The Women’s Championship will feature 11 teams instead of 12 next season following Reading’s withdrawal from the league, confirmed by the Football Association.

Reading announced on Sunday, following an exclusive report by the Guardian on Friday, that they have applied to join the fifth tier of the English women’s football pyramid. This decision comes after months of financial instability and the collapse of a last-minute takeover bid intended to save the women’s team. The news has left staff, players, and fans deeply saddened.

According to regulations for the women’s pyramid, any club withdrawing from a league must re-enter at least two tiers lower. Consequently, Reading will join the Southern Region Football League Premier Division, which is in tier five. This marks a rapid decline for a club that was competing in the Women’s Super League just over a year ago and had finished in the top half of the WSL four years ago.

The Championship will now operate with one team less for the upcoming season, which starts on September 7. While league officials considered adding a 12th team, it was deemed too late in the summer to find a new team that could meet the required licensing commitments. As a result, the fixture lists had to be finalized urgently with pre-season preparations already underway.

The FA has indicated plans to restore the Championship to 12 teams by the 2025-26 season. To facilitate this, only one team will be relegated to the third tier next season instead of the usual two.

In a statement, the FA and the Women’s Professional Game confirmed that Reading informed them of their inability to meet the compliance requirements necessary to continue in the Championship. They stated, “We have been working closely with Reading FC Women all season to support the club and give them every opportunity to compete in the Barclays Women’s Championship next season. However, following the club’s decision to withdraw, the Women’s Football Board has accepted their application to re-enter the Women’s Football Pyramid in the Southern Region Football League Premier Division from the 2024-25 season. This decision protects the integrity of the Women’s Football Pyramid and the welfare of the players and staff.”

Dawn Airey, chair of the Women’s Super League and Championship, expressed deep sadness over the impact on Reading’s players, staff, and fans, acknowledging their significant role in women’s football and the community. She emphasized the priority of supporting current players and staff to ensure their continued participation in the women’s game.

Reading, in their statement, expressed reluctance in withdrawing from the Championship, citing financial constraints as the reason. They acknowledged the disappointment this decision brings but noted that it allows the club to maintain a women’s football department.

Fears had been growing that the club might not be able to operate any women’s football team amidst ongoing uncertainty about the sale of Reading FC by Chinese owner Dai Yongge. On Friday, parents and players of multiple age-group teams, including the Under-21s who won a senior cup last season, were informed by staff that their teams could not continue. Staff learned of the club’s decision to withdraw from the Championship earlier in the day, raising concerns about potential job losses, although no redundancies have been confirmed yet.

Former Reading midfielder Fara Williams, England’s most-capped player, expressed her devastation on social media, highlighting her personal connection to the club. Ex-Reading manager Kelly Chambers, who led the team to a fourth-place finish in the WSL and a Women’s FA Cup semi-final, also voiced her sorrow and frustration over the situation, criticizing the club’s management.

Notable former Reading players include current England stars Fran Kirby and Mary Earps, as well as Wales internationals Sophie Ingle and Jess Fishlock. The club transitioned to part-time status 12 months ago after being relegated from the WSL, and due to financial issues, they currently have only two first-team women’s players under contract.