Stakes higher than ever as Premier League clubs invest in chance of glory

Chichester City celebrate winning promotion/Lewes promotional pic (Photos: caroline Henry-Evans/James Boyes)

Cbichester City join the Premier League elite where they will be competing against a Lewes side now paying their women the same as their men (Photos: Caroline Henry-Evans/James Boyes)

Love it or fear its consequences, the Super League has ignited a change in women’s domestic football, forcing standards among the genuine challengers in the Premier League to rise inexorably.

And from where I’m standing, it looks as though it is forcing clubs to dig deep in order not to miss out on the WSL bandwagon, which is now the standard by which the women’s game in this country is being measured.

How long that approach remains viable – and whether it claims casualties along the way, which some club administrators fear – remains to be seen.

Since the possibility of promotion to the Super League was introduced in the 2014/15 campaign, leading Premier League clubs have been strengthening on and off the field in a bid to join the domestic élite.

And while Spurs’ promotion last season was perhaps predictable, if not inevitable, from as far back as the turn of the year, the three WPL Southern promotion-chasing campaigns have been compelling and, in some cases, electrifying.

‘Proper’ promotion

Portsmouth dipped out by the smallest of margins in the first of the three, losing in extra-time in the first Premier League play-off, in which Sheffield FC became the first side to win “proper” promotion to the promised land.

Brighton went one better the following year and after beating Sporting Club Albion in the play-off, will play their first full season in the Super League this winter, where they will be joined by the aforementioned Spurs, who won last season’s Southern Division by four points before sweeping aside Northern Division champions Blackburn Rovers in their play-off.

Their promotion spared London neighbours Queens Park Rangers relegation, and they live to fight another battle in the new Premier League Southern campaign, which begins on Sunday.

With relegation from Super League 2 this season, the side who finishes rock-bottom might not be reprieved again, bringing a need for even more focus this time round for clubs at both ends of the scale.

The riches of the Super League are the goal of at least half this season’s Premier League clubs, and the usual suspects, of Cardiff City, Charlton Athletic and Coventry United, look set to be joined by a handful of others, several of whom appear to be prepared to speculate to accumulate.

Lewes, who for the past few years have been the epitome of a mid-table club, will now be under pressure to perform more consistently – and effectively – with the eyes of the world on their brave new era of funding equality with the club’s men’s squad.

Collage of Vicky Carleton, Leeta Rutherford and Stacey Little (Photos: Jordan Hampton/Sent Her Forward)

Vicky Carleton has switched from Portsmouth to Lewes, where she will line up alongside another ex-Pompey player, Leeta Rutherford, while a big miss from the Premier League this season will be Stacey Little (Photos: Jordan Hampton/Sent Her Forward)

Portsmouth, too, who have experienced a major decline since missing out on that very first Super League promotion, look a different prospect this year.

Intriguingly, they have managed to lure to the club two players who helped neighbours Chichester City into the division – a development that is almost impossible to reconcile with the team spirit that epitomised the Sussex club’s impressive rise but which conceivably might have something to do with a possible future adoption of the Hampshire team by the men’s club’s new owner.

The likes of C & K Basildon and Crystal Palace – two sides who have quickly established themselves at this level following promotion from South East Division One – will expect to be in the title mix this time round.

And then there’s West Ham United, a club that’s had more than its share of adventures in the past 18 months.

A year ago they were in turmoil after losing some of their key players and then parting company with their new manager, James Marrs, within weeks of the start of the season, following the ousting of their chairman and formal adoption of the team by the men’s club.

Messrs Gold and Sullivan will not expect to be presiding over an average third-tier team for too long, particularly now the women are promised facilities and investment to match expectations, with the club targeting a place in WSL 1 within five years.

Chichester and fellow promotees Gillingham, together with QPR and Swindon Town, will not be expected among the title chasers, but they all have vested interests in remaining in a division that is becoming increasingly tough to compete in – but ever-more important to stay in as the gulf between the élite and the rest threatens to widen.

Sent Her Forward has invited all 12 Premier League Southern – and selected Division One – clubs to provide information on signings and departures and to offer their hopes and expectations for the coming season.

Where clubs have failed – or declined – to oblige, Sent Her Forward has relied on information publicly available on the internet.

