â€œThe FA wanted them to go to Charlton because Charlton is more of a name than Croydon.â€
Youâ€™d expect the FA to lap up the prospect of plucky underdogs paving their own way to the top of womenâ€™s football. Instead, Debbie Bamptonâ€™s Croydon faced years of pushbacks and negativity. Three league titles and two FA Cupâ€™s did nothing to quell a sense of resentment emanating from the FA.
A club without big-name association seemed to rile footballâ€™s governing body. An organisation more focused on PR than the advancement of the womenâ€™s game, according to Blues chair Ken Jarvie:
â€œI used to go to the FA meetings and to me, the FA just saw that they had to do it for PR coverage. Politically correct sort of thing. The guy they had in charge, he was a country chairman of the only county that didnâ€™t have a senior football club. A county without a womenâ€™s club. That for me, summed it up.â€
Put simply: a lack of respect. A lack of respect that is perfectly demonstrated in their response to Croydonâ€™s second title triumphâ€¦
Going into the 1998-99 season, it had been over two years since the Croydon Arena had seen their first double. Doubts were beginning to emerge over whether this fairy-tale of success would be a one-time thing. Doubts that would soon be quelled.
A combination of Joanne Broadhurstâ€™s goals and Gill Wylieâ€™s steely defence led the club to their second title that same season. As in 1996, they had done it without losing a game. A feat worth recognising. Yet, the FA didnâ€™t seem to think soâ€¦
â€œWhen we won the league, I contacted the FA and said, you know, â€˜Are you going to be there up at Tranmere to present us the trophy?â€™ No, itâ€™s too far for them to go. â€˜Right? Okay.â€™ There was no recognition from the FA whatsoever.â€
A trip to Merseyside deemed too gruelling? Bampton was having none of it: â€œWe all decided to go down to Charlton (for the FA Cup final), the main game that got viewed on telly. We went with our Croydon shirts on singing â€˜We are the champions.â€
You can hear Bamptonâ€™s pride in sticking two fingers up to the establishment: â€œSometimes you have to stand up for what you believe in. They (the commentators) were going â€˜old Croydon, league champions, are here in full voice.â€™ We got our own recognition.â€
Croydon started the following season where they had left off: Dominating those around them. Teenage midfielders Gemma and Carly Hunt, â€˜the naughty twinsâ€™ as Bampton calls them, formed a young core to an otherwise experienced side.
â€œThey probably gave me another two years playing, either side of me, they had me legs and I had the brains.â€ It was this combination of â€˜youth and experienceâ€™ that Bampton puts down to their later triumphs:
â€œI think that the success of Croydon was the right combination, because sometimes itâ€™s not the best players that make the best teams. We had a good squad, a combination of youth and experience. And determination. We were solid.â€
So solid that they almost extended their impressive unbeaten run to two years. Eventually, falling at the hands of Arsenal in May 2000. Though Arsenalâ€™s victory wouldnâ€™t be enough to prevent them from securing a second successive title that same month.
First, they had another FA Cup final to settle. This time the opponents would be six-time winners Doncaster Belles. A tough act to beat. Especially as Doncaster had become gripped with final fever, schools and clubs headed across county to cheer the women on in Sheffield Unitedâ€™s Brammall Lane. There was even a team song released (entitled Northern Prideâ€¦).
Inspired by a roaring crowd, Doncaster opened the game strongly, peppering Cope with a string of early chances. But in the 24th minute, completely against the run of play, Carmaine Walker rose into the air to power Croydon into the lead. It wouldnâ€™t last long. Shortly before half-time, Vicky Exley glanced in her own header, giving the Belles a well-deserved equaliser.
Early in the 2nd half, Cope would be called into action again. This time to save her own skin, batting away a penalty she had given away. Though, the real hero of the day would be 17-year-old Gemma Hunt. Her looped effort bouncing off the post into the net to silence the largely Doncaster-supporting crowd.
