Premier League proves its value after door to Super League is opened

Part one of Sent Her Forward’s review of the season – starting with the FAW Premier League

Composite of action featuring Portsmouth, Brighton, Lewes and Gillingham

A season to remember: (clockwise) Portsmouth win the league, Brighton come so close, Gillingham celebrations are rare but Lewes consolidate (Photos: Jordan Hampton/Paul Hazlewood/BHA/Julian Hart/James Boyes)

There’s nothing like a bit of incentive to bring out the best in sportsmen and women.

The prospect of a place in the Super League for the winners of this season’s Premier League’s southern division had the dual effect of at once raising standards on and off the field – and, ironically, elevating the profile of the very league that teams are now so keen to get out of.

The battles for what was effectively a Super League play-off place, between the winners of the northern and southern leagues were both compelling and competitive, resulting in a largely two-horse race in the north and a much broader contest in the south, with no fewer than four clubs still in with a genuine chance of becoming champions as the season entered its final month.

Whatever the influences and thought processes that led to the FA freeing up meritocratic places in WSL2 for the 2016 and 2017 campaigns, the decision has paid immense dividends, highlighting what quality there is in the women’s game, even outside that Super League élite.

Indeed, many connected with the Super League have expressed their confidence that many Premier League clubs would survive – if not flourish – in the summer game, and few would doubt that, if they can get it right off the field, the play-off winners, Sheffield FC, should have little trouble doing so on the pitch.

So what of the southern division campaign?

When I previewed the season back in August I analysed the chances of those clubs nearest to Sent Her Forward‘s home territory.

Here I assess how they fared, compared with my predictions, and give my verdicts on the other clubs who helped make the 2014/15 campaign such a success.

Brighton

Prediction: 1st

Finish: 2nd

In such a competitive season, finishing second can hardly be described as failure for James Marrs’ team. Indeed, promotion was not a pre-requisite of the former Gillingham boss’s appointment.

Kirsty Barton celebrates for Brighton against Spurs (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHA)

Brighton ran Portsmouth so close in a terrific battle for the Premier League title, with the likes of Kirsty Barton and Deanna Cooper among their many stars (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHA)

But the progress his multi-talented team made during an impressive campaign not only brought a rare smile of satisfaction to his face but set the club up nicely for another assault on the title next term.

With the club making great strides off the pitch, too – the players reaping the benefits of top-class training facilities and access to professional strength and conditioning staff – Brighton will remain one of the teams to beat next season.

Brighton were widely regarded as the most aesthetically pleasing side to watch in the division last season, but with Portsmouth in particular spotting an Achilles heel, doing the double over their title rivals, Marrs knows his side is not yet the finished product.

Indeed, several clubs identified their defence as the key area to exploit – not because it was poor, but because Marrs’ preferred style of play gave teams a chance to put pressure on defenders when in possession.

The fact that Brighton finished second, just six points adrift, with a fixture still outstanding, and with the best defensive record in the league, suggests their rivals weren’t entirely successful in exploiting that perceived weakness.

Key player: Deanna Cooper Had an outstanding season in the centre of defence, but proved a genuine threat going forward – even on the wing at times.

Verdict: An overwhelming success, with a suggestion that the best is yet to come.

Gillingham

Prediction: Struggle for survival

Finish: 11th (relegated, subject to Premier League confirmation)

It was always going to be a struggle for the Gills after losing the bulk of their first team to Brighton following Marrs’ move. And so it proved.

Simon Ratliffe, James Marrs and Dan Wright at Brighton v Gillingham (Photo: Julian Hart)

The departure of James Marrs (centre), who was replaced by Simon Ratcliffe (left) had a big impact on Gillingham’s season (Photo: Julian Hart)

Two early-season victories, over Keynsham Town and Copsewood Coventry, perhaps papered over some of the cracks of what was to become an extraordinarily challenging season for a side comprising largely the previous season’s reserves with the occasional graduate from their centre of excellence.

They suffered a horrendous mid-season, and despite picking up a couple more wins in February and March – including an outstanding 3-2 victory over West Ham United – they finally fell into the bottom two in the last weeks of the campaign following Copsewood’s remarkable revival.

On the plus side, Simon Ratcliffe’s players are now battle-hardened after a season of development, in which there was more than the occasional sign of the team gelling, and being thrown in at the deep end produced a number of unexpected successes.

Courtney Shanley impressed regularly in goal, the likes of Emma Michelmore stood out in defence, Ellie Manning established herself and Georgia Reece proved that the gap from youth to senior football could be bridged.

Key player: Ashlee Hincks Most impressive of all, perhaps, was the continued development of the striker who scored 19 goals in 23 starts for the Premier League strugglers, earning herself a move to Super League Millwall Lionesses, for whom she has already impressed.

Verdict: After finishing second in the previous campaign, those who survived the mass exodus at Gillingham will be devastated by their decline. But with Ratcliffe appointed only a couple of weeks before the start of the season, and having to rely so heavily on players untried at this level, it was no surprise that they struggled. The key now is to keep the bulk of their talented players and to enjoy a little continuity.