If those clubs wish to add their comments (or correct information taken from their own websites), their contributions will be added until the start of the season on Sunday.

Cardiff City

Last season: 3rd

Players in: Kate Bennett (New Zealand); Shannon Greenway (Norwich City); Estelle Randall (Bristol City)

Players out: Kerry Bartlett (Keynsham Town); Abbie Britton; Hope Suominen; Michelle Green

They say: “We are a very young squad this season, as we are going through a transitional period, but our youngsters are all very talented. We have a good blend of experienced players, so we are looking forward to the start of the season.

“We also have a good history in the cups and will be hoping for a good run in one of those, which always brings a good feeling to the players and its supporters.” – Gary Green, manager 

I say: Cardiff are always thereabouts without ever taking the top prize. They came close again last season, but will know the competition will have upped their game over the summer.

There is the added complication of the FA rules currently prohibiting their entry to the Super League, even if they were to win the Premier League championship play-off.

But manager Gary Green has always insisted it has no adverse effect on the efforts of his team to win the title – and perhaps force the FA’s hand.

But this season looks to be the toughest for some time for Green and co, with so many top-quality, loyal servants departing at the same time.

The club has an excellent recruitment record, but this season could be all about adjustment and consolidation.

C&K Basildon

Last season: 6th

In: April Bowers, Ellie Manning (Gillingham); Hayley West (Lewes); Katie Whitehead (Billericay)

Out: Stacey Little (retired)

They say: “After a slightly improved position last season, with a sixth-placed final slot, we have decided that after consolidation in our first two seasons, we now want to press on and are seeking a top-three finish in 2017-18.

“We have retained all the fine players we had from last year (bar Stacey Little, who has sadly retired but now manages our under-10s) and have added some quality signings. We have retained the playing services of the very fine Jay Blackie, who played a major role in our fine finish last season.

“And we have been lucky to acquire the services of Ellie Manning and April-Rose Bowers, a fine midfielder, both from Gillingham, and the highly rated defender Hayley West, formerly of Lewes.

“Additionally we have acquired the services of the seasoned Katie Whitehead from Billericay, and with the magnificent Laken Duchar-Clark returning after nearly two years out following ACL surgery, we are very excited about our aims and objectives for the season.

“All these new signings supplement the great players that we already had which saw us gain the scalps of Cardiff City and Charlton at home late in the season.

“With the expert support of the management team of Steve Tilson, now entering his sixth season with the club, and ably assisted by Danny Greaves and Lee Harrison (keeper coach), we are really looking forward to a great season.” – Peter King, managing director

I say: In their two seasons at this level, Basildon have consolidated their place as an established Premier League side and – like so many others – will be looking to push on this year.

They will have to do so without the services of their talented and combative captain Stacey Little, whose decision to retire – for now, at least – came as a shock to those of us not privy to day-to-day events at the club.

Yet Basildon have managed to keep the equally combative, immensely talented Jay Blackie, whose abilities have been absent for far too much of the time since she left Brighton after leading them to the Premier League championship.

Blackie, one of the best midfielders I have seen at this level, joined Basildon midway through the last campaign after failing to settle anywhere since leaving the south coast.

She is joined at Basildon by Ellie Manning, who impressed in South East Division One last term with champions Gillingham – against whom she will now find herself playing.

Charlton Athletic

Charlotte Gurr, Charlton Athletic (Photo: CAWFC)

Charlotte Gurr, who has joined Charlton from Gillingham, is a proven winner (Photo: CAWFC)

Last season: 4th

In: Chloe Brunton-Wilde (Arsenal Development); Ellie Dorey (Brighton); Georgia Griffin (Southend United), Charlotte Gurr (Gillingham); Kat Nutman (Oxford United); Liz O’Callaghan (QPR); Emma Sherwood (Portsmouth); Katie Startup (Chelsea)

Out: Hannah Nebbitt (Watford); Stef Simmons (Crystal Palace)

They say: “You look at last year – we finished fourth, so we’re the fourth-best team in the league. I know people outside the club are going to be saying that Charlton should be challenging for the league. We should. But the last three, four years everybody inside and outside the club has been saying Charlton are going to win the league, and that’s not quite happened.

“That’s not my objective. My objective is to be better than we were last year in all competitions. But wherever we finish at the end of the year, that’s going to be where we deserve to finish. As long as we prepare properly for every game, take every game as it comes… we’ve got the players; we’ve got the staff. It’s now just: can we bring that all together for August 20?” – Riteesh Mishra, manager

I say: Charlton will feel they missed a trick after failing to go one better last term after finishing second to promoted Brighton the previous year.

Always thereabouts and with an excellent cup pedigree, Charlton struggled to stay close enough to Spurs in the early stages of the campaign, when two draws with newcomers Crystal Palace and a heavy home defeat to Coventry United left them with an uphill task trying to keep pace with their north London rivals.

They lost the previous season’s top scorer, Gemma Shepherd, to injury for much of the campaign, but although strike partner Kit Graham continued to bang in the goals, Charlton did not have quite enough to oust Spurs, and they finally ended up fourth.

Manager Riteesh Mishra will be acutely aware that the league is becoming increasingly competitive and he will need to coax some better performances and greater consistency from his players if they are to have a chance of the title – and a tilt at the Super League.

To that end, he has piled in reinforcements.

With former West Ham and Portsmouth striker Emma Sherwood and championship-winning midfielder Charlotte Gurr now on board, as well as a fully fit Graham and Shepherd, they will have more than a fair chance, for they will not be short of goals.

They have also recruited their former player, Chloe Brunton-Wilde, from Arsenal to strengthen the midfield.

But do they have that magic ingredient that will halt their run as league also-rans?

New first-team coach, former Gillingham and Brighton manager James Marrs, might yet prove to be just that.

As might Gurr, his sublimely talented former protegée.

Charlton can confidently claim that they have now strengthened an already strong squad.

Chichester City

Last season: 1st (SW Div 1)

In: Ellis Bloomfield, Brittany Jeal, Tiff Taylor (all Portsmouth); Gemma Simmonds (Southampton Women); Hollie Wride (unattached)

Out: Becky Barron, Molly Clark (both Portsmouth)

They say: “We have lost two players to Portsmouth – Molly Clark and old captain Becky Barron. These are the only players we’ve lost.

“We have, however, added to our squad, with (former) Watford player Hollie Wride (who was previously at our club), Tiff Taylor, Ellis Bloomfield (both previously of Portsmouth) and Gemma Simmonds, from Southampton Women.

“We are looking forward to the challenge of the higher league and hope to push as many teams as possible as far as we can. We think we can pick up plenty of points along the way to secure safety, and if possible, would like a mid-table finish.

“The ladies are buzzing for the new season and want to go as far and as high as they can. We will continue to work hard behind the scenes to try and improve.” – Caroline Henry-Evans (chairman and secretary)

Action from Chichester City v Plymouth Argyle, April 9 2017 (Photo: John Holden)

Chichester City had a sensational title-winning season, including doing the double over rivals Plymouth Argyle (Photo: John Holden)

I say: Chichester City go into their first season at the Premier League’s top level on a high after beating all before them in last season’s unbeaten South West Division One campaign.

But they will do so without the manager who led them there after Liam Greenfield announced his shock resignation last month.

There will be no big upheaval, though, as previous manager Matt Wright relinquishes his role as chairman to take up the managerial reins again.

The bigger problem might be his lack of regular contact with his players over the close season, as his sudden appointment coincided with his commitment to return to Africa, where he has been involved in charity work, meaning he will miss the start of the campaign.

There have been some crucial comings and goings.

The club have lost the services of Molly Clark, who last season juggled obligations to her new club, Yeovil Town, with her commitment to Chichester, for whom she played a pivotal role in their promotion campaign.

And they have also lost her midfield partner and captain, Becky Barron, both of whom have been lured along the A27 to Portsmouth.

Both are massive – and surprising – losses, but they have been mitigated by the moves in the opposite direction of experienced Pompey duo Ellie Bloomfield and Tiffany Taylor, both of whom were members of the Hampshire club’s Premier League trophy-winning campaign, and another player with Portsmouth connections – Gemma Simmonds, who previously left Pompey for Oxford United before joining the Chichester revolution from Southampton Women.

