Brighton start Super League adventure without Hope but with plenty of optimism

Sent Her Forward 2017 preview: Part two – Brighton

Ini Umotong, Brighton, July 10 2017 (Photo: Stuart Butcher/BHAFC)

Brighton pulled off a coup with the signing of Nigeria international striker Ini Umotong (Photo: Stuart Butcher/BHAFC)

It’s here at last. Brighton finally make their Super League bow, almost 18 months after clinching their place with a play-off victory over Sporting Club Albion after winning the Premier League Southern title.

But it’s a very different squad that will face Aston Villa on Sunday from the one that took the championship crown in May 2016 – only five regulars remain and a handful of fringe players, while the club is now packed with newcomers with Super League experience.

Brighton have had to wait longer than their predecessors as Premier League play-off champions, Sheffield FC, to join the élite of WSL 2 after the FA moved the WSL season from summer to winter.

Their successors and fellow promotees Tottenham Hotspur, who clinched their place last season, have had only four months to prepare.

In the second part of a season preview, Sent Her Forward focuses on the Sussex club’s debut season in the WSL.

Part one: Super League teams stock up for another voyage into the unknown

Fliss Gibbons, Brighton (Photo: BHAFC)

Fliss Gibbons returns to Brighton with plenty of Super League appearances – and goals – behind her (Photo: BHAFC)

In: Dani Buet (unattached); Fliss Gibbons (Gillingham); Lucy Gillett (Watford); Chloe Sansom (Reading); Ini Umotong (Oxford United); Aileen Whelan, Fern Whelan (both Everton)

Out: Faye Baker, Lisa Fulgence, Charlotte Owen, Leah Samain, Amy Taylor (all Lewes); Charley Boswell (Portsmouth); Emma Byrne (retired); Ellie Dorey (Charlton Athletic); Hollie Olding, Alessia Russo (both US)

They say: 

“We’ve recruited in areas that we needed to strengthen from our experience in the spring series.

“We wanted to recruit some players to add the right blend of young and experienced players: it will be a very challenging league this season and it’s important to have the right balance.

“Looking at the players that have left, we needed to add some attacking options to the team. We targeted some key individuals because of their quality and what they would bring to the squad, both on and off the pitch. We’re really happy with how the squad has shaped up.

“Hope [Powell, the new manager] and I have been in discussions regarding all decisions as well as [former interim boss] George Parris’s input from his time through the spring series.

“Emma [Byrne] decided to retire, which, given her commitment to the game and what she has achieved, is fully understandable. She brought huge experience to the squad and was a great role model to have around, not just for us but for the whole of the women’s game.

Amy Merricks and George Parris, assistant manager and manager, Brighton & HA (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

Amy Merricks was assistant to interim manager Parris during the spring series (Photo: Geoff Penn/BHAFC)

“We’ve managed to bring in two very good goalkeepers that both bring different qualities to the side – one that comes with lots of young international and Super League 1 experience (Chloe Sansom) and the other with huge experience of playing in this league already, as well as in Iceland for senior competitive teams (Lucy Gillett).

“We want to ensure that we develop home-grown players and that there is a clear pathway and opportunity for our young players. We have been able to push young players from the [development squad] into the first-team squad, so they will always be training and a part of that environment.

“Any young players who play isn’t because it’s a necessity but because they are good enough to compete at this level.

“Hope and I have been talking all the time. We’ve discussed this weekend’s game (at Aston Villa) and shared pre-season footage, etcetera. Hope will be in the stands for the Villa game but I’ll be in the dug out.

“I’m sure we’ll be sharing thoughts throughout and I’m excited to have the opportunity to learn off of someone with so much experience and knowledge.” – Amy Merricks, assistant manager

I say: 

The times, they are a changing at Brighton.

Not for the first time, the club were hit by a massive bombshell in the run-up to one of the most notable games in the club’s history.

Shortly before their promotion play-off more than a year ago, they lost their manager, captain and some key players.

