With the WSL about to start, Neil Evans previews newcomers Reading FC as they prepare for a season in the top division.
Team: Reading FC Women
Home: Adams Park, Wycombe
Manager: Kelly Chambers
2015: 1st WSL2 (Promoted as Champions)
The Royals reigned supreme in the second tier of the women’s game, finishing ahead of more fancied opposition like Doncaster and Everton Ladies, with promotion assured well before the final game. Victory against Aston Villa on the final day ensured the Lady Royals deservedly won the title on goal difference. Like Doncaster, Reading suffered defeat just once and won every single away game they played in the league. They also gave Arsenal and Chelsea all they could handle in the Continental Cup group stages, which bodes well for the step up in class this term. I saw their opening game at Yeovil where Fran Kirby ran riot, scoring all four goals, and demonstrating she was as good as we were told she was. Undoubtedly, Kirby’s goals were a huge factor in Reading’s flying start to the season but Kelly Chamber’s team were not a one-woman band (Kirby only played five league games before her move to Chelsea).
And it’s with a squad that has been together for some time that the Lady Royals face their biggest challenge to date. That continuity and togetherness will be a huge plus, though the lush playing surface of their new Adams Park home will be as inviting for the Arsenals, Chelseas and Manchester Citys as for the newly-promoted Hoops.
It’s great to have another female manager in the domestic top-flight and Chambers is an astute coach with a sound backroom staff. She has recruited well, raiding the relegated Vixens for the highly-rated Equatorial Guinea striker Jade Boho Sayo (known as Jade) and, arguably, England’s most promising young goalkeeper in Mary Earps. Make no mistake, this U23 International is going to the very top. There are few flaws in her game and, at times last season, she single (or should that be double?) handedly kept Bristol in many games.
Defensively, Reading are a young group and that may be a negative as well as a positive. Positive, in that there will be no shortage of energy and there are players like Kylie Davies and Nia Britton who are already established Welsh internationals. They will rely on the slightly older head of Kirsty McGhee, who’s a real leader at the heart of the Royals rearguard; because there will be occasions when Reading’s young defence will be stretched by more experienced attacks. The re-signing of centre-back, Harriet Scott was just as welcome as the new additions. In midfield, Bonnie Horwood provides stability whilst the flair will come from another one to watch, Emma Follis. Follis was top scorer from her attacking midfield berth and the ability to pop up with vital goals whilst supplying the front players will be pivotal. Lauren Bruton is another exciting, pacey midfielder who loves to bomb forward and has represented England at U23 level. Kayleigh Hines has returned from Oxford to the club she first joined as a 16-year-old and is a key component of Chamber’s midfield.
This, decidedly, attacking line-up is completed by Jade, who will likely partner Helen Ward in a front two. Ward has great experience and a keen eye for goal and her cleverness in and around the box should be a perfect foil for Jade’s unpredictable skill and raw pace. Jade was signed on the basis of playing just half a season for Bristol, but the 29-year-old brings the promise of goals at this level. With eight in nine in all competitions last season, it will be offensively where Reading can do some damage. Melissa Fletcher is a tricky winger who should supply plenty of ammunition for Ward and Jade to fire goalwards. If Jade can reproduce anything like what she achieved at Bristol Academy, then the Reading will certainly score plenty. The question remains as to whether they can keep them out at the other end.
There is much to be excited about in this Reading side, they play attractive and progressive football and are unlikely to compromise those principals regardless of the reputation of the opposition. My main concern is the inexperience and, perhaps, overly youthful make up of the group. The fixtures list hasn’t done them too many favours as they begin WSL1 with trips to Arsenal, Sunderland and Notts County, which is a harsh introduction. It will be crucial that the team doesn’t panic should these early fixtures not go their way. That is why I would have liked to have seen one or two older heads at the back and in midfield.
It’s likely to be a rough ride for the Royals but I can see them retaining their WSL1 status come November. If Jade fires in the goals and Earps keeps improving they will just have enough to remain in the division for 2017.
First Fixture v Arsenal Ladies (A) 23rd March
Key Player – Jade Boho Sayo