Coventry United

Last season: 2nd

In: Keeley Davies (Birmingham City); Natalie Haigh (Yeovil Town); Maisie Jerrim (Cardiff City); Rosie McDonnell (Bradford); Leah Sievwright (Birmingham and West Midlands)

Out: Natasha Lynch (retired); Ashleigh Neville (Spurs); Crissy Torkildsen (RTC director)

They say: “I think as a club we have shown a real purpose in our ambition for WSL by introducing a third training night and looking after players on and off the pitch.

“Coming off the the back of last season, when we only lost two league games, it’s vital that our new signings gel quickly and that we kick off the season with three points and set our stall out early.” – Jay Bradford, manager

I say: Coventry are always there or thereabouts. Unfortunately for them, their last championship win came the season before promotion to the Super League was introduced.

They look certain to be among the group vying for top spot again this season, and despite losing stalwarts Ashleigh Neville, to newly promoted Spurs, and Natasha Lynch, who has retired, the squad has been boosted, not least by the addition of former Yeovil defender Natalie Haigh.

Crystal Palace

Last season: 5th

In: Megan Chandler (US); Megen Lynch, Nikita Whinnett (both Spurs); Stef Simmons (Charlton Athletic)

Out: Leanne Bell, Sarah Jones (both Watford)

They say: “The staff and players have worked tremendously hard over the summer and pre-season, the new players have integrated exceptionally well and are ready to go.

“We have a vision and a pathway we want to take as a club and a team and that vision starts on August 20 against QPR” – manager Dean Davenport, speaking to the club’s website

I say: Palace’s first season back in the  Prem’s top division last year was impressive, but not entirely unexpected, given the work that was going on behind the scenes.

This year, there’s a slightly different feel – as though the team is ready to make a genuine assault on the title, or at least to become one of the league’s élite.

Signing goalkeeper Megen Lynch and attacking player Nikita Whinnett from champions Spurs was a significant statement of intent from the Londoners.

Getting the likes of Ciara Sherwood – and especially star striker Gemma Bryan, despite interest from elsewhere – to re-sign is arguably a greater one.

The club have also recruited former Charlton defender Stef Simmons, although they have lost defender Sarah Jones and Leanne Bell to Watford.

Ellie Stenning adds to their striker ranks by returning after two cruciate-ligament injuries, and several other players have signed contract extensions as Palace begins to resemble a club to join rather than leave.

Gillingham

Last season: 1st (SE Div 1)

In: Sharna Giordani (Charlton Athletic)

Out: Fliss Gibbons (Brighton); Charlotte Gurr (Charlton Athletic); April Bowers, Ellie Manning (both C&K Basildon)

They say: Declined to comment

I say: Apart from Jack Wheeler’s ability to coax the best out of his players, the other big reason for Gillingham’s outstanding promotion season, in which they remained unbeaten in the league, was the contribution of a number of top-class players who returned to the Kent club – albeit temporarily – last season.

Amy Taylor, Vicky Ashton-Jones, Fliss Gibbons and Charlotte Gurr – all part of the Gillingham old guard who moved en masse to Brighton a few years back – were key figures in the Gills’ excellent campaign.

But this season they are no longer there.

No team can afford to lose that amount of talent without consequence – still less if they have just been promoted to a higher division.

But Wheeler is a highly respected – and, it would seem from last season’s additions, persuasive – manager. But he is going to have to be a genius or magician to conjure up the sort of replacements this time round who can help re-establish the Kent club in the Southern Division.

Whether he has done that remains to be seen, as once again, the manager is refusing to reveal his playing hand ahead of the start of the campaign.

Lewes

Amy Taylor and Lisa Fulgence, of Lewes (Photos: James Boyes)

Former Gillingham and Brighton pair Amy Taylor and Lisa Fulgence will strengthen the Lewes squad (Photos: James Boyes)

Last season: 7th

In: Vicky Carleton (Portsmouth); Lisa Fulgence, Charlotte Owen, Amy Taylor (all Brighton); Darcey James (US); Natasha Wells

Out: Hayley West (C & K Basildon)

They say: “Last year we played some good sides in pre-season, but we won every game comfortably. I’m not sure that was the right preparation for a season in a league that gets increasingly competitive. This year we lined up friendlies to test our fitness, skill and concentration levels.

“It’s an exciting time for the club. I’m on record as saying [paying the women’s squad the same as the men’s] is a bold and important step for the game. Our players put in the same amount of effort and deserve equal support from the club.

