From a place in the Champions League semi-finals eight years ago, to relegation from the Women’s Super League on Wednesday night, Birmingham City’s perpetual under investment in their women’s team has finally caught up with them. The question is: for a giant of the women’s game, how did it ever come to this?
A seemingly innocuous press release, during the men’s Euros in 2016 – when all eyes were conveniently diverted elsewhere – gave hint as to the fateful of one of the WSL’s original founding members.
With England’s men mid-match against Wales – the nation gripped by events in Lens – an email landed from Birmingham City announcing that two of their best players, England’s Jo Potter and Jade Moore, were leaving. It wasn’t long before other key figures left too.
A new era was beginning. The men’s club was taken over by Trillion Trophy Asia later in 2016 and, by the end of that year, shortly after reaching the League Cup final and within weeks of the women’s team “joining the Blues family”, integrating with the men’s setup, long -serving manager David Parker, would resign. Parker had led the team to their 2012 FA Cup triumph.
Initially, the team remained competitive and performed well under then-head coach Marc Skinner, now Manchester United’s manager, who led them to the 2017 FA Cup final. But after Skinner stood down to take up a chance at managing in the United States with Orlando Pride in 2019, his replacement, Spanish coach Marta Tejedor, endured a torrid spell at the helm.
In her 14 months in charge the team would slip from fourth spot to a relegation battle, and a plethora of top stars would leave, including England striker Ellen White. All the while, other WSL club’s budgets were on the rise. Of the WSL clubs to publish their financial accounts in full for 2019-20, no team spent less on wages than Birmingham.
Off-field problems mount
By the time manager Carla Ward took the reins ahead of the 2020-21 season, the squad list was precariously thin, consisting of just eight, senior contracted players. After adding a handful of free signings and loans, Ward’s make-shift team somehow survived the drop, but not without serious off-field challenges.
The facilities for the women’s team were coming under serious question by that point, and a special report by Telegraph Sport in April 2021 revealed details of a formal complaint to the board that had been written and signed by all of the playing squad. It outlined their concerns around poor working conditions, the budget and their access to fitness facilities, medical support and travel provisions.
A club statement at the time said it was “no secret that we have one of the lowest budgets in the league” and that Covid had compounded the issue. Meanwhile, multiple sources at the club last season were heavily critical of the apparent attitude of the club’s then-chief executive, Xuandong Ren, towards the women’s team.
Since Ren’s resignation last May, there are understood to have been some significant improvements, but reversing three years of decline has proved too tricky in too short a space of time.
Which brings the matter to this season, and the question: Where did it go wrong for Birmingham this term?
Another year, another rebuild
More star players including first-choice striker Claudia Walker and England goalkeeper Hannah Hampton left last summer. And following Ward’s resignation to switch to manage neighbors Aston Villa, Birmingham’s season began with a new manager, former Scotland, Aberdeen and Borussia Dortmund striker Scott Booth in charge. He arrived with a strong reputation after winning six straight Scottish league titles with Glasgow City, but was surprisingly sacked after merely seven in charge.
Confidence then looked low in the team and, by November, when Darren Carter took an interim charge, the club were winless in the WSL for a full year. A shock and impressive victory over Arsenal gave the club a major boost in January, but in the same month there was disappointment off the pitch. Despite the threat of relegation and Carter’s need to rely on some youngsters, no signings were made in January’s transfer window, amid limited financial resources.
And then perhaps the most important game of the season, at home to relegation rivals Leicester on February 6, was lost 2-1, shortly after the window closed. Fans will rue the team’s misfortune in that particularly key game, with goalkeeper Emily Ramsey being controversially sent off in the 26th minute. The red card was later overturned after an appeal, but what could not be rescinded was having to play for more than hour with 10 players in a proverbial six-pointer.
There were some clearly-visible improvements in April, a month where they drew with Everton and won 3-1 away against Brighton to prolong the fight against the drop. Their defending, led by towering centre-half Louise Quinn, seemed to be on the up. But over the entire campaign, they have found goals hard to come by, firing blanks in 13 of their 21 league matches.
Nonetheless, Manchester City head coach Gareth Taylor, whose side’s 6-0 victory confirmed Birmingham’s relegation on Wednesday night, said after the game that he did not feel Birmingham were currently the WSL’s worst team, and called on the club to give Carter a contract. Taylor said: “I spoke about Birmingham a lot in the pre-match with the players and said ‘currently, this is not the worst team in the league’, I don’t believe they are.
“Darren came in, in a difficult period. They’re really organized and set up to be effective. If they can secure Darren for next season, then good things are coming, I think they’ll be moving in the right direction.”
‘It’s imperative this team gets the backing it deserves’
Will Carter stay? The 38-year-old former Birmingham player and lifelong supporter certainly wants to He said in his post-match press conference: “I’d love to stay. Since I’ve come in the door, all I’ve tried to do is drive this team forward, and I want to continue to do that.
“I’m invested in the players and the staff and it’s kind of, now big changes are needed. I’ve got a vision of how that looks and I want to go and implement it. I want to continue to push this team and get it back to compete with the best, because this team has got a proud history in the women’s game.”
Carter stated before the game that he’d been assured the club would retain it’s full-time status regardless of whether or not they went down, which will be welcome news for Birmingham fans, given that – unlike in the WSL – there is no requirement under Championship rules for teams to be fully-professional.
That’s not to say the league is easy to get out of, though, and Carter knows they are going into a testing division, adding: “I want to be able to implement things quickly because we want to go and really mount a challenge next year to get back to the WSL.
“It’s imperative that this team gets the backing that it deserves and that we’re given the chance to bounce back straight away. It’s imperative because the Championship is a tough league. We’ve seen numerous clubs go down there and it’s not easy to bounce back. There’ll be no hiding place in the Championship. Teams won’t feel sorry for us.”