“It’s as much about the younger players teaching us as it is about us teaching them, they have the youth and enthusiasm and we have the experience – it’s now about putting all that together.”
The words Manchester City and England midfielder Jill Scott said to me two and a half years ago when the club re-launched their new women’s side in a fancy suite at the Etihad Stadium on a cold, wet January afternoon.
It is an ethos to this very day that rings true. Whilst City’s promotion to the FA WSL caused controversy due to the forced relegation of a historic club – Doncaster Rovers Belles – to make room for City, they have set about their task in the best way possible to not only develop themselves, but English football at the same time.
Of the 18 players City have used regularly this season, 15 are British or Irish and the other three are from Sweden, Holland and the USA. When City kicked off in their first ever FA WSL match against Liverpool three months after they launched, the entire starting eleven bar Betsy Hassett were British.
Since then it has been about evolution, not revolution. Manager Nick Cushing will have been well aware City didn’t have a squad capable of challenging for the title and set about strengthening the spine of the squad. In came Karen Bardsley in goal, Steph Houghton in defence, Scott in midfield and Toni Duggan in attack – the latter two joining from a quickly unravelling Everton side.
Despite a budget and reputation that would have allowed for more, Cushing put his faith in youth and brought in Steph Marsh and Danielle Young from Blackburn, Jess Holbrook from Liverpool and soon-to-be PFA Player of the Year Isobel Christiansen from Birmingham City.
City lost more games than they would win as they struggled for consistency and they had no right to win a trophy after such a short time together. As Duggan said to me after their title triumph on Sunday, City “lucked out” with their Continental Cup heroics when beating Arsenal 1-0 at Adams Park – Christiansen the scorer.
Despite a stop-start first year, it was still about evolution. Cushing continued to mix youth and experience, bringing in double FA WSL champions Lucy Bronze from Liverpool and Jennifer Beattie from Arsenal. Natasha Harding also arrived before Cushing once again turned his attention to young British talents.
Sarah Wiltshire was brought in from FA WSL 2, Demi Stokes arrived from the US College system and in the summer Daphne Corboz would join her along with 16-year-old Georgia Stanway – the third import in 18 months from Blackburn Rovers. But it was about working out the best way of moving forward, Bronze, Houghton & Stokes soon nailed down their positions in the team whilst Abbie McManus, Kathleen Radtke, Emma Lipman and Chelsea Nightingale were all given chances to impress next to captain Houghton.
In midfield, Christiansen’s continued improvement alongside Jill Scott left just one spot there too. Teenager Keira Walsh would soon work her way into the starting line-up and book her long-term spot in the team but issues remained up front. Despite inspired form from Duggan post-World Cup, Wiltshire quickly returned to Yeovil whilst Natasha Flint, Krystle Johnston and loanee Nikita Parris struggled for consistency.
Despite that, City’s superb run of form in the second half of 2015 suggested they were finally on the verge of success and it would only take one or two more tweaks to overtake champions Chelsea. With Cushing’s easy-on-the-eye brand of football becoming all the more evident, all City had to was reinforce their attack and find a suitable partner for Houghton at the back.
On paper, 2016 provided their least spectacular transfer window on paper but arguably their most important. With Walsh, Stanway, Parris & McManus all developing quietly during pre-season, everyone hit the heights of their talent required all at once and combined with several new signings, City became a dominant force right from the off.
After a quick spell in Sweden, Jane Ross didn’t appear to be the blockbuster signing City needed up top but Cushing proved the Scotland international was perfect for his system and complemented her arrival with the signing of Swedish international Kosovare Asllani after her release from PSG. Only young defender Megan Campbell and back up goalkeeper Marie Hourihan would arrive as Cushing whittled his squad down to the bare minimum.
It was a risky move – one I openly criticised at the start of the campaign – but an inspired one. When long-term injuries ruled out Christiansen, Walsh and Campbell for the first half of the campaign it appeared Cushing may have made an error. City didn’t make a substitution during their first two league matches, only managing to name four subs against Notts County. Back-up goalkeeper Hourihan was joined by youngsters Zoe Tynan, Alethea Paul and Amelia Kemp with Ceri Holland joining them for the second match against Arsenal.
But whilst all eyes were on City’s new signings, it was the development of Stokes, McManus, Parris and later on Walsh that showed City and Cushing really knew what they were doing. After wrapping up the title on Sunday, City are on a 25-match unbeaten run in the league, sit 10 points clear of Chelsea, remain unbeaten and have only dropped points to one side – Liverpool.
Now their biggest challenge is continuing to build without going against their beliefs. They have the budget and reputation to attract some of the biggest names but you can already imagine Cushing is scouring the game for the best young British players around to add to his squad. The only hitch this time is City don’t have any players you’d look to clear out. At the end of last year the club announced the likes of Flint, Johnston, Lipman and Georgia Brougham would be allowed to leave but now City have a squad full of top class players.
With Cushing a huge advocate of using a small squad, how do City add the quality they need to conquer the FA Cup and push on in Europe without bulking the squad up to a size all of a sudden not coherent with what their manager wants? Where do they improve? Do they have any weak spots? It’s hard to identify any.
It’s also a young squad, only goalkeeper Karen Bardsley is the wrong side of 30 but in the outfield positions most are still looking over their shoulders at their teenage years rather than looking forward to the big 3-0. Jill Scott will be 30 by the time the Spring Series kicks off so will Cushing look at another young midfielder who can play alongside Christiansen and Walsh? If he does, City have their midfield nailed down for the next decade if their success continues.
Given Cushing’s transfer history, would City turn to someone like Leah Williamson, Laura Coombs or Emma Follis to continue their work of building the club around the future of English football? The last thing Cushing will want to do is complicate matters and give himself the selection headache that cost Chelsea some consistency across the course of 2016.
Do you think Nick Cushing is right to stick with his principles of youth player, or do you think experience is key?
Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichJLaverty