What does Tuesday’s announcement - that Reading Women will switch to operating on a part-time basis ahead of the 2023/24 season - tell us about owner Dai Yongge and CEO Dayong Pang? Is it a lack of ambition and lack of interest or, as they state, ‘to focus on a more sustainable model’? From the fans’ reaction, STAR excepted (and more of that later!), it appears that the consensus of opinion is more around the former.
It appears to be an odd stance from the owners and club when, as I understand it, the trend in the Women’s Championship is heading in the other direction (towards a full-time structure). It’s surely also at odds with a game only growing in popularity, skill and elite professionalism (on the back of England’s Euro success) - providing role models and a pathway to young and aspiring women and girls who are enjoying this new opportunity open to them, many for the first time.
Reading ex-player and now general manager Brooke Chaplen’s open letter is also contradictory to the club stance, mentioning their proud achievement to call last season a record-breaking campaign for attendance with records not just beaten once, but four times - “showcasing the growing support for women’s football in this country and in our town”.
And let’s talk about that STAR tweet: “We understand the reasoning behind the change and agree that it is the right decision at this time.”
STAR is saddened that Reading FC Women will now operate on a part-time model, with the likelihood of many in the RFC community losing their jobs due to the change.— Supporters’ Trust At Reading (@STARReading) June 6, 2023
However, we understand the reasoning behind the change, and agree that it is the right decision at this time.
Yes, it really does say that STAR (Supporters Trust at Reading) agree! Why would you do that?
Not finished there, and to dig an even bigger hole, the next STAR tweet goes on to say that the Women’s academy and team can flourish once more - but only on the back of the future success of the men’s team! (Good luck ladies there then...) Gosh, who signed that off for publishing? Naivety, misguided or just plain ghoulish thoughts?
Comments were, quite rightly in my opinion, quick to condemn this. It’s lucky (for STAR) that we generally have a polite and sensible set of fans, as otherwise the replies could have been a lot worse. Shock, disappointment, surprise and “own goal” (I particularly like that one Jimmy!) were among the many reactions.
The surprise is that these tweets have come from a STAR board that has shown little (if I’m being kind) interest in the Women’s team this season and perhaps - as a couple of the comments said - it is time for a breakaway Women’s STAR committee?
Ironically, if the Royals had stayed in the WSL, they would have been joined by promoted Bristol City in not having owners with a men’s Premier League team. Perhaps this would have given Dai Yongge an even bigger, and easier, excuse for further lack of investment, with Reading having the increased underdog status of backing from owners with a League One men’s team?
As it turns out, it looks as though that excuse and decision had already been made this season, with the club openly confirming that they chose not to spend heavily on the Women’s team - the club statement mentioning that other top-flight clubs chose investment and financial backing for their Women’s teams.
This was also evident in the January transfer window when the Royals’ relegation rivals Brighton, Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur all strengthened their squads - as Kelly Chambers mentioned on more than one occasion - with all three struggling teams also choosing to change their management teams (Chambers didn’t mention that bit…). Rather bizarrely, Reading let striker Natasha Dowie join Liverpool on loan - who were, at the time, relegation rivals too.
Maybe we could have seen the fate of the Women’s team from as early as August 2022, pre-season, at the STAR Fans’ Forum. For the record I have a lot of time for Mark Bowen - but, when asked about the Women’s team, he said (and I paraphrase) something along the lines of “Kelly Chambers and the management team have got that all under control and I leave them to just get on with it…”.
As it turns out, Chambers (and the management team) didn’t have this under control and just watched on as they whimpered out of the WSL with even less action and interaction than the familiar story running parallel with the men’s failed Championship survival.
Of most importance - and one still to be played out - is what all of this really means for the future of Reading Women. At the moment there’s been little news on what players (and staff and management) are staying, whether some will continue to have their (full-time) contracts honoured or who may leave - with some hopeful for a return to a WSL club.
Let’s hope that the team can galvanise and bounce back. It won’t be easy, with the likes of Crystal Palace, Watford, Sheffield United and Birmingham - just to name a few - and some of these enjoying Category One academy (a pathway for two age groups), whereas again Reading are falling a bit behind with Category Two status.
I believe that season-ticket pricing details are to be announced soon and, presumably, confirmation of where the Women’s team will be playing next season.
All in all, it doesn’t sit, feel or bode well, but let’s stay positive and look forward, right?