Competitive winter football gets under way again this weekend with the return of the slightly new-look FA Women’s Premier League.
No longer just two divisions with little to play for other than the satisfaction of being top of your region, there is a real extra bite this season that could make 2014/15 the finest for women’s football outside the Super League.
Key to its new standing is the FA decision to introduce the potential for promotion to that summer élite from this season – far earlier than had been envisaged.
The FA say it was always their intention to bring in promotion when the time was right.
But it’s surely no coincidence that a well-supported – and extremely professionally argued – campaign, in which Lewes’ head of women’s and girls’ football, Jacquie Agnew, played a high-profile role, has led to FA action sooner rather than later.
Of course, things are never as straightforward as they might seem, and there is no Super League guarantee for the Premier League winners – just the promise of a play-off over two legs between the champions of the northern and southern leagues, which will lead to promotion if the winning club satisfies FAWSL membership criteria.
But Kelly Simmons, the FA’s director of women’s football, told Sent Her Forward back in June, when the news was revealed, that she knew some WPL teams already satisfied the licensing requirements, and she promised FA help for the successful club to prepare for the summer of 2016.
The same will apply next season, eventually taking the Super League up to 20 teams, as there will be no relegation from the WSL in either season, with the clubs protected by the terms of their existing Super League licences, which expire in 2017.
Beyond that is still uncertainty, as is the short-term fate of this season’s play-off winners, who are unlikely to compete in next season’s Premier League if they are due to join the Super League before the next winter season is over.
But the FA’s action has certainly sparked many Premier League clubs into life, and there is a real buzz around the Premier League grounds in the run-up to Sunday’s kick-off.
Add the spicy storyline of the contrasting – but inextricably linked – summers of Gillingham and Brighton, as well as a spring in the step of the country’s national team once again, and you have a season that must surely finally bring in the crowds that so many of us believe women’s football deserves.
In addition, the FA – which at one stage was feared to be planning to drop its title from the Premier Leagues – has now also wrapped its ever-lengthening arm around what were the Combination Leagues, giving all four regional divisions FA designation, and formalising the winter football pathway, as administrators tend to call it.
Quite what this move will bring the newly-named FAW Premier League Division One North, Midlands, South East and South West remains to be seen. But it seems to have instilled a degree of confidence, excitement and security that might have been missing previously.
So, what of this weekend’s games? Sent Her Forward takes its customary look ahead to the FAW Premier League’s first Sunday of the season, plus some highlights of the first round of matches in the third tier of the women’s winter football pyramid, the London & South East Regional Women’s League.
FAW Premier League Southern
Two of the three newcomers to the league head for Sussex, with Copsewood Coventry, winners of last season’s Midland Combination, and Plymouth Argyle, victors in the South West Combination, visiting Brighton and Lewes respectively.
Brighton v Copsewood Coventry
Copsewood replace last season’s Premier League Southern champions, Coventry City, who have been switched to the Northern league. And they will provide the first competitive test for the squad of all stars assembled by new Brighton head coach James Marrs.
As has been well documented, Marrs, who steered Gillingham to second place last term, has taken the heart of that side with him to the south coast. But the club have so far resisted invitations to confirm the make-up of their new squad, and have played their pre-season games away from the public gaze, so quite how they are shaping up remains a bit of a mystery.
However, they will be hot favourites for the title, and Copsewood are likely to have a baptism of fire when they visit Brighton’s new home at Culver Road, Lancing.
Lewes v Plymouth Argyle
Lewes, who finished above Brighton for the first time last season, have also indirectly been involved in the summer upheaval, snapping up John Donoghue when he made way for Marrs at Brighton.
Donoghue replaces Agnew, who is now responsible for the entire female football family at the Dripping Pan, and both seem happy with how the first couple of months have gone.
Lewes have enjoyed a decent pre-season, with new signing Faye Rabson among the goals, but they know that the demanding Premier League season will prove a tough test for their new two-team squad, having set up a development side to play in the FAW Premier Reserves League.
They had a stop-start season last term, but enjoyed a fine unbeaten run at the end, during which they won five of their last six games to finish sixth.
They host Plymouth Argyle, who won last season’s South West Combination League by four points from Devon rivals Exeter City.
Tottenham Hotspur v Gillingham
Third element of the summer triangle are Gillingham, who, in the words of their new manager, Simon Ratcliffe, have had their heart ripped out by the player exodus to Brighton.
He has had just over two weeks with those who remained – including signings made before his arrival by the head of Gillingham FC’s academy, Darren Hare – and they are a squad very much untested at this level.
But now part of the men’s club – with all the professional facilities that go with it – they will have the bonus of playing their home games at the Priestfield Stadium this season.
They’ll have to wait until September 7 for that experience, though, as they kick off the first of two successive away games at Spurs.
Ratcliffe admits having limited knowledge of his first opponents – something true to varying degrees of all managers at the beginning of a new season – but told his club’s website: “I know they’ve signed a new goalkeeper and outfield player, and I’m aware of how they played last season.
“Only when the season starts will we truly know.”
Sent Her Forward one to watch
Portsmouth v Cardiff City
Fourth meet third at Pompey’s new home ground of Cams Alders, Fareham. Both sides were in with a hope of the Premier League title last term until the final weeks, when Coventry’s storming run took them past both clubs and beyond front-runners Gillingham.
Both have that extra season’s experience under their belts now but remain unknown quantities after the summer’s comings and goings.
Pompey have lost talisman Gemma Simmonds, who has followed the likes of Leeta Rutherford and Kirsty McGee to the Super League.
But they have signed former Aston Villa top-flight striker Ini Umotong, who will provide competition for places up front for Gemma Hillier and Charley Wilson, who has recovered from an injury which kept her out of Pompey’s run-in last season.
