By Neil Evans.
Last season tested the full range of emotions of all Vixens supporters as Mark Sampson left to take up the England job. His replacement, Dave Edmondson, has rung the changes in his bid to take the 2013 runners up to the next level.
A cursory look at the final table would suggest a disappointing campaign, with Bristol finishing seventh (though comfortably clear of relegation), with the second leakiest defence in the WSL. There were a number of poor performances, particularly at home, whilst cup success also eluded the Vixens. However, that was really only part of the story. Bristol’s problem, to coin a phrase, was that when they were good, they were very good, and when they were bad . . !
Edmondson continued the side’s previous philosophy of playing out from the back, and the passing style was very easy on the eye. A landmark first victory at Arsenal saw a rampant Bristol pass the Gunners off the park. Two nil could easily have been four or five. They also enjoyed a league double against star-studded Manchester City, and hit Everton for five at the Stoke Gifford stadium. Meanwhile, an undefeated Continental Cup campaign included an emphatic five-goal destruction of Birmingham on the road, and it would be a costly goalless draw against Yeovil that saw Notts County qualify for the semis at Bristol’s expense. So incredible was Yeovil’s goalkeeper, Alice Evans, on that day that Edmondson signed her up.
Of course, what made the season (maybe even saved the season) was Europe. Bristol eliminated Irish side Raheny United in the last 32 of the Women’s Champions League, which meant a plum tie against the mighty Barcelona. Barca had not lost at home for over 50 games, which made the 1-0 triumph at the Estadio Mini-Nou all the more remarkable. The return at Ashton Gate was the Vixens’ finest 90 minutes in their 10-year history and the last English club standing are now preparing for Saturday’s last eight encounter with Frankfurt.
But Edmondson has rung the changes. Strikers Annie Heatherson and Ellie Curson were shipped out, and midfielder Alex Windell was frozen out. And what of that Champions League squad now? Club captain Corinne Yorston was allowed to leave (she has joined Curson and now Heatherson at Yeovil), top scorer Natalia and on-field skipper Jemma Rose will be wearing Arsenal red, and Windell, Birmingham blue. Mercurial winger/striker Natasha Harding was meant to join American side Washington Spirit, but when that fell through, Manchester City stepped in. Washington did land another Vixen, Laura del Rio – another player allowed to leave. These were not just changes, but a full-blown revolution.
So exactly what have the newer Vixens got to offer? Well, Mary Earps’ first season, having replaced Siobhan Chamberlain, between the sticks was a resounding success. The young goalie made the most saves of any WSL1 keeper last season, and is mature way beyond her years. Grace McCatty, Bristol’s longest serving player, has returned to centre-back and will proudly wear the captain’s armband until the World Cup break at least. Only at a club like Bristol could a crucial player be encouraged to follow her heart and volunteer in Zambia as part of the UK Sports ‘IDEALS’ programme. A noble act, and proof, if it were needed, that some things are bigger than football.
On the field, the Vixens’ back-line remains largely intact. Loren Dykes (also raising money by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro this summer) is an accomplished full-back/centre-back. New signing Lauren Townsend is an excellent left-back, and another of a burgeoning Welsh contingent. Scottish international Frankie Brown is bound to see much more game time than last season, whilst Jasmine Matthews adds height and authority to Bristol’s defence.
The pivotal players are the central midfield Welsh duo of Sophie Ingle and Angharad James. Sophie is an elegant play-maker with superb vision and an eye for a killer pass, whilst A.J’s work rate and attacking instincts are a perfect match. Christie Murray, another Scottish international, was signed to provide further zest and guile. A completely Celtic midfield is bolstered by the arrival of the Welsh and tigerish Hayley Ladd, while Georgia Evans (also Welsh) is a young player sure to have a bigger impact in 2015.
In attack, Nikki Watts’ goals will be badly needed. A deceptively mobile striker who can shoot from anywhere, Watts will hope to establish a partnership with another Welsh girl, Nadia Lawrence, and the returning Vixen, Sharla Passariello. Gabby Simmons-Bird provides extra height and pace, and is yet another player who has come through the ranks.
It’s true that Bristol have lost a little of the ‘wow’ factor that players like Del-Rio, Harding and Natalia have provided. It will definitely be a more artisan than artistry mentality, and it may take time for results to come. The dream scenario is two good performances against Frankfurt, and overcoming a tricky FA Cup tie away at Everton before Bristol begin their WSL campaign. Like Sunderland, most of these players are part-time and Bristol always relish their underdog status, but I can’t see an improvement on last season’s position. Whatever happens, it won’t be a dull season at Stoke Gifford.
2015 Prediction: 7th
Key Player: Sophie Ingle
Bristol Academy WFC begin their WSL1 season at The Stoke Gifford Stadium, Bristol v Chelsea Ladies on April 2nd at 19.00pm.
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