Super League teams stock up for another voyage into the unknown

Sent Her Forward 2017-18 preview: Part one – The pick of FAWSL 2

Watford players at their ;pre-season friendly against Coventry United, 2017 (Photo: Neale Blackburn)

Like so many WSL 2 clubs, Watford have brought in a host of new faces (Photo: Neale Blackburn)

Two Super League debutants join the second tier of England’s élite set-up for what promises to be a historic – and fascinating – season.

The switch from a summer competition to a more conventional football season brings new challenges and new practices, as clubs no longer have the opportunity to farm out players to Premier League sides for the close-season and have to compete with the men’s game for audiences.

The change means the clubs embark on a fourth full season of WSL 2 on Sunday almost a year after completing its third, with the recent spring series the best gauge of the relative hopes of the 10 teams – although with intensive transfer dealings in the intervening four months, who knows how accurate a measure that interim competition will prove to be?

Everton were the convincing winners of that league and have been granted an unexpected quick return to the top tier to take the place of Notts County, who folded in April.

Relegated Doncaster Rovers Belles are joined by Brighton, who won promotion via a Premier League play-off as long ago as May 2016, and Tottenham Hotspur, who did the same last May.

While Brighton took part in the spring series, neither promoted side has yet played in the WSL proper.

Élite league

But quite what they will all be competing for remains a little vague, with the arrangements for promotion and relegation at the end of the coming campaign still far from clear.

The precise implications for 2018/19 remain uncertain following revelations by the BBC that the FA was considering creating a full-time élite league, with the current WSL 2 turned into a semi-professional second tier, with off-the-field criteria given supremacy under a new licensing system over on-field achievements.

With nothing yet confirmed – including what, if any, impact, the proposals might have on the planned relegation from WSL 2 this time round – clubs will surely have to still regard the new season as one with everything to play for. Stay tuned for developments in what is sure to be a controversial first winter campaign.

While Belles might be hoping for a quick return to WSL 1, Aston VillaDurham and Sheffield FC are among the established sides also looking to make progress – rules and regulations permitting.

Sent Her Forward focuses on some of the other teams competing in what might prove to be not only the fourth, but possibly the last, WSL 2 season.

In part two, there’s a special report on Brighton‘s Super League prospects.

London Bees

Ins: Nicola Hobbs (Doncaster Rovers Belles); Rosie Kmita (Cambridge United); Lisa Milliken (Stevenage); Destiney Toussaint (Aston Villa); Chelsea Weston

Outs: No details provided

They say: “We have to be realistic. We’ve got a number of new additions in. We’ve still got a moderately young squad, although we’ve got some great experience now, with Nick Hobbs coming in and Chelsea Weston, too.” – Emma Beckett, captain, to club website

I say: London Bees were a different proposition last season and in the spring series, after several years of struggle and constant changes of personnel and management.

They finished in lower mid-table but comfortably clear of the bottom places in both competitions and while the personnel changes continue, they will be hoping for a bit of consolidation this year.

Luke Swindlehurst replaces Dave Edmondson as head coach and has been as busy as most of his fellow managers since the spring series finished.

Among the eye-catching signings are former Doncaster Rovers Belles goalkeeper Nicola Hobbs, striker Destiney Toussaint from Aston Villa and much-travelled attacking midfielder Rosie Kmita, most recently at Cambridge United.

They will not be fancied among the title contenders, but a genuine mid-table finish would continue the progress they have enjoyed in the past 18 months.

Millwall

Rianna Dean, Megan Alexander and Charlie Devlin after signing for Millwall Lionesses, autumn 2017 (Photos: Millwall LFC)

Rianna Dean, Megan Alexander and Charlie Devlin have arrived to boost Millwall’s promotion hopes (Millwall LFC)

In: Megan Alexander (Bristol City); Rianna Dean, Charlie Devlin (both Arsenal); Viki Wotton (Watford)

Out: No details provided

They say: “The challenge will be to continue on from our form towards the end of the spring series. Finishing third in the league creates a lot of expectation and momentum to build on for next season.

“We have signed three quality players. We all saw what Charlie Devlin can do last season for us with goals and assists. Rianna Dean scored 37 goals in 20 for Arsenal Development side so we are looking forward to integrating her into the team.

“Megan Alexander brings something different to our side and also that winning mentality from Bristol City. She knows what it takes to get promoted out of this division so she can help in that respect. Overall we can’t wait to get started again.” – Lee Burch, manager

I say: “After a couple of seasons of struggles in WSL 2, things are looking up for Millwall. Third place in the spring series represented a significant improvement, with five wins and only two defeats in their nine games.

Now manager Lee Burch is looking to use that as a launchpad for a vastly improved performance in the league proper.

He has brought in Megan Alexander, who experienced promotion from the division with Bristol City, and Arsenal pair Rianna Dean, who scored freely for their rivals’ development side last season, and Charlie Devlin, whose loan move during the spring series has now been made permanent.

Oxford United

Danielle Carlton in action for Millwall v Watford, April 19 2015 (Photo: Millwall LFC)

Danielle Carlton brings Super League experience with both Millwall and Yeovi,l Town to Oxford United (Photo: Millwall LFC)

In: Danielle Carlton, Hannah Short (both Yeovil Town); Chloe Chivers, Ellis Hillman (both Cardiff City); Flo Fyfe (Arsenal); Claire Skinner (Aston Villa); Corinne Yorston (Bristol City, loan)

Out: Ini Umotong (Brighton)

They say: “Over the summer we have gone from an unfashionable club that no one talks about to the point where we are turning away some very good players.” – manager Andy Cook, to club website

I say: Oxford have struggled since joining the Super League but have another new manager at the helm this season. Andy Cook took over the hot seat in the spring, overseeing a draw at newcomers Brighton in the first game of the spring series just a couple of days later.

After they finished bottom of the series, Cook knows there’s still a lot of work to do for the coming season if they are to reverse their fortunes of recent campaigns. But that’s what the spring series is all about for most managers, and he has responded by adding some class and experience to the young squad.

In come former Gillingham, Brighton and Millwall midfielder Danielle Carlton, who helped Yeovil Town to the WSL2 title and promotion to the top flight last season, and defender Corinne Yorston, on loan from Bristol City.

Cook has brought in a couple of Wales internationals – goalkeeper Claire Skinner from Aston Villa and former Cardiff City striker Chloe Chivers – along with defenders Hannah Short and Ellis Hillman, from Yeovil and Cardiff respectively.

And exciting midfield talent Flo Fyfe has arrived from Cook’s former club, Arsenal.

The departure of last season’s divisional joint-top scorer Ini Umotong to Brighton is a massive blow, and Cook will need a proven scorer to step up to the mark if he is to achieve his aim of taking Oxford in the right direction – although the prospect of young talent like 16-year-old Evie Gane making a big impression in her first campaign, will help.

Tottenham Hotspur

In: Coral Haines (Birmingham City, loan); Hannah MacKenzie (Reading); Ashleigh Neville (Coventry United); Lauren Pickett (Chelsea); Sarah Wiltshire (Yeovil Town)

Out: Megen Lynch, Nikita Whinnett (both Crystal Palace); Kelley Blanchflower (Cambridge United)

They say: “We’ve got a good mix in the squad – youngsters, players with experience at this level and of course the core of the group who have been so successful and taken the team up the levels in recent seasons.

“They can’t wait for the challenge of playing in WSL 2 and we’re seeing that in every session and every pre-season match. The players are all hungry and raring to go.” – manager Karen Hills to the club website

I say: Speaking of statements of intent… Newly promoted Spurs have landed themselves one of the best players in the entire Super League structure, Wales international striker Sarah Wiltshire.

The former Watford, Yeovil Town and Manchester City player, who gave birth to her first child only six months ago, has decided not to return to Yeovil for the coming season and will play instead for her “local” Super League side.

It’s a tremendous boost for a Spurs side already buoyant from their promotion-winning season in the Premier League.

And manager Karen Hills has added more quality to an already impressive squad, including striker Ashleigh Neville from Coventry United and exciting youngsters Lauren Pickett and Hannah MacKenzie from Chelsea and Reading respectively.

Spurs would have fancied their chances of establishing themselves in WSL 2 even without Wiltshire. Now they will have their sights aimed a little higher.

Watford

In: Leanne Bell, Sarah Jones (both Crystal Palace); Bianca Bragg (Notts County); Fran Kitching (Chelsea, loan); Kylie McCarthy (Unattached); Hannah Nebbitt (Charlton Athletic); Ellie Sargent (West Bromwich Albion); Laura-May Walkley (unattached); Helen Ward (Unattached)

Out: Chloe Bassett; Ruby Baxter; Otesha Charles; Lucy Gillett (Brighton); Kerry Walklett; Viki Wotton (Millwall)

They say: “We didn’t get all of the [initial] targets that we were hoping for – mainly due to logistics; not because they didn’t want to come and play for us. It’s really a problem for some of the players we were targeting to travel from where they live.

“So we missed out on a couple of our targets, but we also got a couple that we didn’t [expect]. We weren’t expecting Fran [Kitching], but I know the goalkeeping coach at Chelsea quite well, and when he offered her to us, it was a no-brainer.

“To have her and Fletch (Jo Fletcher)… You’d trust either one of them to start the game. Sarah Jones used to play for me at Millwall. I know she’s reliable; she’s very experienced. If you’ve got that solid base, I think you can build further forward.

“It’s a coup to us to keep [Rinsola] Babajide. We thought we were going to lose her at one point, but because she’s staying at the University of East London, she’s going to stay with us, so that’s almost like another new signing.

“I watch everybody [else]’s signings, as well. Millwall have made a couple of really great signings, with the kids from Arsenal that I wouldn’t have minded myself.

“I think it’s going to be highly competitive – more so than the spring series was. But I don’t come into a job to finish in a lowly position, so we’ll be aiming at top half. We’ll be aiming to win it, but realistically, top half for me is almost a no-brainer.” – Keith Boanas, manager

We have built a strong squad, with a number of international players joining the team ahead of the new campaign. It should be an exciting season for the club, as we look to build on the solid performances during the spring-series.

“Pre-season has been a tough one in terms of the number of games and the opponents we have faced, but everyone is fit and looking ahead to this campaign which we hope will be a great success.” – Ed Henderson, general manager

I say: Perennial strugglers Watford are looking to kick on this season after an interesting spring series. With former Charlton Athletic, Millwall and Estonia national team boss Keith Boanas now in charge, there is a more focused, more organised air to the club.

Boanas may have bemoaned the ones that got away when he spoke to Sent Her Forward earlier in pre-season, but he has been busy making up for lost time ever since.

He has brought in Wales midfielder Hannah-May Walkley, experienced defender Sarah Jones and goalkeeper Fran Kitching from Chelsea on loan – plus a nice little bonus in Walkley’s fellow Wales international, prolific striker Helen Ward, who will not be available for the start of the campaign, having just given birth.

But equally crucial to the club’s fortunes this term could be the retention of exciting, much-coveted attacking talent Rinsola Babajide, whose international exploits with England Under-19s have raised her profile still further.

She is not the finished product – very few are at this level. But her goals and ability to stretch defences will be valuable assets as Boanas looks to establish Watford as a mid-to-high-level Super League side.

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