The Barclays FA Women’s Super League kicks off on the 7th September with a Manchester derby at the Etihad and Bristol City hosting second-season Brighton. Twelve fully professional teams will contest the division with Arsenal seeking to defend their crown. Manchester City and Chelsea appear most likely to challenge the Gunners again, but the arrival of Premier League-backed Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United promises to make the entire division more competitive.
Every club has sought to strengthen during the summer to maximise their own chances of a strong campaign; but it also feels like a pivotal moment in time for the sport itself. Following the huge success of the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France and the public interest in England’s Lionesses, it’s important that every team in the division can put on a good show, deliver high quality football and positively promote the women’s game – in turn increasing attendances and attracting more sponsorship to push everything forward.
Ok, to business. In this the final preview, we look at how Manchester United, Reading, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United are shaping up…
Manchester United WFC
Last Season: Promoted as Champions of FAWC
Nickname: The Red Devils
Home Ground: Leigh Sports Village – Capacity 12,000
It’s incredible to think of Manchester United as the new kids on the block, but in women’s football that’s what they are. Formed in 2018, they won promotion to the FAWSL at the first time of asking.
Led by former England defender, Casey Stoney, United start life at the Women’s top table against Manchester City at the Etihad. There are few harder places in Europe to get a league campaign under way.
To this end they visited Norway recently for a pre-season match up with Toppserien’s 5th placed side Vålerengam who are midway through their 2019 season. In front of over 7,000 spectators a 4-1 defeat gave Stoney some insight into where they need to improve. The squad is working on being better on the ball and more organised out of possession; but equally important in the WSL is for players to stay switched on for 90+ minutes and to minimise individual errors.
Bringing in Super League experience has been central to summer recruitment with and several players have come in from rival clubs. Combative Welsh international midfielder Hayley Ladd joins from Birmingham to provide a combination of composure on the ball and physicality in the challenge. Former West Ham striker Jane Ross is a respected domestic and international goal scorer. The 29-year old has 20 league strikes in 52 WSL appearances, and 58 goals in 128 Scotland caps. Both Ladd and Ross were on the scoresheet for United’s second match in Norway, a 5-0 thrashing of Sandefjord.
Sealing the signature of central defender Abbie McManus was sweet not only for the strength and experience the Lioness brings. She arrived from rivals Manchester City, having spent a total of 12 years at that club. Abbie is a strong leader, adept in one v one situations and capable on the ball should United want to play out.
Influential Dutch international midfielder Jackie Groenen is one of the marquee WSL signings of the summer. A European Champion in 2017, Groenen scored the semi-final winner versus Sweden that took the Netherlands to France 2019 World Cup Final. Resilient physically and mentally, she can play deep or drive box-to-box, is exceptional on the ball, defends intelligently and always looks to pass forward.
“I’m really positive. I’m pleased with our recruitment throughout the summer. We’ve added some great characters with talent into this group. We’re going to have some tough times ahead, there’s going to be some difficult periods, because it’s a new league. The opposition are going to be of a far greater level, so it’s a challenge that we’re looking forward to and that we’re preparing for.”Casey Stoney, Manager Manchester United, source club website
Goalkeeper Mary Earps has returned from a spell in Germany to replace Siobhan Chamberlain who is taking a break to start a family. Earps made Phil Neville’s World Cup squad and offers strong communication, sound shot-stopping and good feet to give defenders an option in tight situations.
Going out of the club, England left-back and former captain Alex Greenwood has transferred to French juggernaut Olympique Lyon following some decent World Cup displays. Stoney has been philosophical about the situation maintaining the “it’s not just about one player, it’s about the squad” line. Greenwood’s departure also requires Stoney to pick a new club captain but she’s in no rush seeing a wealth of leaders in the group. Swedish defender, Lotta Ökvist, has arrived from Hammarby IF to take the number three shirt.
Stoney is playing it cool publicly, but must surely feel she has a squad in place that could already challenge for a top five berth, assuming the key players can stay healthy.
Manchester United, transfers in
- Jackie Groenen [FFC Frankfurt]
- Abbie McManus [Manchester City]
- Hayley Ladd [Birmingham City]
- Jane Ross [West Ham United]
- Mary Earps [Wolfsburg]
- Lotta Ökvist [Hammarby IF]
Manchester United, transfers out
- Ebony Salmon [Bristol City]
- Naomi Hartley [Sheffield United]
- Alex Greenwood [Olympique Lyon]
- Aimee Palmer [Sheffield United] Loan
Reading FC Women
Last Season: 5th in the FAWSL
Nickname: The Royals
Home Ground: Adams Park, High Wycombe – Capacity 9,617
Reading looked a bit wobbly in their first WSL season back in 2016, winning just one game. But since then they have settled into the role of a mid-table/ top-half side quite well and, last year, even surpassed their best FA Women’s Cup run, reaching the semi-finals before losing on penalties at West Ham United. The Royals were the fourth highest scoring team in the division during 2018/19, with plenty of players chipping in.