Lewes

Prediction: Top half

Finished: 7th

After an impressive 2013/14, in which they had finished above Brighton to claim Sussex bragging rights, last season never hit the same heights.

With “Ms Lewes” Jacquie Agnew stepping down as manager after 12 years of almost non-stop improvement, 2014/15 was always going to be tough – and so it proved.

Michelle Beazley saves at point-blank from Gemma Hillier, of Portsmouth, Oct 8 2014 (Photo: James Prickett)

Goalkeeper Michelle Beazley was one of a number of high-profile departures from Lewes in a season of transition (Photo: James Prickett)

John Donoghue, no longer wanted at Brighton, was shown that he was at their Sussex neighbours. And while the style might have changed a little, the results have not yet caught up, leaving room for improvement in the coming season.

But like his successor at Brighton, Donoghue was not expected to bring instant success, and to finish top of the league’s unofficial second division suggests plenty of grounds for optimism in the coming season.

Indeed, on the few occasions I watched them last season, I detected notable improvements, with their display against an almost unstoppable Brighton in April a marked step up from their routine defeat to Portsmouth at the start of the campaign.

Lewes suffered some major losses off the field as well as on it, with Agnew’s former assistant, Dave Cole, leaving the club and goalkeeper Michelle Beazley also seeking pastures new, while stalwart Clare Trafford bade farewell, Katie Baker switched to pursue her boxing dream and promising striker Faye Rabson withdrew for personal reasons.

But there were some net gains, not least progress of the youngsters in the club’s two development sides, which resulted in senior debuts for some – and the promise of many more to come.

Key player: Sian Heather If skill and endeavour could be bottled…

Verdict: The improvement in performances – if not always results – together with the emergence of so much promising talent in the club’s feeder teams suggests that another mid-table finish in a much tougher league this season was a minor success.

With new training facilities on their way and the club very much after a place in the Super League, for which Agnew and colleagues have worked so hard, there will need to be tangible evidence of continued improvement and strides towards realising that promise next time round.

Portsmouth

Prediction: 3rd or 4th

Finish: Champions

Portsmouth’s impressive showing in 2013/14 suggested they would again be a force to reckon with last season. But just how much they would improve was a secret known only to those inside the club.

Joint-manager Perry Northeast became sole manager as Katie Poore’s work commitments forced her to take a step back – although her continued input as assistant should not be under-estimated.

And the improvements this season soon became evident. There was an extra steeliness to the Portsmouth side this time around – as much in players’ heads as in their play.

They got off to the most devastating of starts, crashing 7-3 at home to title rivals Cardiff City, who took advantage of the early sending-off of Lucy Quinn to turn a deficit into a handsome victory.

Quinn’s dismissal was overturned on appeal, but the damage done by being forced to play 75 minutes with only 10 players was irreparable.

Ini Umotong is congratulated by Gemma Hillier after scoring for Portsmouth against Poole Town in the Hampshire Cup, February 15 2015 (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

Ini Umotong and Gemma Hillier were key figures in Portsmouth’s brilliant season (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

However, far from caving in, Pompey embarked upon a run of 21 league and cup matches without defeat – 20 of them wins – before losing two in succession, against Sheffield (who were to become their nemesis) in the League Cup and Super League Millwall in the FAW Cup.

At the time, they were well and truly in the title race, but with rivals Brighton up next, many were wondering whether Pompey’s collective nerve would hold.

It did – they beat Brighton for the second time in the campaign. And although they were to suffer a couple more hiccups – being held to a draw by seemingly doomed Copsewood and then losing 6-3 to Charlton Athletic, another of their title rivals – they ended the regular season in style, retaining the Hampshire Cup and then reeling off six successive league victories in the white heat of the closing stages of the title race.

The ultimate prize – a place in the Super League – eluded them when Sheffield scored an injury-time winner in the champions’ play-off. But when the bitter disappointment of that one-off result fades, Portsmouth will realise that they have grown under Northeast into a force not only with which to be reckoned, but also highly respected in a league that itself has had its profile lifted by the lifeline created by the link to the Super League.

Key player: Ini Umotong Not necessarily their best player in a season of outstanding performances, but the glue that bound the team together, not least during the loss to injury of the influential Gemma Hillier, providing the constant supply of goals that gave her team-mates the confidence to carry on playing the game their way. Oh – and she’s also the league’s sole representative at the Women’s World Cup.

Verdict: Portsmouth are the best team in the south, according to the league table. And their performance in the high-profile play-off confirmed to a wider football world what the rest of us had come to know. They – like one or two of the rivals they beat to the Premier League title – are ready for the Super League.

The rest

Like many other leagues, the FAWPL Southern became two divisions in one, with the battle to avoid relegation becoming almost as riveting as the one for the title.

