Can a women’s team thrive at the top level without any ties to a men’s club? After breaking away from Millwall, London City Lionesses believe the answer is “yes”.
The new second-tier side, who host English champions Arsenal on Sunday in their first League Cup fixture, are going it alone as a new brand without a “brother”.
In the higher levels of the English women’s game, almost every other club is affiliated to a male counterpart, with many reliant on funding from their men’s team one way or another.
But, after a less-than amicable separation from Millwall, the new Lionesses have made a positive start to life on the pitch and they feel more female teams might follow in their footsteps.
“We want to prove that a women’s team can now be run as an independent club and not rely on handouts from an older brother,” London City Lionesses manager Chris Phillips told BBC London Sport.
“It is right for a women’s team to be commercially free, to be able to go and do deals with partners and sponsors. Being able to do our own deals, we can sustain this model and become profitable.
“Commercially, London has a big pool. We’re in the right place at the right time with the right product. Maybe a few will follow suit.”
‘No-one hates us’
But how difficult will it be to build a fanbase from scratch, without the prospective boost from supporters who already follow one of the capital’s leading men’s sides?
A crowd of 224 turned up for their 3-1 home victory over Leicester City on 8 September at Dartford’s Princes Park Stadium and the Lionesses have won three of their first four league games this term.
Asked how his team would find more fans, Phillips added: “The first thing is, no-one hates us.
“We’re not Spurs, so Arsenal don’t hate us. We’re not West Ham, so Chelsea don’t hate us.
“Our players will be going out to schools, to youth clubs, to communities and interacting with people. We know it’s going to be a gradual process but we’ve built the foundations.”
The club have started a community outreach programme which sees their players providing coaching courses at local schools.
While it remains to be seen whether Phillips’ theory proves correct and fans of London’s men’s clubs develop a soft spot for his Lionesses, there is one set of supporters from whom they can expect some animosity.
Millwall fans ‘deeply upset’ at breakaway
Millwall Lionesses played in the second tier last term but their Championship licence was transferred to London City after approval from the Football Association, who run England’s top women’s leagues.
They almost went into administration in April 2018 and were saved after nearly £17,500 was donated via a crowdfunding page, but won just one of 20 league games in 2018-19.
Their former board, led by chairperson Diane Culligan, formed the London City Lionesses to the “disappointment” of the Lions, and a reborn Millwall Lionesses side – run by the Championship men’s club’s Community Trust – have since re-entered the pyramid in tier six.
After a turbulent summer which saw conflict over logos and branding and even temporary confusion as to which party controlled the Lionesses’ social media accounts, the new London City Lionesses squad was unveiled on 18 August.
“It doesn’t sit right with us that this establishment has ripped our football club away from us,” said Michael Avery from Millwall Supporters Club.
“Millwall have always had a strong history in women’s football. To have that heritage and history snatched away from you is deeply upsetting.”
Formed in 1971, Millwall became one of the very first women’s clubs to be adopted by a men’s club in the 1980s and won the Women’s FA Cup in 1991 and 1997.
BBC Radio London understands London City Lionesses will not be pressing any claims over the history of Millwall Lionesses or their two FA Cup wins.
Phillips, who had been Millwall Lionesses’ manager since 2018, says this term is a “fresh start”, adding: “There are standards that should be met for players, from training facilities to private medical care, and ultimately the only way we felt we could do that was by becoming independent.”
FA decision ‘in the best interest of the players’
Millwall’s rebuild began with a 12-0 win in their first sixth-tier match on 15 September, but Avery added: “Our league position and licence was taken. We have to essentially start from scratch.
“We are now in the sixth division, having been in the second division. That’s awfully sad. I think it’s appalling what the FA has done.”
However, the FA’s director of the women’s professional game, Kelly Simmons, said: “[We] were left with a decision, whether to allow a change in entity, or [the club] would have gone under.
“We had a number of discussions and meetings with Millwall FC and Millwall Lionesses as it was then to try to resolve the situation.
“At the end of the day, Millwall FC wanted an exit route in their community programme for women’s football, not investing in semi-professional or professional women’s football, but more or less a grassroots exit, which is what they’ve got because they applied to start a new team [in tier six].
“The decision left for the women’s football board was to decide whether to support the new entity, with the new investment to pay off the creditors and move the club forward.
“That was really the only option on the table and, therefore, for the best interest of those players and for the people involved in that club, we made that decision.”
‘The ill-feeling feels similar’ to AFC Wimbledon & MK Dons
Now four divisions apart, the two Lionesses’ estrangement has been likened to that of the acrimony between men’s teams AFC Wimbledon and Milton Keynes Dons.
The old Wimbledon FC, nicknamed the Dons, relocated to Milton Keynes in 2003 and subsequently changed their name to MK Dons in 2004, while AFC Wimbledon won five promotions in nine years to reach the English Football League in 2011.
The intricacies of those two situations are very different, but it seems many Millwall fans are not going to forgive London City’s hierarchy anytime soon.
“As a fan, there’s a lot of ill-feeling towards the London City Lionesses establishment,” continued Avery. “It does have a very similar feel to it [the Dons].
“If we did play each other, you would probably not see London City Lionesses on their programmes, that’s for sure.”
BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame this summer to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women’s sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women’s sport and alter perceptions. Find out more here.