Manager Perry Northeast says the injury might have done the striker some good. “Charley’s back, looking very, very strong, looking lively and really up for the season and raring to go,” he said.
“In a roundabout way, perhaps having that month off in May has done her the world of good because the rest of her body could rest up while she recovered from her injury.”
Defender Tiffany Taylor, too, is close to full fitness again, according to the Pompey boss.
Not such promising news, though, about the club’s central defenders, three of whom are expected to be out for much of the first half of the season.
Lauren Murphy, Fiona McMillan and Victoria Summerfield are not expected back until around Christmas while they recover from serious injuries.
But Northeast is buoyed by the strength in depth he believes he now has after some of the younger and inexperienced players were thrown in to the first team a little earlier than they might otherwise have been.
“Nadine Bazan and Jess Frampton are fantastic full-backs, and Jodie Goodall has looked really strong (in pre-season),” he said.
He is particularly excited about the development of Shannon Sievewright, who impressed when drafted in to the first team last season. “Shannon has come back with a real steely determination,” he added.
As with all Sunday’s opening games, no titles will be won, nor relegations ordained. But in a game between two sides who were so closely matched last season, a successful start for either will fortify early-season confidence, which, of course, can breed lengthy runs of success which might ultimately shape their seasons.
Premier League Southern fixtures
|Brighton & HA v Copsewood (Coventry)|
|Keynsham Town v Charlton Athletic|
|Lewes v Plymouth Argyle|
|Portsmouth v Cardiff City|
|Queens Park Rangers v West Ham U|
|Tottenham H v Gillingham|
FAW Premier League Divison One South West
Cheltenham Town v Chichester City
Chichester’s quest for top-flight winter football begins – as so much of last season appeared to – in the West Country.
Matt Wright’s team, who looked on course for promotion for much of the season until injuries and a points deduction took their toll, are likely to have a more focused approach to the coming campaign, with the league the priority.
Last season they had a fine run in the FAW Cup and won the Sussex Challenge Cup for the first time, while their reserves won their own league at a canter.
But Wright says the focus now is exclusively on the first team. After a mixed pre-season, in which the first-team and development squads have struggled to find fixtures, only minutes on the field will tell him how close his players are to stepping up a couple of levels this season.
He has lost Hollie Wride to Super League Watford, but has brought in some new faces – and seen the return of Kerri Grant after a lengthy absence.
Some of the development side are likely to find themselves in first-team action this season, but with Chichester’s eyes on the Super League, they should expect to be competing with yet more signings if they struggle to deliver.
Their hosts on Sunday, Cheltenham, were promoted last season from the South West Women’s Football League, where they lost only three league games in finishing second to St Nicholas.
Sent Her Forward one to watch
Forest Green Rovers v Gosport Borough
Gosport Borough are also newcomers to the league, having been promoted from the Southern Region Women’s Premier League at the expense of Maidenhead United following a disciplinary hearing.
It’s a daunting step up for the Hampshire club, who have raced through the lower leagues, with three promotions in successive seasons.
And while they have made a couple of signings, they have been hit by the loss of three strikers, through injury, a job move and pregnancy.
It makes Sunday’s visit to Forest Green, who impressed in finishing fourth last season, all the more of a challenge, but one that manager Dave Pickering says he is looking forward to.
“It’s a massive step up for us,” he told Sent Her Forward. I’m apprehensive but excited.”
Pickering is looking for a period of consolidation after the incredible events of the past two or three years and admitted: “This season will be our toughest test to date.”
A major blow to the club’s ambitions came this week, on the eve of the season, when their newly appointed coach had to quit because of work commitments, leaving them hunting a top-quality replacement.
But they are also looking to strengthen their reserves squad as well as bring in a striker for the first team.
Pickering said: “Our concern has been trying to strengthen our reserves, as they fell short of players last year. It upsets me to see that in general we are losing women in football.
“However, I’m hoping that when people see the improvements made at Privett Park, with the new pitch and refurbished clubhouse, the package – along with the friendliness of the girls – may encourage more.”
Pickering feels a mid-table finish and a couple of good runs in cup competitions would represent a decent season for Borough – and certainly Sunday will give them a good idea of what to expect in the newly designated division.
Premier League Division One South West fixtures
|Cheltenham Town v Chichester City|
|Gosport Borough v Forest Green Rovers|
|Shanklin v Exeter City|
|St Nicholas v Swindon Town|
London & South East Regional Women’s League Premier Division
Newly promoted Aylesford start life in the higher league with a home game against Fulham Foundation, formerly Westfield.
Bexhill United, who are also new to the division, open their campaign at a third promoted team, Carshalton Athletic.
Sent Her Forward one to watch
Crawley Wasps v Maidstone United
Last season’s third and fourth teams meet at Three Bridges in a match that neither will relish as they try to get up to speed.
Certainly Paul Harding’s Crawley have had some upheaval, losing star striker Faye Rabson to Lewes (although technically still eligible for the Wasps) and midfielder Alexandra Lebrato, who has returned to Spain.
The creation of a second string this season, who will play in the Sussex County Women’s Division, should provide him with a bigger pool of players to select from, but it seems likely these first few games will be when most managers start to find their feet and identify their best XIs.
London & South East Regional Women’s League fixtures
|Aylesford v Fulham Foundation|
|Carshalton Athletic v Bexhill U|
|Crawley Wasps v Maidstone U|
|Hassocks v Old Actonians|
|KIKK v AFC Wimbledon|
|London Corinthians v Eastbourne Town|
All fixtures courtesy of TheFA.com Full-Time and may be subject to alteration
Sent Her Forward will provide a comprehensive round-up of Sunday’s games. If your team played, details of results, scorers, highlights – and even photos – are welcome. See Contact Me/Links for details.