Sent Her Forward takes a look at the first round of league fixtures of the new women’s season
And so the quest for success begins yet again, as the cream of the women’s winter game plus dozens more from the Premier League’s feeder divisions embark on another season, full of hope and ambition.
Of course, not all will be successful. But what constitutes success and failure will vary from club to club as the lure of the Super League threatens to widen the gap between the top talent and the also-rans.
As I’ve already written, half the Premier League’s southern division must stand a chance of that top spot which guarantees a play-off against the northern division winners for the right to be called FAW Premier League champions.
But more significantly, for most, that play-off will also represent the opportunity to climb the ladder into the Women’s Super League, and all the prestige, publicity and glamour that goes with it.
Nowhere was the fine line between success and failure better illustrated last season than at Portsmouth, where Perry Northeast’s talented side overcame a stunning blow on the opening day of the season to fend off the powerful challenges of Brighton and Charlton Athletic to land the Premier League Southern title.
Champions, unarguably. But successful? It’s not how it felt to Northeast, captain Charlie Wilson and the rest of the side when they were defeated by an injury-time goal from Sheffield FC in the aforementioned play-off to miss out on a place in WSL2 by the cruellest of margins.
Those sort of blows take a long time to get over, and Pompey’s ability – or otherwise – to do just that will undoubtedly have a big impact on their fortunes this season.
Like most of their rivals, they have strengthened this season, keeping the squad that took them heartbreakingly close – including Nigeria international striker Ini Umotong – but adding genuine quality in Gemma Simmonds, their former midfielder, who has returned after a season at Oxford United in WSL2, and Jemma Tewkesbury, another player returning to the club following a spell in the WSL – with Yeovil Town, having sandwiched a handful of games with Southampton Saints in-between.
They will be pursued vigorously and relentlessly by Brighton, who themselves came so close to winning the league before defeat in the crunch showdown with Portsmouth in March eventually took its toll.
Despite an impressive first season in charge – which included regaining the Sussex County Cup – manager James Marrs won’t consider the 2014/15 campaign a success. And having steered Gillingham to the runners-up spot the previous season, he is unlikely to settle for second-best for a third successive time.
Charlton, on the other hand, have every reason to regard the last campaign as a success. Somehow their irresistible side managed to suffer defeat four times in the league, leaving them eight points adrift of the winners, yet they picked up three trophies in knockout competitions, and having resisted overtures for their 50-goal super-striker Kit Graham, they, too, look a genuine bet for the title this season.
The likes of Cardiff City, Spurs and West Ham United will also have designs on the trophy, as will Coventry United, who return south after a season in the northern division, where, as Coventry City, they narrowly lost out in the title chase to Sheffield.
Having won the southern division two seasons ago with largely the same squad, they will surely also be among the contenders again, although losing the manager who brought them that success, Craig Nicholls, at the end of the last campaign and his successor Paul Iannaccone, before his side had even kicked a ball in anger over the summer won’t help continuity.
The rest of the division will probably be more concerned with avoiding relegation than winning championships, but who can argue that Plymouth Argyle’s campaign, fresh up from the old South West Combination, was not a success?
They survived the drop at the expense of Gillingham and live to fight another day.
Queens Park Rangers, too, should consider last season a success. Like Plymouth, they had just been promoted, but after having three vital points deducted mid-season, they put the blow behind them to finish ninth out of 12.
Their manager, Martino Chevannes, will surely be looking for a finish somewhere nearer the seventh that they would have ended up, were it not for the points deduction.
And what of the newcomers? C&K Basildon, who were promoted from the South East Division 1, are highly regarded by many in the game, and will accept no less than survival.
Forest Green Rovers, who came up from the South West Division 1, might have slightly lower expectations, but if they avoid a quick return, that will undoubtedly represent a fine achievement by Josh Giddins and his players.
Sent Her Forward takes a brief look at Sunday’s action.
Brighton v Forest Green Rovers
Like last season, Brighton start at home to a newly promoted side. Then it was Coventry team Copsewood, who performed admirably before suffering a 3-1 defeat. This time it’s Forest Green.
Albion have lost top scorer Fliss Gibbons to the Super League but they have added Kate Natkiel, also from the Super League, and Kim Stenning, who was Brighton’s top scorer only two years ago before trying her luck, too, in WSL2.
Forest Green’s young side will get a good idea of what they are up against when they visit Brighton’s 3G academy pitch on Sunday.
Defeat – which is likely against one of the best sides in the league – need not define their season, though.
