Lancashire coach reveals how women’s academy football has changed

In women’s football, a new method of development for players over the age 16 has been conducted, writes Louis Crawford.

This has been led by former rugby league player and coach Tony Fretwell.

The Lancashire born coach enjoyed success as academy lead at both Halifax RLFC, Widnes Vikings and the Rugby Football League where he was national player development manager.

“The WSL Academy began in the 2018-19 season so is just under four years old. However, due to Covid, it’s younger than that really,” Fretwell told UCLan Live.

“The aim was to professionalise the Professional Development Phase of player development for those over 16.

“Over the four-year period we have seen a 418% increase in the number of U19s players appearing in the WSL.”

A women’s football match in full flow. Credit: Getty Images.

Eleven clubs work with the FA, alongside eleven universities to deliver and execute this academy programme.

The purpose of the programme is to ensure the balance between the players’ football development and their education.

“The idea of this is that the players in question receive help in their football development,” Fretwell added.

“Coinciding with this, their chosen education will work with the university linked to the club.

“They are at which provides exits routes, other options, preparation for life after football.

“As well as this offers psychological and physical support towards the careers or lifestyle of any player.” 

The academy has clear criteria for success and is very contrasting to the women’s development league which was in place prior.

The development league was more about football, and the players had to fit their education around that commitment.

However, the academy introduces accountability for both the players’ football careers, but also for the educational career and the learning that takes place along the way.

“My role is to steer all the moving parts so is very much strategic,” said Fretwell.

“With 15 academies that’s 45 organisations.

“All in all, there are 48 businesses, all with their own focus, supporting 240 players and over 80 staff in any one season.

“The direction of our players and staff is very important, and I’m proud to be the spearhead of this.”

And though relatively fresh, Blackpool fan Fretwell has huge ambitions for his set up.

“Our aims are very simple,” he said.

“We want to develop in four areas; we want better players, better performing clubs on both a domestic and European stage.

“All of our players achieving something, whether that’s in football or their own career aspirations away from football, and finally, to continue to bring a happy work environment and system to all of our players and staff.

“I wholeheartedly believe we can achieve this together.”