“There’s no doubt I’ve spoken to more players than usual this summer, but I’m looking to build, not to rebuild. We had a very strong second half to last season. I want to see us match those levels and maybe push on.

“Players coming in will have to fit that bill and suit the way we play. I look at our midfield of (Kelly) Newton, (Katie) McIntyre and (Leeta) Rutherford. When those three play together I think, how much better can it get?” – John Donoghue, manager

Vicky Carleton, of Lewes (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

Vicky Carleton has left Portsmouth to join the revolution at Lewes (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

I say: This is undoubtedly a crucial season for the newly named Lewes Women, who are unlikely ever to have a better opportunity to cash in on their new-found worldwide fame after announcing they would be paying their women’s squad the same as the men’s.

If a fraction of the interest shown around the world has been converted into cash investment in the club, John Donoghue’s side will be operating on a different plane in the coming seasons.

Yet I doubt all his summer signings were down to the Lewes cash splash – indeed, both Lisa Fulgence and Amy Taylor arrived before the budget announcements and, in my view, are unlikely to have been influenced by the dramatic developments anyway.

Donoghue has gone back to his old club, Brighton, to sign Taylor, Fulgence and Charlotte Owen, all of whom are potentially massive assets to the club – and he has added former Brighton assistant manager Lee Hayes to his burgeoning backroom staff.

Unsettled Northern Ireland international Vicky Carleton has also arrived, from Portsmouth, reinforcing that midfield Donoghue referred to still further.

Fulgence, a prolific goalscorer wherever she has played, has been beset by long-term injuries since arriving at Brighton, and her value to her new side will be determined by how quickly she can recover and regain full fitness.

If she does, Lewes fans are in for a treat.

Taylor is also a striker, having been converted under James Marrs at Brighton from centre-back. The fact that she can perform at both will substantially boost Donoghue’s options. And her Super League experience for Brighton in the recent spring series will prove a big asset at Premier League level.

Owen, too, is immensely talented and survived James Marrs’ cull when he joined Brighton three years ago, bringing so many former Gillingham players with him. However, the elegant midfielder has also been beset by injury for much of the past three or four years, and as with Fulgence, her true value to Lewes will be known only when she is back playing regularly.

There were signs of a new Lewes last season. They might still have finished in mid-table but in my view, they were a significantly different proposition from the side who had ended in much the same place in the previous two or three campaigns.

They were the better team in almost every game I saw, and while they remained too inconsistent to trouble the bigger clubs, they had a strength in depth that they could have done with during their previous injury-hit campaign.

This season that depth has been extended substantially.

Portsmouth

Rachel Panting and Shannon Albuery, of Portsmouth (Photos: Jordan Hampton)

Rachel Panting and Shannon Albuery bring extra attacking options to Portsmouth (Photos: Jordan Hampton)

Last season: 8th

In: Shannon Albuery (West Ham United); Becky Barron (Chichester City); Michelle Beazley; Molly Clark (Chichester City/Yeovil T); Hannah Geer (Southampton Women); E-J May; Rachel Panting (Maidenhead United); Carla Perkins, Amelia Southgate (both Southampton Saints)

Out: Ellie Bloomfield, Brittany Jeal, Tiff Taylor (all Chichester City); Vicky Carleton (Lewes); Rebekah Tonks (US)

They say: “They all fight for each other. They know there is competition in the squad this season. They all want to compete with each other but they also want to play with each other.

“Last season we built the foundations. We brought the backroom staff in; we brought the players in. This year we’re shaping it up as our squad.

“I think we’re a bit of a dark horse this season. You’ve got your Charltons and your Cardiffs that are there year in, year out; Coventry, another team. Palace have strengthened, and Lewes and West Ham are doing some brilliant things, with the equality and linking in with the men’s team, which is fantastic – a bit of pressure on them, maybe, this season.

“But I don’t see any pressure on us. I know we’ve got the character and I know we’ve got the quality to do well, and to be honest, we haven’t got any expectations – just improve from last season. Just watch this space.” – Jay Sadler, manager.

I say: For a club used to figuring at the top echelons of women’s football, last season will have gone down as a disappointing low.

Yet listen to manager Jay Sadler, who took up the reins in November when Craig Taylor – himself a newcomer in the job – departed early in the campaign, and you’ll hear a different story.

