Well, that was a bit of a break, wasn’t it? Thankfully, after far too long a gap and an audience desperately awaiting their fix like so many chocolate addicts clawing their way through Lent (yes, I’ve given up chocolate, and I’m struggling) finally the main event’s back.
But enough about the near month-long gap between Sportist articles. This week sees the welcome and long overdue return of the FA Women’s Super League. And this time, it’s incredibly serious.
For starters, the English football pyramid has seen its single biggest development since the formation of the WSL back in November 2010 with the introduction of the long-awaited ten-team second tier and the prospect of relegation now firmly on the cards. Then there’s the still somewhat controversial introduction of Manchester City Women’s FC (formerly Manchester City Ladies’ FC until the club’s re-launch earlier in 2014) and the staggering level of investment made by the country’s wealthiest club into the women’s game. Add in the rebranding of Lincoln Ladies as Notts County Ladies FC, the departure of Head Coach Mark Sampson from league runners up, Bristol Academy, to take on the England Manager’s role and the frankly staggering level of transfer activity that has gone on within the league, not to mention Liverpool’s attempts to retain the title they won for the first time in 2013 (a precursor to the men’s team’s success this year, perhaps!) and it’s clear that 2014 is a year like no other for women’s football.
Then, of course, there’s the ten team second tier, featuring a roster of teams including the revered Doncaster Rovers Belles and newly formed London Bees, alongside teams including Aston Villa and Sunderland. The FA’s welcome commitment to women’s football promises to strengthen the depth of talent available to Sampson in his new role, as well as offering a further step towards a professional era in English women’s football. Exciting times.
In the top division, such has been the level of change that it’s difficult to make too many solid predictions. But these things we do know:
New Kids on the Block – Manchester City WFC
This club is serious about women’s football. Alongside the signings of England internationals Karen Bardsley (signed from Lincoln Ladies), Steph Houghton (Arsenal), Nicola Harding (Liverpool) Jill Scott and Toni Duggan (both Everton) – and how’s that for a spine of the team, by the way? – has come England youth player Isobel Christiansen and New Zealand international Betsy Hassett. Make no mistake about it; this is a team aiming for the title.
The Defending Champions – Liverpool Ladies FC
The reigning champions will be in no mood to surrender the title they stormed to in 2013 and the addition from Arsenal of England winger Gemma Davison is a statement of serious intent. The signing of Lucy Staniforth from Bristol Academy looked an inspired addition too, before a cruel pre-season ACL injury put paid to her 2014 campaign before it had even started, coming shortly after recovering from a brutal injury sustained to her other knee in the FA Cup final against Arsenal last season.
The Mighty, Fallen? – Arsenal Ladies FC
Here’s interesting. The perennial champions of women’s football, the club that had for so long set the pattern for success in the women’s game, appears troubled. A close season in which no fewer than 8 players have departed (Kim Little, Steph Houghton, Gilly Flaherty, Gemma Davison, Ellen White, Katie Chapman, Ciara Grant, Yvonne Tracy) and 6 signed in their stead (Siobhan Chamberlain, Casey Stoney, Anouk Hoogendijk, Christie Murray, Yukari Kinga and Shinobu Ohno), a defeat in both legs of the Champion’s League Quarter Final against league rivals Birmingham City and a growing realisation that last season’s loss of the title may be no mere blip adds up to a challenging season for Shelley Kerr after a debut year which brought two cups but also a sense of the first days of the fall of Rome.
While Arsenal’s additions are laudable, their departures could be near grievous with the loss of Houghton, Flaherty, Davison, White and Chapman to domestic rivals a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
An Unknown Quantity – Bristol Academy FC
2013’s runners up have had a tough pre-season too. While the club has done exceptionally well to hold onto its Three Amigos (Natalia Pablos, Laura Del Rio and Keka Vega), the loss of Siobhan Chamberlain to Arsenal and departure of the influential Mark Sampson for international management are potential body blows. The side demonstrated an unfaltering ability to mix with wealthier and more widely favoured clubs last year, though, and should teams with higher expectations struggle to integrate significant volumes of new players, Bristol could once again capitalise.
The Last Bastion – Birmingham City FC
Few gave them much of a chance when drawn against domestic giants Arsenal in the quarter finals of the Champions League and even after a 1-0 first leg victory at home, most expected their more vaunted rivals to have too much in the tank in the return leg. Not so, and an aggregate 3-0 win has left Birmingham as England’s last representatives in Europe’s premier continental competition. With Sweden’s Tyresö FF their next opponents, Birmingham will require a performance even stronger than that which ousted the Gunners to secure their place in the Champions League Final. Yet possessed of a youthful side with exceptional vigour and no lack of pace, few would willingly bet against them.
The WSL 2 brings down the curtain for the very first time this evening, with Oxford United Women hosting London Bees, while the WSL 1 commences on Wednesday with matches between Birmingham & Everton, and Notts County at home to Arsenal. This season promises fireworks. Don’t miss a thing.
FA WSL 1 Fixtures
Birmingham vs. Everton (16/04)
Notts County vs. Arsenal (16/04)
Bristol Academy vs. Chelsea (17/04)
Liverpool vs. Manchester City (17/04)
FA WSL 2 Fixtures
Oxford Utd vs. London Bees (14/04)
Aston Villa vs. Doncaster Rovers Belles (16/04)
Reading vs. Yeovil Town (16/04)
Watford vs. Millwall Lionesses (16/03)
Durham vs. Sunderland (17/04)
Image from FA WSL.com – Thanks!