Now, as they prepare to embark on their first full campaign in the FA Women’s Super League, they unexpectedly find themselves without legendary former Arsenal and Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Emma Byrne, who announced her retirement on August 4, just a couple of weeks after Brighton finally ended their hunt for a new manager with the appointment of former England boss Hope Powell.

Byrne was heralded as a “stellar” signing when she joined the club on an 18-month contract in January, covering the spring series and the forthcoming FAWSL 2 season.

But her retirement, little more than a month before their Super League bow, left many stunned.

Not that the club are short of quality in that department. They felt able to release fit-again Faye Baker, the record-breaking goalkeeper who helped the club to the Premier League title, after a miserably long period out with injury, and youngster Leah Samain, but still have immensely talented teenage back-up Nina Wilson.

Brighton goalkeepers Lucy Gillett and Chloe Sansom, Sep 2017 (Photos: Paul Hazlewood/BHA)

Goalkeepers Lucy Gillett and Chloe Sansom arrived at Brighton within 24 hours of each other (Photos: Paul Hazlewood/BHA)

But as the new season approached, the club signed two new ‘keepers in as many days – Lucy Gillett, from Watford, and England Under-20 player Chloe Sansom, who had been at Reading.

Even without a permanent manager, Brighton enjoyed a decent introduction to Super League football following their promotion almost 15 months ago, finishing sixth of 10 in the spring series.

They lost only twice but scored just eight – the second-lowest in the entire league. And all with an interim manager at the helm.

But the club have addressed both issues, appointing Powell as the new head coach and signing two proven goalscorers to spearhead their attack in their first full season at this level.

Ini Umotong, a goal machine when Portsmouth won the Premier League, finished joint-top scorer in WSL2 last season, for an Oxford United side who finished second-to-bottom.

She has been joined by Fliss Gibbons, who enjoyed a brief, prolific spell with Brighton in the Premier League before moving to Millwall two years ago, where she scored five goals in 21 senior games for the WSL club, and then stepped down two leagues to help her old team, Gillingham, to promotion with 33 goals in 19 appearances.

Aileen and Fern Whelan, who have joined Brighton (Photo: Paul Hazlewood/BHAFC)

Fern and Aileen Whelan joined Brighton from Everton on the same day (Photo: BHAFC/Paul Hazlewood)

The striking ranks have been boosted still further by the arrival of Aileen Whelan from Everton, who is joined by her namesake team-mate, defender Fern Whelan.

The pair also played at Notts County in WSL 1, where new midfielder Dani Buet also played before the club’s demise.

But there has been an almighty clear-out of old blood at Brighton, including some of the promising youngsters who figured prominently in the spring series.

Out go Baker, Charley Boswell, Lisa Fulgence and Amy Taylor, who were all part of Brighton’s Premier League-winning squad, and Charlotte Owen, who was out injured at the time, plus Hollie Olding and Alessia Russo, their most successful striker in the spring series, who are both trying their luck in the US this season, Ellie Dorey and a number of the development squad who might have been hoping to be knocking on the first-team door.

Members of the current Brighton squad who were regulars in their title-winning season

Player Appearances   Player Appearances
Vicki Ashton-Jones 22 Lucy Somes 14 (+4 sub)
Kirsty Barton 22 Sophie Perry 11 (+3 sub)
Kate Natkiel 19 (2 sub)

The appointment of Powell, who transformed England’s fortunes before bowing out on a rare low at the 2013 European Championships, represents the end of a year-long struggle to find a suitable manager to replace James Marrs, who had guided them to the Premier League title.

Her appointment, only two months before the start of the club’s first full Super League campaign, would have meant a fast enough learning curve for the experienced manager.

But as she does not start full-time until the end of the month, she will need to rely on those already at the club – not least, her new assistant, Amy Merricks, who helped interim boss George Parris guide the team steadily through their first taste of Super League football in the spring series.

While Merricks’ retention as Powell’s assistant was established before her appointment, Parris is now free to concentrate fully on his day job again, as head of the regional talent club.

On the pitch, it will be interesting to see how much Brighton miss Russo, who made such a big impression in the spring series, but they will have her former Chelsea team-mate Jenna Legg available after injury blighted her start with the club.

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