Ever since winning the league but losing out on promotion in a play-off just over two years ago, Pompey have been in transition.

New manager(s); new signings; major departures and a whole influx of promising young players have transformed the look of the outfit that performed so well and so consistently under Katie Poore and Perry Northeast.

Carla Perkins, Hannah Geer and Amelia Southgate all switched to Portsmouth from Southampton clubs (Photo: Jordan Hampton)

Last season was a big learning curve, not only for that young side, but also for their young manager. And if his team can play with the belief and heart that Sadler shows during and after every game, their fallow period will not last too much longer.

However, with yet another much-changed line-up in prospect this season, could there be more turmoil in the short term? Their performances in pre-season would suggest otherwise, and several of the new faces have slotted in well.

While Portsmouth have lost one attack-minded player in Vicky Carleton, he has gained a couple more in former Chichester City starlet Shannon Albuery, who returns to the south coast after a spell with West Ham, and Rachel Panting, from Maidenhead United.

Three players also pop along the M27 from Southampton clubs – defender Hannah Geer, who played briefly for Southampton Women, and Southampton Saints pair Carla Perkins and Amelia Southgate.

And another couple have turned up from the opposite direction – Becky Barron, who captained Chichester City to promotion last season, and Molly Clark, who also spent the spring series with Super League Yeovil Town, now team up with their former team-mate Albuery at Pompey in what can only be regarded as a major surprise – and significant notice of the club’s intent.

The return of the experienced Michelle Beazley after a season away from the game will vastly strengthen their goalkeeping ranks, in which young Emily Paines has shone in her absence.

For most of those new recruits this season represents a step up, and how they adapt to life in the Premier League’s top division will have a huge impact on Pompey’s season, while their longer-term future might very well be down to whether new Portsmouth Football Club owner Michael Eisner decides to take the women’s club under his wing.

Queens Park Rangers

Last season: 11th

In: No information provided

Out: Liz O’Callaghan (Charlton Athletic)

They say: Did not respond 

I say: Rangers had a lucky escape last season when, after finishing bottom of the Premier League Southern, they won a reprieve from relegation courtesy of Spurs’ promotion to the Super League.

With only two wins all season and just 11 goals scored, survival again this season will require drastic action – and a big change in fortunes for manager Martino Chevannes and his team.

But just how different things might be this season are hard to gauge, with the club keeping not only their personnel changes but also their hopes for the coming campaign close to their chest.

Swindon Town

Victoria Taylor and Laura McGlone, Swindon Town (Photos: Swindon Town LFC)

Swindon’s new signings include Victoria Taylor, from West Ham, and Laura McGlone, one of several former Forest Green Rovers players to join the club (Photos: Swindon Town LFC)

Last season: 10th

In: Sophie Barrett, Naomi Nash (both Keynsham Town); Kelly Nightingale; Laura McGlone; Annie Martin; Victoria Taylor (West Ham United)

Out: Chenise Austin (West Ham United); Georgia Walters; Beth Westlake; Alison Witts (Swansea City)

They say: “The team have had a good pre-season, with all the players working hard in the build-up to the big FA Women’s Premier League kick-off.

We’re all excited for the season to start and have seen the girls starting to gel both on and off the pitch. We know how challenging this league is, with the tremendous talent on show across the clubs, and we’re hoping to continue to build on last season and show we deserve to be here.

“The club has a lot of potential and we’re looking forward to driving women’s football in Wiltshire and seeing how the season unfolds.” – Leonie Wade, manager

I say: Swindon survived their maiden season at the top level of the Premier League by the skin of their teeth. Despite a last-day defeat to relegation rivals QPR, they managed to stay off the bottom on goal difference – although it all proved academic when Spurs won promotion to the Super League, meaning there was to be no relegation from WPL South last season.

But Town will know that their squad struggled to cope with the demands of a league that has continually improved in recent years, and new manager Leonie Wade, who succeeded Steve Robertson in the summer, will be all too aware of the challenge that awaits her.

While the club have not yet revealed many details of signings, they will be without defensive stalwart Chenise Austin, who has joined West Ham.

