We produce future Lionesses then lose them to ‘vultures’, says Bristol City chief (2024)

The competitiveness of the women’s leagues is being badly hindered by inadequate compensation fees when academy products are snapped up by other clubs, according to Bristol City’s chief executive Gavin Marshall.

Speaking to Telegraph Sport following Bristol City’s relegation from the Women’s Super League, Marshall warned that there is already an “enormous gulf” in quality between the WSL and Championship and called for changes to the rules to reward clubs for developing future Lionesses.

Bristol City were the only team in this season’s WSL who are neither affiliated with a men’s Premier League club nor a club in receipt of parachute payments. From next season, following Bristol City’s relegation and Crystal Palace’s promotion, and Leicester’s men’s team’s promotion, all 12 WSL teams will be directly linked to Premier League sides.

“I don’t think that’s a great advert for the league,” says Marshall, who feels neutral fans should be worried. “The gulf between the WSL and the Championship is massive. The WSL has absolutely taken off, in terms of the quality. The gulf is enormous.”

Marshall is specifically concerned that money is not trickling down from bigger clubs when they sign youngsters. In recent years, Bristol City saw several of their English stars snapped up for no transfer fee when they were able to move on their 18th birthdays, most notably England star Lauren Hemp’s 2018 move to Manchester City.

Other examples have included Manchester United signing England youth international Aimee Palmer in 2018 through the same loophole, winger Katie Robinson’s 2020 switch to Brighton and, in 2023, Chelsea adding England youth international centre-back Brooke Aspin, who was later loaned back to Lauren Smith’s side for this term.

“That really hurt us. She [Aspin] is a generational player and we’ve no doubt she’ll play for England. For her to [be signed by Chelsea] with no fee was hard to take,” Marshall added. “You’re almost to the point where you’re almost a little bit nervous at giving under-18s too much exposure because you know the vultures will be there.”

“It’s disheartening. It’s very frustrating that we produce these players, which is to the benefit of the national game and the national team and until we have a system where clubs are adequately compensated for developing those players, it’s difficult to maintain that level of investment in your academy, and it’s difficult to be competitive.

“We had a really special group of players who all went for nothing at 18. It was hard to take and it does question why you do that.”

Under the rules in the men’s Premier League and EFL, it is mandatory for a club signing a player under the age of 24 when they are out-of-contract to pay a compensation fee, rewarding clubs for developing young talent. In the women’s game, until this season, no compensation fees were involved in such transfers, but a new framework was introduced by the Football Association ahead of the current season.

A fixed ‘recognition fee’ must now be paid, based on the number of years that a player has been training at their club’s ‘Professional Game Academy’, but only since PGA’s were launched last year, and the scheme cannot be backdated to take into account years spent in a club’s youth set-up before.

That new framework, hailed as a groundbreaking first step for the women’s game, involves the following fees:

  • A player moving from a WSL club to another WSL club: £5,000 per year that they were at their PGA
  • A player moving from a Women’s Championship club to a WSL club: £2,500 per year
  • A player moving from a WSL club to a WC club: £1,000 per year
  • A player moving from a WC club to another WC club: £500 per year

Players moving from lower-league clubs or those teams without a PGA will not trigger the recognition fee.

The FA has declined to comment but it is understood the rules around recognition fees are to be reviewed by the FA annually in consultation with the clubs.

Speaking last June, the FA’s head of league operations for the women’s professional game, Heather Cowan, told Telegraph Sport that the new framework will be continually reviewed going forward, saying: “It’s not the finished article and it will be reviewed year-on-year.” She added: “We want clubs to continue to invest significantly in their talent pathways.”

But Marshall does not feel those new rules are sufficient, saying: “The change from the FA last year was a change but it wasn’t far enough. It was a little bit of a token effort. It’s very little compensation and it’s even less for the Championship clubs. There needs to be better rules.”

Marshall was speaking after a 4-0 loss to Manchester City confirmed Bristol City’s relegation back to the Championship with two games to spare, but he remains positive about the future. Despite losing all their home league fixtures so far this term, they have averaged attendances of more than 7,000, and on Sunday evening the club announced they will continue to play all of their matches at Ashton Gate next term.

“We wanted to give them as much certainty as soon as we could,” added Marshall, who heads up the Bristol Sport group which also runs clubs including Bristol Bears’ rugby union teams as well as Bristol City’s men and women. “We are really committed. We are here for the long run. Yes, this is a bump in the road, but it’s all part of the journey and we want them to stay with us.

“Obviously we’re very disappointed that we’re relegated, but we’re really proud of all the players and the staff, who’ve given everything this season. Our average attendance places us well ahead of every other team other than the ‘big four’ if you like, so we’re proud of how the community has got behind the team. The key message is: Stick with us.

“We’re confident we’ll have a competitive squad next season to compete at the top end of the Championship and we’ll be trying to get back into the WSL.”

Marshall also says head coach Smith retains their full support despite relegation, continuing: “A hundred per cent, Lauren has our full backing. She’s done a tremendous job.

“This season has been tough and we’ve been unlucky with injuries to key players at key times. But Lauren and her staff and the players have conducted themselves fantastically all season and they’ve stayed together.

“We very much feel that Lauren is the right person to take us forward in the long-term.

“We’re under no illusions. We’re probably one of six or seven teams who feel they’ve got a good chance next season of going up. We expect to be competitive and give it our best shot.”

We produce future Lionesses then lose them to ‘vultures’, says Bristol City chief (2024)
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