Manager Kelly Chambers has been at the club for over 15 years and was quick to ensure key defensive trio Sophie Howard, Molly Bartrip and Maz Pacheco were signed up for another campaign.
The club successfully negotiated the teething troubles of a first fully professional year and Chambers is now keen to develop the playing style and philosophy. To this end she’s been outward looking in her recruitment approach this summer, bringing in several young players from the continent.
Two Norwegian players have arrived. Kristine Bjørdal Leine is a centre back with some limited international experience. The 23-year old was part of Norway’s Algarve Cup winning squad earlier this year but didn’t go on to France 2019. Former IL Sandviken Winger Amelie Eikeland did make Martin Sjögren’s squad and is regarded as an exciting and talented player who chipped in with two of Norway’s six strikes against Northern Ireland recently.
Dutch forward Maxime Bennick has signed from PEC Zwolle. The U23 Netherlands international has also played in the Eredivisie with FC Twente. It will be interesting to see how each of the overseas players deal with the quick tempo of the WSL.
One new signing who shouldn’t have that dilemma is Welsh midfielder Angharad James who joins the Royals from Everton. The 25-year old has 48 international caps and had made over 100 senior WSL appearances.
Lioness Jade Moore is arguably the best ball-winning midfielder in the league and offers over 100 senior domestic appearances in experience to make the Royals physical and competitive. But that experience pales into insignificance when compared to teammate and England legend Fara Williams’ 170 international caps. Williams also knows where the goal is having converted 18 times in 38 league appearances for Kelly Chambers’ side.
They are important players to hold on to as some battle-hardened individuals have moved on. Attacking full back Becky Jane has joined Liverpool and well-travelled winger Gemma Davison has also departed for newly promoted Spurs.
Reading announced their first formal commercial partnership, solely for the women’s team, over the summer. YLD, a software engineering company, will display their branding on the front of the team’s shirts for the next two seasons and will look to work with the club to inspire more interest and participation in the women’s game both locally and nationally.
There are good foundations at the club, but it is unlikely that Reading can seriously trouble the top three. Mid-table and another good cup run wouldn’t be a disaster, particularly with strong, Premier League-backed clubs arriving.
Reading, transfers in
- Kristine Bjørdal Leine [Roa IL]
- Angharad James [Everton]
- Maxime Bennick [PEC Zwolle]
- Amelie Eikeland [IL Sandviken]
Reading, transfers out
- Becky Jane [Liverpool]
- Gemma Davison [Tottenham]
Tottenham Hotspur FC Women
Last Season: Promoted 2nd from FAWC
Nickname: Spurs, the Lilywhites
Founded: 1985 as Broxbourne Ladies
Home Ground: The Hive Stadium, Edgware – Capacity 6,500 (5,419 seated)
The top-flight expands to twelve teams this season and Tottenham are the beneficiaries of that extra berth. While they finished a handsome nine points behind champions Manchester United in the FA Women’s Championship, Spurs still won three quarters of their fixtures and averaged more than two goals per game.
The dilemma for any manager following promotion is whether to stick with the players that got the club to where they are, or opt to bring in proven individuals at the new level. In women’s football there’s the added wrinkle that FAWSL players must be full time professionals which immediately rules out those (albeit talented players) who are looking to top up on their day job.
Spurs Manager, Karen Hills, has opted for experience. Nine players have arrived, seven of which were brought in directly from WSL rivals. Left-sided defender and Netherlands international Siri Worm spent two seasons at Everton, not in itself a ringing endorsement, but these campaigns came on the back of 10 years at FC Twente where she was part of a squad that secured five Eredivisie league titles.
Well-travelled winger Gemma Davison left Reading for the Hive. While it may be fair to say that her best playing days are behind her, Davison is a clever player that has won titles with three different clubs so the 32-year old still has plenty to offer, fitness permitting.
Kiwi international Ria Percival will add steel and drive to the group while bringing the bonus, for Hills, of versatility. She played for West Ham United in their first WSL campaign last season and proved to be as adept across the midfield as she was at full back, helping the Hammers to achieve survival ‘fairly’ comfortably and securing a spot at the FA Women’s Cup Final.
Some younger talents do remain from the FAWC campaign. Rianna Dean, at 20, was last season’s top scorer finding the net 14 times in 19 league starts. Powerful forward Jessica Naz recently returned from the U-20 World Cup with England and looks ready to make the step-up just ahead of her 19th birthday. Talented holding midfielder Anna Filbey is on the cusp of making the Welsh international squad.
Kit Graham is the most recent addition following a summer trial, but the 23-year old’s signing has not been without controversy. Former club, Charlton Athletic, are seeking legal advice over a potential claim for development fees, alleging she was registered by Spurs while still under a contract of employment with them. Graham was with the South London club for fourteen years and scored 16 goals in 19 appearances last season, also winning the FAWC Players’ Player of the Year Award. Little wonder, then, that the Addicks are finding it hard to let her go without some compensation.
In pre-season, Spurs Women made the final of the Ramon de Carranza Trophy in Spain, beating Real Betis 2-1 on the way. They were unable, however, to secure the trophy going down to Athletic Club (Bilbao) 5-4 on penalties following a 1-1 draw.
It’s difficult to foresee how life in the FAWSL is going to unfold for Spurs given all the new signings. On paper, the individual names suggest survival is more than achievable, but the squad will need to gel quickly for them to avoid falling into a relegation scrap.
Tottenham Hotspur, transfers in
- Siri Worm [Everton]
- Becky Spencer [West Ham United]
- Lucy Quinn [Birmingham City]
- Ria Percival [West Ham United]
- Chloe Peplow [Brighton & Hove Albion]
- Gemma Davison [Reading]
- Rosella Ayane [Bristol City]
- Hannah Godfrey [Pensacola]
- Kit Graham [Charlton Athletic]
Tottenham Hotspur, transfers out
West Ham United FC Women
Last Season: 7th in the FAWSL
Nickname: The Hammers
Home Ground: Rush Green Stadium, Romford – Capacity 3,000
There are eleven different nationalities represented in West Ham’s modest 19-player squad, with seven new faces coming in from clubs overseas. So, respect alone is due for the sheer amount of scouting that must be going on.
Their first year in Super League went about as well as could be expected. They beat enough of the teams that they needed to, without significantly troubling the top sides – although their 4-3 defeat to Arsenal was exciting and a 1-1 draw with Chelsea unexpected.
First team manager Matt Beard knows his onions, having won the league twice with Liverpool earlier in the decade, and the FA Women’s Cup with Chelsea. Like current Chelsea boss, Emma Hayes, he also worked in the States with the now defunct Boston Breakers and hasn’t been shy of putting American players in his squad.
Replacing forward Jane Ross and the hard-working, combative Ria Percival would have been high on his priority list. Australian Jacynta Galabadaarachchi and English born (but American nationalised) Martha Thomas have come in to bolster the front line. Galabadaarachchi , only 18, is highly regarded as a quick and explosive forward who can play anywhere in a front three, while Thomas is a natural finisher who can play on the shoulder of the last defender or between the lines in an attacking midfield role.
Experienced Katharina Baunach looks good on paper having played for four title winning Bundesliga squad’s, but the bulk of the 30-year old midfielder’s appearances were at Bayern with her career stalling somewhat at Wolfsburg. The return of Dutch playmaker Tessel Middag must feel like a new signing. She tore her ACL with Manchester City in 2017 and then again after signing for the Hammers last year when on international duty, missing the entire season.
Tenancious Norwegian defender Cecilie Kvamme has arrived from IL Sandviken as Percival’s replacement. The 23-year old right back will wear a shirt emblazoned with ‘Redisch’ above the number 2. She has a handful of international caps and a surprising number of senior domestic appearances (145) for her age in Toppserien, most of which were made at Arna-Bjørnar.
“I’ve been pleased with our pre-season programme. I’m fully aware it’s probably going to take us until the end of September for everything to click into place. With players away on international duty, it disrupted our midfield a little bit. We can look at some real positives. Pre-season is about being match ready and hopefully we’re in that position where we can kick on, have a good week in training and go to Arsenal and do the best we can.”Matt Beard, Manager West Ham United, source club website
It’s perhaps a bit churlish to mention this, but we shouldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. West Ham Women’s 19-year old Managing Director, Jack Sullivan (son of David) was the subject of a BBC Three Documentary, Britain’s Youngest Football Boss, last season, having been involved with the set-up from school leaving age. He was instrumental in the club’s successful Super League application and then worked with Matt Beard to consolidate the team’s top-flight status and contest an FA Cup Final.
The club has been progressive in looking beyond the UK’s shores for new players, but this makes it difficult to predict whether they’ll improve on 7th, given the WSL experience that has departed. There are question marks over the two goalkeepers Becky Spencer and newly signed Courtney Brosnan at this level. More than likely to feature in the bottom half. 0
West Ham, transfers in
- Laura Vetterlein [SC Sand]
- Martha Thomas [Le Havre]
- Jacynta Galabadaarachchi [Perth Glory]
- Katharina Baunach [Wolfsburg]
- Kenza Dali [Dijon]
- Courtney Brosnan [Le Havre]
- Cecilie Kvamme [Sandviken]
West Ham, transfers out
- Jane Ross [Manchester United]
- Becky Spencer [Tottenham Hotspur]
- Ria Percival [Tottenham Hotspur]
- Brianna Visalli [Birmingham City]
- Rosie Kmita [London Bees]
- Vyan Sampson [Millwall Lionesses] loan