West Ham United

Katie McIntyre delivers another corner for Lewes against West Ham, August 21 2016 (Photo: @Avithammer)

West Ham began a tricky season a year ago with a heavy defeat at Lewes (Photo: Avit)

Last season: 9th

In: Chenise Austin (Swindon Town); Shona Chitate-Samuriwo, Leanne Mabey (both Spurs); Mollie Kmita (Gillingham); Georgia Miller (Watford);  Molly Peters (Arsenal); Amber Stobbs (Everton); Kelly Wealthall (Academy)

Out: Shannon Albuery (Portsmouth)

They say: “Over the summer West Ham United Ladies have unveiled a new infrastructure that highlights the club’s dedication to grow women’s football, with the appointment of [Karen Ray] as general manager and Greg de Carnys as the ladies’ first-team manager and junior academy director, both of whom are full-time.

“The club are very passionate about building a sustainable and successful plan that will see us develop a world-class talent pathway for girls of all ages that aligns with the club’s overall ambitions and provides players for the first team.

“We are breaking down barriers and changing the perception of women’s football, and looking forward to systematically rebuilding the ladies team with the support of West Ham United.

“So far the club have re-signed several players, including Dayna Chong who beat her male counterpart, Lanzini, to goal of the month and captain Amy Cooper. In addition we have secured [the players listed], with a few more to be announced over the next couple of days.” – Karen Ray, general manager

I say: The Hammers, now in the care of the men’s club, are a bit of a mystery team. They have re-signed a host of the players who featured in a forgettable transitional season last year in which they had more managers than league wins.

But whether they have succeeded in replacing the more experienced, high-profile players who have departed in the past 12 months remains to be seen.

Their record of a solitary league victory in 2016/17 was the worst in the division – and their haul of 12 goals was better than that of only QPR, who finished rock-bottom.

Manager Greg de Carnys, who took over when the club took control of the ladies’ section, will be assisted by former captain Karen Ray, who also doubles as club general manager.

But while the backroom team looks to be in good shape, only time will tell whether the players who performed in difficult circumstances last season can take the club towards the promotion their new status requires.

Amy Cooper remains captain, while new signing Amber Stobbs, from Everton, will be vice-captain.

West Ham  have also recruited defender Chenise Austin from Swindon Town, former Brighton, Spurs and Gillingham defender Mollie Kmita and promoted to the senior squad two prolific strikers from their successful under-16 academy.

Andreya Ezekiel-Meade scored 43 goals last season in the Essex County Girls League, while Kelly Wealthall hit 58.

Whether either is near the first team will depend on how they settle at adult level – and how well the established seniors perform.


A look at some featured teams in the Premier League’s Divison 1 South East and South West

South East Division One

AFC Wimbledon

Last season: 3rd

In: Isabelle Asplund (Godalming), Callie Neat (QPR), Abbie Measures (Charlton)

Out: No information disclosed

They say: “We’ve added a few young faces, and it’s always nice to know that most of last season’s squad have re-signed. We did well in our first season in the WPL and we’re confident we can do just as well again. Our aim will be to better last season, and see how far we can go in a cup.

“We’ve added to our backroom staff, with Chloe Cattermole joining as assistant physio, and Lucy Barnard now taking on the lead physio role. So all in all, we’re in a good place and ready for the challenges of the season ahead.” – Chris Lyons, manager

I say: Wimbledon had a superb season in a very tough league last year, finishing third in a division won at a canter by Gillingham, yet ahead of an extremely talented Cambridge United.

Their strengthened backroom set-up suggests investment in the future, and, I would guess, a place in the Southern Division within a couple of seasons.

Leyton Orient

Action from Crawley Wasps v Leyton Orient, Oct 30 2016 (Photo: Dave Burt)

Leyton Orient have retained the squad who won promotion last season (Photo: Dave Burt)

Last season: 1st (London and South East Regional League)

In: Natalie Colangelo (Canada); Lisa Holmbäck (Sweden); Chloe McNee (UAE); Hannah Porter (C&K Basildon); Šárka Strýhalová (FC Hradec Králove)

Out: None

They say: “The WPL is a big step up so we are not under any illusions, as we recognise that the first season at this level will be tough. However, I am optimistic. There is great cohesion and spirit at Orient, and that’s the foundation for any team to be successful.