A nervy, yet battling, end to the game awaited. â€œIt was intense.â€ The nerves have stuck with Bampton all these years. â€œI think even when we watched the game the following day, it was like we were waiting for the whistle to blow.â€ Eight minutes of injury time would have to be played out. â€œIt was like hell.â€
But, they did it. To Bampton, it was another example of who they were, â€œI mean, again, that performance was all about just the team, the team spirit.â€ A spirit of supporting each other that stretched across the whole club.
Jarvie remembers the FA Cup win well. He was sat in Oxford with the menâ€™s team, whoâ€™d just secured their own title. â€œI phoned up to Sheffield to find out that theyâ€™d won 2-1 and I said â€˜The girls won the FA Cup!â€ What a party! We did the conga in the Oxford City clubhouse, partied all the way back and waited for the womenâ€™s coach.â€
Back up in Sheffield, unbeknownst to her, it would be a moment to savour for Bampton, â€œThat was the last game I played for Croydon, so, yeah, it will raise special memories. We celebrated all the way back from Sheffield to Croydon.â€ Where they received a royal welcome from Jarvie and the menâ€™s team…
â€œWhen they arrived about midnight, the girls were all dragged in to the clubhouse. I remember one of the players picking Julie Fletcher over his shoulder, carrying her in, it was good times.â€ Times that appear uplifting yet tragic with what was to come.
A Sticky End
â€œI thought it was a disgrace.â€ – Debbie Bampton
â€œIt went against the whole constitution, our constitution, the country constitution. You just canâ€™t do that.â€ â€“ Ken Jarvie
After securing their 2nd league and cup double in the space of four years only weeks before, Englandâ€™s most successful womenâ€™s team sent shockwaves across the game.
â€œIt wasnâ€™t on the agenda. They sprung it upon us, I had a sense that there was something afoot. I didnâ€™t expect it to be that.â€ Jarvie is clearly hurt when recalling the events at Croydonâ€™s now infamous AGM on 9th June 2000. With little warning, a majority of Croydonâ€™s players proposed severing their ties with Croydon to join Charlton Athletic as an affiliated womenâ€™s team.
The lure of Premier League association, and the extra funding that came with it, helped carry the motion 17 votes to three amongst the players. The board sat dumbfounded. It quickly came apparent that secret talks with the general manager at Charlton, Mick Everett, had laid the foundations for the shock move.
A move that was, at first, rejected by both the clubâ€™s committee and the FA as it stood against their rules. According to the FA, they had simply changed their name. They could not affiliate in any other capacity. Determined in their motives, the players defied these rejections and went over to train with Charlton.
Bampton wanted nothing to do with it, â€œI never went with them. I just couldnâ€™t out of loyalty to Ken, and to the club really. Everyone else went and they wanted me to go over and be manager but, I just couldnâ€™t do it.â€
Ridiculously Charlton, not Croydon, would be allowed to play in the following seasonâ€™s Charity Shield. â€œIt was like, hang on a minute. It was Croydon that won it for you to get in this position.â€ Bampton laughs away at the fact a barely existent club had â€˜stolenâ€™ their spot. And in even stranger news, Jarvie would be the gameâ€™s guest of honour, as he officially remained chairman of Charlton.
Eventually, he would depart and the FA would sanction the whole move. Croydon slipped out of existence. Dominators of English football no more. A hard pill to swallow for all those involved. Imagine Arsenal menâ€™s invincible side deciding to up sticks and move over to Chelsea at the attraction of Roman Abramovichâ€™s bank account. Ashley Cole aside, it would never have happened.
â€œI just think how can you just take a whole club? I still canâ€™t believe it. I still think it was unlawful.â€ Thereâ€™s a sense of injustice in Bamptonâ€™s voice. For her, itâ€™s the fact that they were allowed to take Croydonâ€™s spot in the Premier League that stunk worse of all.
