Like Liverpool’s other eight winter signings in preparation for the 2016 FA Women’s Super League campaign, Welsh international Natasha Harding was taking a big step into the unknown when she signed up under new manager Scott Rogers.
Whilst 2013 and 2014 saw Liverpool win the FA WSL twice under Matt Beard – with Rogers as assistant – 2015 was a completely different story as only the poor form of Bristol Academy saved Liverpool from a shock relegation.
The team had reached its end point and with the likes of Gemma Davison already having departed to Chelsea, players such as Natasha Dowie, Becky Easton, Katrin Omarsdottir, Libby Stout and Fara Williams would all follow manager Beard out of the door when 2015 ended.
In came Rogers as manager and a whole host of new international signings with impressive CV’s as the former Blackburn coach looked to get Liverpool back to the top of the FA WSL.
“Scott deserves big credit for what he did,” said Harding. “He was very brave doing what he did, to come in and release big names shows what kind of character he is, he’s not afraid of big decisions and it was one of the reasons I wanted to join.
“He showed a lot of faith and trust in me and it’s a credit to him for getting me somewhere near back to my best towards the end of last season.”
Along with Harding, the forward’s Wales team mate Sophie Ingle also joined along with Netherlands captain Mandy van den Berg and her international team mate Shanice van de Sanden. England’s Siobhan Chamberlain and Alex Greenwood soon joined them, Caroline Weir was signed from Bristol before Swedish striker Emma Lundh looked to solve Liverpool’s lack of No.9. Laura Coombs also joined on loan from Chelsea as the revolution got underway.
All but Lundh can claim to have had successful opening seasons at the club, the Swede having departed back to Scandinavia and more surprisingly, van den Berg joining Reading despite being a regular in the team.
“It wasn’t like we weren’t bringing in experience, Mandy was the Dutch captain and me and Sophie have the captaincy and vice-captaincy of Wales. Emma Lundh was very much like Zlatan, she acted like him. Shanice was a rough diamond with bags of potential and now Casey [Stoney] has joined us too.
“That’s been massive for us, she’s been a top professional. Scott has brought in big names and he’s made it click, we have a great mix of hard working players, technically gifted players and I think we’re in a good position to hit the ground running.”
But Rogers isn’t always about the big names, the manager has publicly stated he wants to use the upcoming Spring Series to give chances to young players and he’s doing just that so far.
Despite coming back from injury, teenager Niamh Charles was thrown in from the start in last weekend’s SSE Women’s FA Cup final against Manchester City whilst midfielder Ali Johnson had made her debut in a previous round.
“Niamh’s a really good kid,” said Harding. “I try to pass on my knowledge and I work with her a lot, we’ve got Ash Hodson who can play up top too and I’ve got vast experience there having played as No.9 under Mark Sampson at Bristol as well as for Wales.”
Liverpool did get their No.9 last week when they announced the signings of Notts County and England striker Jess Clarke, and Harding now firmly believes the team are in a good position to really challenge in 2017.
“We’re looking forward to it, Alex [Greenwood] is back with us and we’ve got Casey in so we’ll be well set at the back. I think we’ll use the Spring Series for development, I think a lot of teams will. It won’t be a spot on representation of where everyone is.”
Harding and her team mates will certainly hope for a better start than they had last season as Liverpool struggled for any sort of consistency with so many new players. Capable of scoring plenty, Liverpool were far too open at the back and it culminated in a crazy 6-3 defeat at Chelsea.
But post-summer break the ship steadied and Liverpool went on an eight match unbeaten run which included two draws against champions Manchester City – the only team not to lose to City during the season.
It all ultimately ended in disappointed when a 120th minute winner from Coral Jade Haines sent Birmingham to the Continental Cup final instead of Liverpool before a heavy 5-3 defeat at home to Arsenal on the final night of the campaign.
Harding said, “Considering the first half of the season people probably wanted to play against us because teams knew they were going to get goals against us.
“That’s probably why we had so many people at our games early on in the year, they thought they were going to see double figures,” she laughed.
“That game itself [6-3] was a whirlwind, we were 1-0 up, 3-1 down and then back to 3-3. Personally, I became much stronger in the second half of the season, I was becoming closer to the person people knew me for and the player people knew me for.
“We all found each other’s strengths and it galvanised us, everyone knew what to expect from each other. We became hard to beat, we weren’t putting as many away but we were winning 1-0 and 2-0. We slipped off towards the end but we’re definitely raring to go again now…”
Follow Rich on Twitter @RichJLaverty