“We begin with three away games against very good WPL teams, so if we can get off to a decent start, we give ourselves a base to push on and maybe surprise some people with what we can achieve.” – Chris Brayford, manager

“We are very much looking forward to the start of our first season in the Premier League. We want to be pushing ourselves against tough opposition, week in, week out, and our challenge starts with our opening game away to Cambridge United, who we know will be a strong outfit.

“Nevertheless, having had such a successful season in the [London & South East] regional league, and having retained the entire league- and cup-winning squad, with some excellent new additions, we are confident that we can be competitive this year.” – Danielle Griffiths, captain

I say: “Orient won a tough league impressively and look to have the right credentials to make a go of it in the Premier set-up.

Keeping hold of the likes of Sophie Le Marchand – a proven goalscorer – is vital, and Orient have strengthened an already decent squad.

Renewed – and unprecedented – support from the men’s club (including the right to play a handful of home games at Brisbane Road this season before switching there for the entire campaign next year) should prove a terrific foundation from which to launch an assault, somewhere down the line, on the next target.

First they have to establish themselves in Division One, which already boasts some fine sides in Cambridge United, AFC Wimbledon and Actonians. But Orient have a strong team ethic, and their ability to look after themselves will stand them in good stead for the tougher challenges ahead.

South West Division One

Southampton Saints

Last season: 3rd

In: No details provided

Out: Carla Perkins, Amelia Southgate (Portsmouth)

They say: No comment provided

I say: For several years the city’s top dogs, Southampton Saints now find themselves looking over their shoulders at rivals Southampton Women, who have just been promoted to the same division.

Ordinarily, they would face the challenge with confidence after an excellent season in which they finished (an albeit distant) third to champions Chichester City and runners-up Plymouth Argyle in the Premier League’s South West Division One.

But they have lost some key players, and those who are left will need to adapt quickly and recover last season’s momentum if they are to have any chance of success in a division that includes Plymouth and Keynsham Town, both of whom have experience of the top tier of the Premier League.

Following the departure of Jess Lewry to Chichester City, Saints found themselves somewhat over-reliant on Rebecca Bath for goals – she scored 20 of their total of 52 in the league. They will certainly need to find one or two more attack-minded players to share the goalscoring burden in the coming season.

Southampton Women

Southampton Women celebrate winning the Southern Region Premier League last season (Photo: Southampton Women FC)

Southampton Women will be bidding for a third promotion in three seasons as they target the Premier League’s top tier (Photo: Southampton Women FC)

Last season: 1st (SRWFL Premier)

In: Natalie Bavister (AFC Portchester); Olivia Channon (Southampton FC RTC)

Out: Gemma Simmonds (Chichester City)

They say: “We believe in the squad that achieved the Southern Region league-and-cup double last season, so we were not looking to bring in many new players. We are also fortunate to have a strong reserve team to call upon, who have also been promoted from the Hampshire County League to the SRWFL this season.

“The aim is promotion, as it has been for the last two seasons. Our performances last season against Portsmouth and Swindon (in cup competitions) have given us a lot of confidence, and we know that when we work hard and challenge ourselves we can compete strongly in the Premier League.” – Simon Parker, manager

“We know it is a tough league with some very good teams, but with a good pre-season we will start the new season looking to achieve our best in the league and cups. We aren’t just looking to compete and make up numbers. We want to win things.

“It will be a different pressure on us this season, after everyone expecting us to win every game the last couple of years. But it is a pressure we will relish. We have a great team spirit and management team who will endeavour to get the best out of us week in week out. Throughout the club we have a strong work hard ethos on and off the pitch. – Kirsty Bell, captain

I say: The club with a great history who fell on hard times are on their way back, and they embark on their Premier League campaign with hopes of a third successive promotion, having swept all before them in southern regional football.

Not to be confused with Southampton Saints – who they will be playing this season – Southampton Women are eight-times winners of the FA Women’s Cup and were one of the game’s élite before fading into oblivion as their city rivals briefly enjoyed the patronage of the men’s club.

Now both will meet on level terms, but while Saints are now firmly established in South West Division 1, proving themselves to be the best of the rest in last season’s two-horse title battle, Southampton Women have the momentum, enjoying 15 wins and a solitary defeat in taking the Southern Region Premier Division title last season following promotion from the first division the previous year.

Updated on August 16 to include contributions from Cardiff City and Swindon Town, and on August 17 to include contribution from West Ham United

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