‘Equality has to be more than words’: London City Lionesses go it alone | Football
“We want to show people that the time is now right that a women’s football club can be a women’s football club and it doesn’t have to be – and I use this term whether it’s politically correct or not – the annoying sister of a men’s club. If you speak to about 80% of clubs out there, they’re not happy with the relationship with the men’s team.”
Chris Phillips, the manager, is speaking about the London City Lionesses, a new club formed from the decision of the Millwall Lionesses board to split away from Millwall and go it alone at the end of last season, details of which have been a closely guarded secret. In recent years a host of women’s teams have buckled under the financial pressures of trying to maintain full-time professionalism. Millwall Lionesses were one such team – on the brink of bankruptcy in April 2018 and crowdfunding for support. Only some late investment salvaged their season.
That investment can now be revealed as having come from SETL, a London-based financial technology company that builds and deploys settlement and payment systems based on blockchain technology. It is the continuing sponsorship of SETL and commitment of its co-founder and chief engineer, Anthony Culligan, and his wife, Diane, who is chair of the London City Lionesses, that is driving and sustaining the club in its new form.
There is some irony to how guarded their financial support for the club has been, given that blockchain is by its nature transparent. While the company has not had the most stable of recent pasts – which adds cause for caution – its investment is significant. Every player is full-time and they have a Nike custom kit, psychologists and nutritionists. Triple S communications, who work with Toni Duggan, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Southgate among others, run their media operations and private medical care.
There is lots of talk of doing things differently but the board are clear that they also want to do things properly and they stress they are “acutely aware of the issues experienced by other clubs historically but have an experienced administrative team who are providing the appropriate strategic guidance”. They include the former Lewes FC general manager Jack Heaselden.
“It’s all well and good for people to bang on about equality but it has to be more than words,” says Phillips. “Little things like giving all the girls private medical care. I can’t have a player who’s injured and waiting six months on the NHS to receive an MRI scan and then another six months for surgery, then we’ve lost a player for a year there.
“We’ve worked hard to take out special policies to make sure we get immediate MRIs, immediate surgeries, but it is the right thing to do. We can’t keep banging on about equality for women’s football without putting our money where our mouths are.”
Private medical care is something Phillips feels should be an FA requirement. “The FA should go out and negotiate a deal for all the clubs,” he says. “There’s 23 teams across the Women’s Super League and Championship. If the FA was to go and maybe negotiate a deal I think a) they’d get it at a better price and b) every single player would then be looked after.”
With the top tiers of the women’s pyramid slowly moving towards being a mirror of the men’s with every WSL team affiliated to a men’s club, the move by London City Lionesses perhaps offers a new way of doing things. But it is only a new way of doing things in England. In the US and Europe, with clubs like Turbine Potsdam, it is much more commonplace to have standalone women’s clubs. There are models that London City Lionesses can draw on.
“With it being the first club to be fully separate is pretty unique,” says the full-back Leanne Cowan. “There is an attraction for sponsors who can work with a team that are going out on their own and showing women we can do it and we don’t need the male set-up there as well.
“It is very empowering and certain brands will want to latch on to that and work with us to promote that because we live in a society nowadays that is all about empowering women and equality.”
For the midfielder Liz Ejupi there is a pressure to fly the flag for the new model on the pitch. “All of this talk, growing up, we only wanted to see the game be bigger and better,” she says. Now we’re wearing a badge that represents that.”
If it did affect them, it did not show. A header from Grace Neville eight minutes into their season opener against London Bees was added to by Lucy Fitzgerald in the second half – three points secured comfortably and a feeling that they are a far cry from the team that, in its previous form, picked up five points in the 2018-19 season.