The denouement of the 2014 FA Women’s Super League was a dramatic one. Liverpool – in third place as the last day of the season began – shocked Chelsea and Manchester City to cling on to their title courtesy of a 3-0 win against Bristol Academy with goals from England trio Lucy Bronze, Natasha Dowie and Fara Williams.
“Winning the league was amazing,” recalls striker Gemma Davison. “Our game finished about five minutes before the others, so we’d done our job, and we were just chilling out on the pitch. We had to wait, be calm, and when we found out the whistles had blown, people were coming out saying, ‘We’ve won it!’ and everyone went mad, it was unbelievable, I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life.”
Davison has since completed a move to Chelsea, giving her the opportunity to work with Emma Hayes, a coach she admires hugely.
“I’ve always wanted to play for her,” admits Davison. “I think she’s probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. I like the philosophies she’s put in place, and I’m having the time of my life here, I’m really happy.”
Davison began her career at Arsenal, a club of which she is still very fond, moving away to play in America before the WPS league’s collapse in 2012, and returning to Meadow Park soon afterwards before her switch to Liverpool for the 2014 season.
“I’m an Arsenal fan for life, but I just wanted something fresh,” she explains. “I wanted to build on my game a little bit more. It wasn’t anything personal, I just wanted to do something different, so I decided to step away from it, but I’m forever thankful for everything they gave me.”
In the past two years, Arsenal’s former glories have certainly faded a little as key and long-serving players such as Davison, Katie Chapman, Ciara Grant and Jayne Ludlow have left. The once-dominant Arsenal reclaimed some semblance of dignity by winning the 2014 FA Women’s Cup, but failed to make it a double with an uncharacteristically limp display against Manchester City in the Continental Cup final, meaning they lost their grip on that particular trophy for the first time ever.
Defender Casey Stoney is sure that they will be more competitive when the 2015 season kicks off at the end of March.
“We’ve made some really good signings, including [England forward] Lianne Sanderson. We’re going to be a hell of a lot stronger than we were last year – but then,” she adds, “every single team’s stronger.”
Winger Rachel Yankey thinks that new manager Pedro Martinez Losa’s regime promises future success after the instability of 2014, with coach Shelley Kerr’s mid-season departure.
“He’ll bring his new style in that he wants to play, and it’s about us adjusting to that and doing it for the season,” she says. “Get the ball down, play it through, play nice football that people like to watch. There’s nothing different in those terms. Last season we lost our way a little bit. It was difficult, with having so many different managers and so many different people coming in throughout the season. It was like ‘who are we? What are we doing?’ It’s really just about getting back on track.”
One of the problems with the WSL’s scheduling is the necessity of a mid-season break to allow for international tournaments. In 2015, many of the players will also have half an eye on Canada, where the World Cup takes place in June.
“It’s hard to get continuity in terms of performances when the scheduling hasn’t been great,” admits Stoney, “but you have to take into consideration the Cyprus Cup [an international tournament at the beginning of March], so we can’t start till after that, then there’s a major tournament almost every summer. It’s just making sure you look after your players in terms of training intensities, game loading, and players have to recover the best they can – we have a responsibility to look after ourselves.”
“Last year we played for 11 months of the year,” shrugs new Bristol Academy captain Sophie Ingle. “It’s hard, but it’s got to be done.”
The WSL is, then, very much a test of a squad’s strength in depth and stamina, and all the clubs across the two divisions have tweaked their personnel during the close season.
“Younger players aren’t getting so much of a look-in because clubs are buying people in to win the league,” says goalkeeper Sarah Quantrill of WSL2’s Millwall. “We’ve kept the same squad, added one or two in, everyone gels, everyone gets on, no cliques, and it makes it fun. Last year [in WSL2] there were only one or two teams that really were going to win it, and now there are four or five.”
“I hope Everton can come straight back up,” says Davison. “Reading have got some great players as well: Fran Kirby will be their driving force, she’s a great player with a spark about her. It’s all to play for in that league.”
As for the WSL1 champions?
Ingle is tipping Manchester City, led by England captain Steph Houghton: “From the signings they’ve made, they’ve brought in a good few players. I think they struggled defensively last season, but they’ve brought in players now that can do well for them at the back.”
“I’m confident in what we’ve got at Chelsea,” says Davison. “Liverpool will be solid, Matt Beard has brought in some good quality players, so they’ll be a threat. You can never doubt Arsenal, and I think people should watch out for Manchester City. But none of them would be a sure bet – there’ll be a lot of ups and downs before the season ends.”
You can follow Carrie Dunn on Twitter (@carriesparkle)
The Women’s Super League begins on March 18, 2015 and you can find fixtures, tables, ticket information and much more here.