C&K Basildon v Charlton Athletic
The division’s other promoted team also have one of the toughest starts imaginable – an encounter with one of the favourites for the title.
Basildon are an unknown quantity to me, but their rapid surge through the divisions has not gone unnoticed, and they were commended by no less a judge than former Yeovil Town chairman – and current president – David Mills.
— David Mills (@aperolfan) August 9, 2015
If they can provide a first-day shock against a side that is also surely on the rise, it could kick-start a sensational season for them.
But with Jeremy Parsons – now confirmed as manager – having added to his squad and kept his key players from last season, the Londoners should surely have too much for their opponents.
Cardiff City v Portsmouth
Pompey’s season began in desperate disappointment and ended in, well, desperate disappointment. In-between, they won the league (not to mention retaining the Hampshire County Cup).
The reason for that opening-day misery was a 7-3 home defeat by Cardiff, having led until Lucy Quinn was sent off – a decision overturned on appeal.
The blow galvanised Perry Northeast’s spirited side, who lost only twice in the league all season in taking the title. They enjoyed such a magnificent, confidence-boosting run that they even broke their Cardiff duck, winning in south Wales for the first time in years on their way to winning the championship.
Like Charlton, they have kept their scoring talisman, Ini Umotong, and added Super League nous to the mix. They will surely be there or thereabouts at the end of the season, but will their play-off hangover still be in evidence when they look to beat Cardiff in their own back yard for the second time in four months?
Coventry United v West Ham United
Two ambitious sides, each with new managers trying to feel their way through unfamiliar Premier League territory, have much to prove.
As Coventry City, the home side last played in this league in May 2014, when they clinched the title at Portsmouth before heading north to very nearly repeat the achievement.
West Ham’s last game was also at Portsmouth – but on that occasion they were the bridesmaids watching on politely as Pompey celebrated last season’s title triumph.
Both will have their sights on progress, and possibly a tilt at that Super League challenge. Sunday’s result – which could well see honours even – may not be much of an indicator of what is to come in the next eight months.
Lewes v Plymouth Argyle
Speaking of opening-day rematches, the two clubs who ended in the lower half of the table stage a repeat of last season’s first fixture – which the Sussex side won 2-0.
John Donoghue’s team endured a difficult season , although they ended it top of the division’s unofficial second tier. They have had an excellent pre-season and will be looking to take that confidence into their opening-day encounter with Kevin Taylor’s Plymouth.
The margin might not be two goals this time, but Lewes should have just enough to ensure another first-day victory.
Tottenham Hotspur v Queens Park Rangers
Spurs were rarely talked of as title favourites last season, but until the final few weeks, they were always on the fringes, threatening to break into the three-team cabal that emerged after Christmas.
With another season behind them, they will be expected to be among the challengers again, while Rangers hope to consolidate and build on last season’s fine showing.
They’ve lost goalkeeper Tripolli Witney to Watford, but they have much the same squad as last year, so should also be wiser to the demands of the division.
Avoiding defeat at their London rivals, would be a massive confidence boost for the challenges ahead.
Division 1 South West
Chichester City v Shanklin
A relative local derby in a division where clubs are concentrated in the West Country – and it pits sides who finished just one place apart last term.
Chichester regarded that as a one-off and expect to resume the progress of recent campaigns in the coming months. Shanklin will derive much comfort from their run to the semi-finals of the Premier League Plate last season.
If there is a winner on Sunday, they will be regarding the coming campaign with rather more confidence.
Swindon Town v Southampton Saints
Both came close to promotion last season – and both will be among the favourites again this time around. Swindon never recovered from a triple disciplinary blow, which included losing six league points, yet still finished just a point behind champions Forest Green.
Saints were a further three points back and will be looking to learn from last year’s experience.
Sunday’s could be a big lesson.
Also in SW Div 1…
Keynsham Town, relegated from the Premier League, host Exeter City – runners-up for a second successive season – in probably the division’s match of the day.
Promoted Gloucester City are at home to St Nicholas, who finished last term bottom, and Swindon Spitfires, who have also been promoted, visit Cheltenham Town.
Division 1 South East
Gillingham had been hoping to put last season’s relegation from the Premier League behind them in their first fixture of the season at home to Ipswich Town.
But they were dealt a big blow when the Suffolk club said they could not raise a side and the game was called off, leaving the most fascinating fixture the showdown between two promoted clubs, Lowestoft Town and Old Actonians.