s football is growing, it’s growing fast. But the finance side isn’t going as quick as the rest. And the expectations and requirements are more onerous.
“Had we been in the top two this season the financial requirement for promotion is such that if you’re a Spurs or Man U you can afford it, because you’ve got a men’s club behind you which as a guesstimate is probably putting in half a million in additional funding which is needed to go into the next division.
“In Manchester United’s case it is different because they are already heavily funded to go full time. So the step up for them isn’t such a great step up. But for Spurs or anyone going from Championship to Super League, the difference in cost, expectation and commitment is a step-change.
“Unlike in men’s football where to get promotion to the Premier League, in the way someone like Sheffield United did this season, is like hitting the win button on a jackpot machine where all the £100m-plus comes out – in women’s football it is quite the reverse. You go up and it costs you a multiple of what you’re currently spending rather than bring you in the revenue.
“Having said that, I think with the Charlton men’s team getting promoted that can’t be a bad thing. We’re looking at much more integrated sponsorship offerings by somebody who wants to partner with the men, women and community trust – they now have a better offer because both the men and women are in the second tier.
“Hopefully that will open up more doors for us as those negotiations continue. That tends to be led by the men’s side, but any new sponsors we can bring in must be in a better position with the men being promoted.”
Charlton have talent in their squad – with striker Kit Graham winning the Championship Players’ Player of the Year award.
She scored 12 goals in 16 matches last season.
“Probably half of our squad were under contract last season and half were on expenses,” said King. “Some of those contracts were one year, some were one year with an option. A couple were more than one year.
“Those where we have options we are exercising them and those with more than one year are already tied in.
“Riteesh is having conversations with the ones he wants to keep who signed for a year.
“Four players won’t be with us next season, all for different reasons.
“Amelia Ritchie has got her third year at uni and wants to take a year out. Amber Stobbs is coming towards the end of her career and has other commitments. Ellie Bailes can’t commit to the training because she has got a promotion or something at work.
“The majority of the squad will be with us.
“There are half a dozen new people that Riteesh is speaking to. When he is ready to make an offer he will have a word in my ear and say: ‘What can we do’. We’ll hopefully come up with something that is acceptable to the player.
“Riteesh is under contract. I understand he’s quite happy carrying on. He’s doing a good job as far as we’re concerned.”