As the great man David Bowie would say, Bristol Academy’s off-season can be summed up in one word…change. After taking the title race last season to a winner-takes-all encounter against Liverpool Ladies, the achievements of former boss Mark Sampson could not be overlooked by the FA and he was deservedly offered the opportunity to take the top job in the English women’s game. Mark, of course is Welsh, and I am personally looking forward to the second clash between Wales and England in the qualifiers!
During Mark’s four year tenure at BAWFC, the club has grown exponentially; an expanding fan base, improved facilities, two FA Cup final appearances and a steady improvement year-on-year in league position and qualification for this year’s Women’s UEFA Champions League. A tough act to follow for any new manager, sceptics might argue almost impossible. Another person sorely missed will be Siobhan Chamberlain, arguably the WSL’s best goalkeeper, and at the time of writing this we are still unsure as to who will be brought in to cover this most pivotal of playing positions.
Many Vixens (the club’s nickname) fans will be confused by ‘Sio’s’ departure to Arsenal Ladies – she will have to compete with Emma Byrne for the starting job. However, much of her life is in London and she evidently felt her chances of securing that England starting role, training full-time and all the other benefits of a club with almost limitless resources will further her career. She will be missed by all Vixens fans and we look forward to welcoming her back to Stoke Gifford during the season. Another high profile departure has been that of Lucy Stanifiorth to Liverpool. We never really saw the best of Lucy, mainly because of her ACL injury in the FA Cup final, and we wish her well too.
It took a wee while, partly because it was revealed the job attracted over 100 applicants, but the board have appointed David Edmondson to the hotseat, not just as manager but as Director of Football – meaning he oversees the crucial development of young talent. That’s the Bristol way, to grow organically and Dave has a fine track record in developing talent. The biggest specific sponsorship deal in women’s football, announced at Dave’s unveiling, with local firm DAS has enabled this to happen. Sophie Ingle, a talented midfielder, has joined from Chelsea Ladies and is an established Welsh international.
So just who is the new boss?
Dave Edmondson has joined the Vixens from Australian side Melbourne Victory having just won the Grand Final to be national champions. He was also in charge of New Zealand U17s making them Oceania champs in 2010. His CV is impeccable (he is actually a Mancunian by the way) and club president, Kevin Hamblin, clearly saw his achievements as too good to ignore. And the reaction down here, from players, media and fans has been universally positive. He gets the unique nature of what makes this club so different and so special and confidence is extremely high, especially with Dave’s recent achievements.
A real plus for the club is the re-signing of many players like winger Natasha Harding and the return of the “three amaigas”, Natalia Pablos Sanchon, Laura Del Rio and Keka. Big seasons lie ahead for all three. Natalia’s confidence will be sky high having recently scored five goals in 35 minutes (as a sub) for Spain v Macedonia. Keka (Christina Vega) joined halfway through last season and we are sure to see a more settled player and Laura has the ability to win games with sublime moments of sheer genius. The bulk of the squad, so far, remains which is great for continuity with a strong defence, led by the tenacious and inspirational captain, Corinne Yorston (recalled by England quite deservedly) and with emerging talent like Jemma Rose – a future England regular for many years to come.
In midfield the squad has both the talent and workrate who buy fully into the Bristol spirit; no more so than sole Bristolian, Alex Windell and the large Welsh contingent in the squad.
Bristol Academy have undoubtedly set the bar very high in recent years and, I think, still need a couple of signings to be at the sharp end of the league. Underestimate these Vixens at your peril as they can play and no club is better run and organised thanks to the board and staff. Bristol have proved that lots of money isn’t everything and I think they can prove that again, and nowhere will the contrast between the haves and the relative have nots be better emphasised than in Bristol’s opening WSL fixture, at home to Chelsea followed by an away trip to newcomers Manchester City WFC. Both have been on a shopping spree, with big marquee signings and it will be an enormous test of the new-look Vixens, especially with the new two-division WSL structure introducing promotion and relegation now added into the equation.
But, no female team works as hard on the pitch, has such a close bond and collective will to win as Bristol Academy. As their proud PA announcer, I can’t wait for the new season and for the Vixens to, again, confound their doubters and have a very good season.
Prediction: Top half at least
Key Player: Natalia Pablos Sanchon
Bristol Academy’s first game of the 2014 season is at home to Chelsea Ladies on 17th April at Stoke Gifford Stadium.
Check out Neil’s other previews: