Before the start of the new WSL, Neil Evans predicts a tough season ahead for Birmingham City Ladies without star goal-scorer Karen Carney.
Team: Birmingham City Ladies:
Manager: Dave Parker
Home: Autotech Stadium, Solihull Moors FC
2015: 6th WSL1
No one individual makes a team, but Karen Carney’s importance to the Birmingham City cannot be overstated. Despite finishing two places above relegated Bristol, Blues actually spent the whole season anxiously looking over their shoulder at the Vixens. At one point, Bristol closed the gap to two points but that was as close as they would get. The decisive moment in Birmingham’s survival battle was a 3-0 win at Bristol, with two Carney penalties the difference.
If it was excitement and goals you were looking for, then Birmingham’s games were not the place to be last term. The Blues managed just seven league goals in 14 league games – three of those were Carney spot-kicks, leaving just four from open play. Their attack was as blunt as a Donald Trump political rally but far less effective. Carney was the Birmingham attack, and that is why her departure to Chelsea is such a blow. It is ironic that it was a missed Carney penalty that cost ‘Brum three points in the last minute of the season opener against Notts County. But no Blues fan will begrudge Karen her move; it will have a been a real wrench for this lifelong ‘Bluenose’ to leave.
Birmingham must move on but the burning question is, if they could only score seven goals last season where are this season’s goals going to come from? Freda Ayisi was signed from Arsenal last season to provide the firepower but she was sent off as many times as she scored. Undoubtedly talented, this is a crucial season for her and she will be expected to deliver. Similarly, Mel Lawley has been around the league long enough without fully delivering on her promise. With no real money available, Parker’s Blues will have to find the answers from within. Kirsty Linnett is an England U23 international with bags of ability and an eye for the target. Along with youth product Charlie Wellings, Birmingham’s youngsters will have to step up.
It’s not all bad news. Last season, the Lady Blues defence was pretty decent. With just 14 goals shipped in 14 games, Parker’s charges had the league’s fourth best defence. It was their ability to stifle the opposition that was Blues salvation in 2015. They were obdurate, stubborn and uncompromising; arguably the most direct and aggressive team in the league and that kept their heads above water. The back-line remains more or less the same going into this campaign. Aoife Mannion, Emily Westwood, Kerys Harop and Meghan Sergeant. The arrival of Corina Schroeder has been as welcome as the spring sunshine, and her experience will be needed. Alex Windell has grown in a more defensive, midfield role allowing the more creative players to flourish.
And it’s in the engine room where Birmingham’s strength lies; it’s the one area of the squad with some depth. Jo Potter and Jade Moore are the stand-out, international stars and Potter will undoubtedly take up Carney’s mantle as leader and heartbeat of the team. They will need to score the goals required to keep clear of the drop zone. Remi Allen is a very exciting talent and will be an essential supply line in the Blues quest for success and Chloe Peplow faces a big year ahead, and will surely see more game time. There may well be others from Blues’ Centre of Excellence that will be needed to step up to the plate, as the squad is one of the thinnest in the division. It is admiral that the club wants to stand or fall on the basis of homegrown talent. But that was Bristol Academy’s aim going into last season and it just didn’t cut it against the powerful behemoths of the elite.
Losing goalkeeper Becky Spence, again to Chelsea, was another blow but Sophie Baggaley ought to be an able enough replacement.
Two seasons ago, Birmingham were battling for the title and competing in the Women’s Champions League but it is a case of reality biting hard this time. It will take all of Parker’s undoubted tactical nous and assistant Marcus Bignot’s powers of motivation to squeeze every ounce from this squad. But when you lose the heart, soul and goals of your side it is questionable whether organisation, team spirit and youthful enthusiasm can fill the Carney gap.
For me, Blues’ destiny rests on whether they can score enough goals. Clean sheets will ensure a point here and there but if the attack is as anaemic as last season I cannot see them surviving. They will relish playing the underdog role and in no doubt proving the naysayers like me wrong. It remains to be seen whether they can.
First Game: v Liverpool Ladies (A) March 23rd
Likely Line-up: Baggaley – Sargeant, Harrop, Mannion, Schroder – Potter, Moore, Westwood – Lawley, Linnett, Allen
Key Player: Josanne Potter
Prediction: 9th (relegation)