â€œThey should never ever let them have our status. Like, even if all the players went, and we were allowed to carry on as Croydon but you know, they took our whole status. You know, they took our position in the league.â€
If Bampton or Jarvie wanted to rebuild, it would have to be from the bottom. Exactly where the club had started less than ten years before. A despondent Jarvie summed up his feelings on this to me:
â€œYou take something on, you get them to the highest level of the game, to be one of the most successful teams of that era and that happens, Charlton comes along and says â€˜we can have that.â€™ What is the point really? So, I never wanted to put a lot of energy in again for the same thing to happen.â€
Jarvie takes no prisoners in where he lays responsibility. Though it is his fury at the door of the FA which is most aptly placed. Despite the nature of this betrayal, itâ€™s hard to blame the players. In an era of little to no funding for the womenâ€™s game, any possibility of professionalism was a hugely attractive pull. Speaking to The Guardian at the time, this is clearly in Captain Gill Wylieâ€™s reasoning:
â€œIt’s been a bit of farce but we want to affiliate with Charlton for long-term benefit. Itâ€™s vital that the game is run more professionally. We have to follow the American Model and see how they have done it.â€
However angered Jarvie and Bampton are, they would surely be the first to admit that this betrayal was more a symptom of an inadequate system. A system in which women worked multiple jobs to put food on the table, whilst their male counterparts swanned around in fancy cars and flashy suits for simply doing the same thing. A system that led women to sacrifice their loyalty to have the faintest possibility of being paid for doing their jobs.
A system uncared for, disrespected. A system run by the FA. The well-known beacon of gender equality. On this, Jarvie and Wylie were in agreement, the game and the FA needed to change:
â€œI tried to explain to the FA that, though womenâ€™s football wasnâ€™t professional, if you want to be serious about it, you need to start operating it in a professional way.â€ In Jarvieâ€™s view, these points fell on death ears. â€œThey didnâ€™t have people with the capability of seeing that.â€
This is no surprise for an organisation that still only pays its Womenâ€™s FA Cup winners 1.4% of the menâ€™s prize fund. A staggering disparity. One that exposes the continued failure of the FA to invest in the game. Instead, relying on increased coverage and PR to do the job for them. In this case, relying on affiliations with successful menâ€™s teams, like Charlton, to hide their shocking lack of funding for the grassroots.
In the end, Bampton and Jarvie appeared to be proven right. Upon Charltonâ€™s Men being relegated from the Premier League in 2007, the first thing to be dropped was the womenâ€™s team. Announced as â€˜cost-cuttingâ€™ measures, the annual Â£250,000 saving looked measly in comparison to the Â£11 million the club received in parachute payments. A brutal exposure of the clubâ€™s priorities.
They may have re-emerged into existence soon after but their current second division status is a far-cry from the late 90â€™s dominateurs of womenâ€™s football at the Croydon Arena.
A Forgotten Era
The biggest casualty of this whole process is that Croydon, in all their success, have been largely forgotten about. This remarkable tale of Englandâ€™s elite players taking matters into their own hands and leading their club to the very top of the game should be one of folklore. Instead, as Goalkeeper Louise Cooper puts it: â€œNobody really knows who they were.â€
â€œPeople say â€˜Who did you play for?â€™ As soon as you say â€˜Tottenhamâ€™, theyâ€™re like â€˜Oh wow really?â€™ and Tottenham were like no one when I played for them, probably equivalent to division 5 or something. But, yet, when you say â€˜Croydonâ€™, theyâ€™re oblivious to it.â€
Itâ€™s hard to think what could have been, had the club not disappeared from existence. But it should not be remembered for the unfortunate end. Instead, for what they achieved and the positivity that emulated throughout their remarkable nine years.
â€œIt was like a family, really.â€ â€“ Debbie Bampton
For those looking to rekindle the glory days in Croydon, head on down to Club Langley to watch the recently revived Croydon FC women’s side. Storming to the top of Division 2 South in the Greater London Women’s Football League, you never know, maybe that late 90’s magic might be on it’s way back…