Charlton Athletic celebrate another Kit Graham goal (Photo: Keith Gillard)

Celebrations were commonplace in a goal-laden, trophy-tastic season for Charlton Athletic (Photo: Keith Gillard)

How virtually all-conquering Charlton Athletic finished only third will be a mystery to so many clubs – the ones they defeated on the way to winning the Premier League Cup; those they beat to clinch the Ryman Cup, and those who fell by the wayside as they took the Capital Cup, too.

Not to mention their league successes: a 4-1 victory over pace-setters Brighton and that 6-3 win over Portsmouth sandwiched between their 12-1 triumph at Keynsham on the opening day and their 11-1 romp in their final match of the season against Plymouth Argyle.

But occasional – but crucial – slip-ups against Portsmouth, Spurs and Brighton, followed by capitulation against Cardiff when the title was finally beyond them, cost them dearly.

With prize asset Kit Graham no doubt coveted by half of the Super League, much will depend on whether Jeremy Parsons, who, incredibly, remains only caretaker-manager after continuing the magnificent work done by his predecessor, Stuart Weston, can keep the bulk of that talented side together for another tilt at the big time.

For much of the season, Cardiff City looked for all the world like they might win the league – but once it was confirmed that they would not be eligible for the English Super League, their season fell apart, and a double defeat by West Ham in the space of eight days removed them as realistic contenders.

Tottenham Hotspur, too, looked to have a chance of the title – albeit an outside one – as they lurked, menacingly, on the fringes of the race. But their generally disappointing results against their rivals were ultimately to cost them.

Nevertheless, their fifth-place finish represented a marked improvement for Karen Hills’ team following their eight place the previous season.

Stacey Little and Charley Wilson in opposition (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

West Ham captain Stacey Little led by example (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

Speaking of improvements, West Ham United, in their first season under former Hammers legend Julian Dicks, were transformed from strugglers into a side worthy of their place in the top of the two unofficial divisions created in the Premier League Southern.

After big changes in personnel, style and philosophy over the close season, it was always going to be a campaign of adjustment and consolidation for West Ham.

And so it seemed for much of the first half of the season. Inconsistency meant they were never going to be genuine contenders for a top-three place – victories invariably followed by defeats as they endured the inevitable period of settling in.

Indeed, their season was summed up neatly in one match – an FA Cup tie at Brighton – in which they raced into a two-goal lead and threatened to take the then league leaders apart before conceding twice before half-time and going on to lose 6-2, drawing fierce criticism – not for the first, or last, time – from Dicks.

But when Dicks and co are looking for silver linings, they will surely find them in their late-season form, in which they transformed the league title race almost single-handedly with an astonishing run of results in April.

They did the double over Cardiff and took points off Charlton and Brighton (albeit reverting to type when losing to Lewes in-between) before becoming Pompey’s patsies in their final game, in which the Hampshire side clinched the league title.

Of the division’s three newcomers, Queens Park Rangers and Plymouth Argyle acquitted themselves well, finishing comfortably above the relegation places, and the former denied the unofficial title of the league’s “second division” champions by the deduction of three points for an administrative error, which cost them two places.

Composite of Brighton v Copsewood and Copsewood v Portsmouth (Photos: Geoff Penn/BHA/Clive Jones)

Copsewood began the season with defeat to Brighton but by the spring were on level terms with Portsmouth (Photos: Geoff Penn/BHA/Clive Jones)

But it was the performance of the third fresh face, Copsewood, that stunned many. The Coventry side, run on a shoestring after a rapid rise through the ranks, were in the bottom two virtually all season, struggling to raise a side, let alone win points, for much of it.

Their debut in the top flight typified what they were to endure for much of the season – a nightmare journey to Marrs’ new-look Brighton, left them with little time to warm up before becoming the first of Brighton’s many victims.

Yet even in defeat – and it was a respectable 3-1 – there was something about the way they played, something about their spirit, that suggested there was more to them than Premier League cannon fodder.

And so it was to prove. With many of their injured or unavailable back in the fold, Ryan Conneely’s side set about clearing their fixture backlog in devastating style, winning four of their final five games and ultimately rising to eighth place in the 12-team league.

Only Keynsham Town failed to glean some consolation from their Premier League campaign, finishing rock-bottom.

They won just one of their 21 fixtures to date – by which time their fate was all but sealed – and lost 18 of them, conceding 94 goals.

Their highlights, such as they were, came in cup competitions, beating West Ham in the League Cup and losing only 2-1 to both Nottingham Forest in the same competition and to Super League Watford in the FAW Cup.

Lowlight was their failure to turn up for their penultimate league fixture against Brighton, who at that stage had a big chance of winning the championship, denying Premier League fans a dramatic Sunday showdown, with Portsmouth also in action.

What will happen to that missed fixture remains to be decided. But while it ensures the Premier League season might ultimately end in anti-climax, it cannot disguise the magnificent competition and entertainment it has provided over the past nine months.

Roll on the next.

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