At least four teams in a Sheffield women’s football league are boycotting matches after a club fielded a transgender player accused of causing a season-ending injury to an opponent.
Mexborough Athletic refused to play Rossington Ladies on Sunday night in protest at the presence of Francesca Needham, 31, amid outrage throughout the league at the openly trans player’s alleged connection to an incident that has left a rival out of action for several months.
Needham has since agreed to withdraw “for the foreseeable future,” acknowledging the “challenges faced from teams unwilling to play against us while I am on the field”, but now intends to pursue a case for discrimination.
The claim of discrimination is strongly rejected by opposition coaches in the Sheffield and Hallamshire Women and Girls League, who insist they are acting solely in the interests of the players’ safety.
“There are a lot of 16-year-old girls in our league who are getting into football for the first time,” said a source familiar with the situation. “It’s a huge concern, and virtually every team in the league has taken the stance to stick together and not to play against Rossington for safety reasons. Francesca is arguing discrimination, but that’s not the case. It’s purely about safety. I’ve already told my players, ‘We’re not playing them. I’d sooner throw away the points.’”
The Needham case has potentially far-reaching implications, with at least 50 transgender players understood to be registered in women’s leagues across England. The Football Association’s policy is to decide gender eligibility for players over 16 on a case-by-case basis, with biological males wanting to play in women’s football required to show their blood testosterone levels are “within the natal female range” for an “appropriate length of time so as to minimise any potential advantage.” These levels are meant to be checked annually.
Mexborough withdrew in advance of Sunday’s scheduled match with Rossington, unwilling to subject their players – four of whom are under 16 – to Needham’s levels of physical strength. Bentley Ladies also pulled out of their fixture on the same basis. Telegraph Sport understands the strength of feeling in the league is so intense that if Needham had not stepped aside, Rossington would have been unable to find another team to play until February.
‘We’ve been terrified of being accused of being transphobic’
“We had a Zoom call together and you could feel the emotion pouring out,” a source said. “We’ve been terrified of saying anything. We don’t want to be accused of being transphobic. We don’t want the names of our clubs dragged through the mud. It has been like walking on eggshells.
“I’ve heard of women thinking of deregistering as players because of this. There are psychological scars. It’s not fair. We’re volunteer coaches – we don’t need this. We’re responsible for the welfare of our players. And I don’t think it’s being taken seriously enough.
“I got to see this situation first-hand. Five minutes into our game, it was obvious Francesca was biologically male. The league is competitive and physical, but a lot of my harder-tackling players were bouncing off this person. They took matters into their own hands and backed out for their own safety. These are strong players in their mid-30s. We were gobsmacked. Even the referee at the time couldn’t believe it.
“I sent emails to my league and to the local FA, expressing deep concerns, but heard nothing back. So, I called the manager of the team Rossington were playing next. I was really worried. I wanted him at least to be aware so they could make their own choice. Unfortunately, one of their players was injured. A shot from Francesca smashed into her knee. She’s out for the rest of the season – it’s an absolute nightmare.
“I feel let down. The injury to that player could have been avoided. Everyone’s in a situation where we’ve had to make this stand.”
There is no suggestion the shot that caused the injury was anything other than accidental.
Needham, who declares as a transwoman, responded with indignation, writing in a statement: “Rossington Main Ladies FC has faced challenges from teams unwilling to play against us while I am on the field. This unfortunate circumstance has prompted me to investigate pursuing a case of discrimination, as I believe it represents a breach of the code of conduct regarding diversity and inclusion, as well as safeguarding of adults in football established by both the Football Association and the Sheffield and Hallamshire Women and Girls League.”
Fiona McAnena, director of sport for Fair Play for Women, emphasised the scale of the debate unleashed by the Needham controversy. “People say, ‘It’s only a few trans players, what difference does it make? Well, here’s one male player in one team, affecting every team in that league – that’s over 150 women. They don’t want to play if it’s so unfair, they’re worried about injury, and some are even talking about giving up football, if this is how it’s going to be.
“There are 50 male players approved by the FA to play women’s football in England – and those are the ones they know about. So this is affecting thousands of women and girls in football. This is happening all over the country. We have raised this with the Equality and Human Rights Commission as a matter of urgency. They need to point out that female-only sport is lawful.
“Many sports governing bodies receive funding from the national sports councils to promote female participation. Surely it is time for the sports councils to insist that sport governing bodies provide fair and safe sport for women and girls – or lose funding.”