Players prepared for most competitive WSL yet

By Harriet Drudge. The fourth season of the WSL kicks off tonight (Wednesday 16th April 2014), but this year it’s back with a difference. There are now 18 teams in two leagues, FAWSL 1 and FAWSL 2, meaning the introduction of promotion and relegation. One team will go up and one will go down, and a number of players, pundits and managers believe that this change will result in the most competitive season of the WSL yet.

Speaking at the BT Sport launch of the new FA WSL season, England internationals past and present revealed their excitement for the new season and the new format.

Chelsea forward, Eni Aluko, said: “It’s fair to say it’s going to be the most competitive season for the WSL, primarily because there’s relegation and promotion; it adds that little spice to it.

“From a Chelsea perspective, we’re really confident going into the start of the season. It’s been a long time coming so we’re really excited.”

Former England and Arsenal captain, turned commentator and pundit, Faye White, also believes that more teams in the setup will make for more competitive football.

“It shows so much more depth in the women’s game,” said White. “There’s more chance for teams to get up into the elite which will make it more competitive.”

It’s not just the structure of the Women’s league that has changed. The arrival of Manchester City Women has certainly given a new look to the league, with the Blues being propelled straight into WSL 1 ahead of league stalwarts Doncaster Rovers’ Belles.

The FA ruled that City met criteria based on finance, facilities and player development where the Belles, who drop into WSL 2, did not.

City’s finance and set-up has tempted some of England’s finest players to join their ranks, including new England captain, Steph Houghton, from Arsenal Ladies.

MCWFC team photo 2014

But with the money and big name international signings come the assumptions that they have simply bought their way into the league. City forward, Toni Duggan, isn’t bothered by outsiders’ opinions, though. She believes the project at Manchester City is a working progress and that success will not necessarily come immediately.

What people from the outside think is up to them,” said Toni. “Manchester City as a football club will always have that name – people will always talk about money and wanting to win the league in their first season, but we’re being realistic. I don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. We can see the bigger picture. I’m excited to see how we go.”

Toni and her City teammates certainly face a baptism of fire in their first league fixture; they take on reigning champions Liverpool Ladies tomorrow (Thursday 17th April).

The Merseysiders ended the first two seasons of the WSL bottom of the league. A new manager in Matt Beard, several player changes and increased backing from their parent club revolutionised the club, leading them to the WSL title last year. Many are now drawing comparisons between the men’s and women’s team, who are both free-scoring sides.

Liverpool Ladies skipper, Gemma Bonner, says the cohesiveness between the men’s and women’s sides benefitted them greatly last season and that Liverpool is a great club to be at: “The support we get from the men is great. I think last season it built the foundations for us to go out and concentrate on our football.”

Liverpool Ladies celebrating their FAWSL title victory last season

She added: “The club have really adopted a one club philosophy. The philosophy and mentality around the club, it’s a great time to be a part of it.”

The champions have added to their squad for the new season, bringing in Martha Harris and Gemma Davison, who will aid their fight to keep hold of their crown in a fiercely competitive league. Last year’s runners-up Bristol Academy, cup-holders Arsenal and Eni Aluko’s new-look Chelsea side will all look to challenge for honours this season.

Chelsea Ladies underperformed last season, finishing second from bottom. The squad needed strengthening and Aluko is confident their new signings will make them a force to be reckoned with this year.

“The additions to our team all bring something different. Rachel Williams is a very strong, powerful player and one of the best from set-pieces,” said Eni, whose brother, Sone, helped Hull to the FA Cup final last weekend.

“Laura Bassett is one of the best captains I have ever played under and will certainly sure up our defence. I think we’ve got a very strong squad – a squad that should do well.”

Chelsea kick off their season at Bristol Academy, who have a new manager after a terrific season in 2013. Mark Sampson’s success with the west-country club, saw him chosen to succeed Hope Powell as England’s new manager.

The new man in charge, Dave Edmondson, spent several years managing in New Zealand and Australia. He arrives at a club with traditionally fewer resources than the larger sides, but he is undeterred by that.

“The reality is hard work and team ethic makes up a big part of winning football games,” Dave told The Offside Rule Podcast (We Get It!).

He added: “The culture at Bristol is great; the team ethic and work ethic of the players will take us a long way.

“We’ve got some very good players at the club already so there wasn’t any need for any massive changes, to go out and buy names or big money signings.”

One change that was needed at Bristol was a replacement in goal. England goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain moved to Arsenal Ladies. Birmingham youngster, Mary Earps, has come in to fill her gloves.

Siobhan’s new side, Arsenal, achieved a domestic cup double last season, but struggled to assert themselves in the league that has so often had their name etched onto it.

After so many years of dominance, many say Arsenal have been knocked off their perch and manager Shelley Kerr believes this season will be tough for the club that’s in transition.

“You want to be successful but the reality is that this season is going to be the most competitive ever,” said Kerr. “We’ve had a lot of changes with players leaving and players coming in, so it’s going to be tough for us this season.

“In some respects, I don’t think the expectations are there for us because other clubs have bridged the gap,” added the Gunners’ boss.

The north London club have lost key players including Kim Little, who’s testing her game in America with Seattle Reign, but have also made some key signings, including former England captain Casey Stoney, who re-joins the side from Lincoln Ladies.

Former England captain Casey Stoney has re-joined Arsenal Ladies from Lincoln

Kerr added of her new centre-back: “Casey Stoney is a joy to work with. She’s another role model for our young players coming through and as much as she’s experienced, she is still coachable, which shows her character and how she still wants to further develop as a player.”

Stoney’s former team have undergone a name change and a relocation since she left at the end of last season. Notts County Ladies have formed from what was Lincoln Ladies, as the male and female sides now sit under one umbrella.

Last season’s Continental Cup runners-up have also had a shake-up of the squad, with Arsenal forward Ellen White and Chelsea goalkeeper Carly Telford joining.

Birmingham City Ladies have a great result in the Champions League upon which to build their WSL season, knocking Arsenal out of the competition earlier this month. They’ve lost key personnel though; experienced full-back Rachel Unitt has left for Notts County Ladies and Laura Bassett who signed for Chelsea.

Everton Ladies, once the dominant team on Merseyside, have had to up their game too. They’ve lost strong players but this gives an opportunity for their well-oiled youth set up to shine, including the likes of Caitlin Hayes and Nikita Parris.

You will be able to enjoy more coverage of the women’s game this season as BT Sport along with the BBC have heavily backed the WSL, plugging essential funding into the sport and making it easier for you to follow throughout the season.

It will be a season with lots of twists and turns and The Offside Rule (We Get It!), supported by Continental UK, will be on hand to provide you with weekly updates.

Listen to our special FAWSL podcast here.

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