Despite this week’s government enforced lockdown, elite women’s football will be allowed to resume at the weekend. Rather than refocusing on the WSL, though, D2B has decided to dip into the FA Women’s Championship (one level below) and take a look at Leicester City WFC who ended 2020 on top of the pile. Acquired last summer by King Power, the parent company of Brendan Rogers’ men’s team, the women’s set-up was able to go fully professional and what a difference it’s making…
“This is [a] really proud day. The introduction of a women’s team embedded within the club has been an ambition of ours for some time and today it can start to be realised. Exactly 10 years on from King Power first arriving in Leicester, this is a significant expansion in our vision for the club – both in terms of diversification and our dedication to football for all; and in our ongoing commitment to excellence in every one of the club’s pursuits.”Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester City Chairman, SheKicks.net website, 23/8/2020
OK look, the Foxes were already a very decent football team having finished 6th in a truncated 2019/20 Championship campaign, but Leicester’s name wasn’t coming up a whole lot in pre-season previews as a title contender.
Based at the 1,400 capacity Farley Way Stadium in Quorn, manager Jonathan Morgan has been able to keep the Foxes competitive at all levels since taking the reins in 2014. So, it must have felt like an unmissable opportunity when King Power brought the Women’s team into the wider Leicester City ‘family’, increased the playing budget and enabled Morgan to recruit some excellent players that the club may have missed out on before.
In addition to going full-time pro, they’ve just moved into the men’s former training facility at Belvoir Drive to further step up their drive for professional standards on and off the pitch.
“Belvoir Drive has served the club wonderfully and been a spiritual home for Leicester City teams through several generations. For it to become the home of Leicester City Women is a fine legacy for an historic location. The investments we have made in the last ten years have made it an outstanding, professional training ground from which their considerable development can continue.”Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester City Chairman, via Leicester Mercury 23/12/2020
It’s fair to say, though, that even as an independently run, largely amateur club, Leicester had made its presence felt in regional circles since its founding in 2004.
In that first season they secured the Leicestershire County League title and doubled up with the County League Cup. Only the Leicestershire & Rutland County FA Cup eluded them (as runners-up) but they went on to win that trophy in each of the next seven years – plus two more for good measure in 2014 and 2018.
More promotions followed. They hurtled through the East Midlands Southern Division League, made light work of the Premier Division and then won the Midlands Combination to take them into the WPL Northern Premier Division – which at the time was a second tier regional division.
Opponents got significantly tougher than the Foxes had seen up to that point, but they held their own. The club achieved 5th spot at the first attempt and followed that up with three consecutive third place finishes.
During that time they had applied to join the inaugural Women’s Super League but were unsuccessful. Progress stalled. Then the team suffered its first major set-back when they were relegated in 2013. The FA had restructured the national leagues due to the inception of the WSL and demotion effectively dropped them into the Midlands Combination which was now at tier four.
Though the club was eager to bounce back quickly a period of consolidation followed. Stuart Wilson led the club to a second place finish before departing, after which current boss Jonathan Morgan was elevated from his role as Reserve Team Manager and took on the first team, also finishing his first campaign as a runner up.
Michael Makoni would make the same journey from the reserve set-up and become Morgan’s assistant. Together the pair would guide the Foxes to an invincible season in 2015/2016, winning all 22 league matches in the newly branded Midlands Division One to secure their passage back to a now tier 3 Northern Division.
Two seasons of relative success saw the club finish 3rd and 2nd respectively, signalling that they could be considered a contender as each campaign began, but arguably their biggest victory came at the end of the 2017/18 season when they were awarded a licence to compete in the revamped WSL2 – alongside other applicants: Lewes, Manchester United and Sheffield United. The division would be relabelled as the FA Women’s Championship.
“The girls are so proud of themselves. It’s been a very, very difficult year for everybody, but from this, as the football family goes, it gives them a little boost. It’s something positive to hold onto over Christmas. We’ve understood where our weaknesses were… and to get five wins on the bounce, 15 points, when title rivals have been dropping points in that period, it’s been great. I’ve said to the girls that I’m extremely proud of them because the resilience they’ve shown this year, with COVID-19, to come out on top has been absolutely brilliant.”Jonathan Morgan, Leicester City Manager, talking to LCFC TV post Blackburn win 20/12/20
Whether Leicester are the surprise package of the season is open to debate, but there are really no surprises in terms of the teams that are challenging them for that single promotion spot.
Durham finished third last season and are just one point behind the Foxes currently, having gone undefeated in the division to date.
The sides squared up at Farley Way in early October, drawing 2-2. Leicester scored at either end of the second period through Remi Allen and Lachante Paul to peg back a strong Wildcats side that had led twice. Durham’s defence is miserly having only conceded eight but they have not scored nearly the number of goals that Morgan’s side have this season.
The same can be said of third placed Liverpool – who also struggled for goals up in the WSL last year – and Sheffield United, who sit fourth. Durham and Liverpool have exactly the same goal difference (F-19, A-8) while the Blades can point to one more goal scored.
Morgan’s side defeated Liverpool 2-1 in October with goals from forwards Paige Bailey-Gayle and Lachante Paul. Durham then put some breathing space between the top two and the rest when they beat the Reds 2-0 in December.
Sheffield United, who finished runners-up to a rampant Aston Villa team last season, have it all to do – a full 7 points behind the Foxes. But they look like the only other side in the division that could feasibly get on a run to contest top spot.
They visit Farley Way this coming weekend when Leicester captain – and former Blade – Sophie Barker is (according to the Soccerway website) going to make her 100th senior league appearance – although I’ve seen some other online stats that already put her some way beyond this milestone (!). If true it’s a nice way to add flavour to the occasion.
The teams have seen each other once already, clashing on the second Sunday of the campaign and tying 2-2. Millie Farrow gave Leicester a 2nd minute lead but they ended up being grateful to Natasha Flint for converting a 90th minute penalty to restore parity after Mel Johnson had bagged herself a brace.
It’s a football cliché, of course, but the spine of a team has to be strong in order to compete at the top end of any league. During the off-season Morgan set about making this a priority in his group and, by supplementing the squad with proven experience, he has subsequently been able to get more out of his technically talented youngsters.
Of the fifteen individuals that have made the most appearances this season, ten are 23-years old or younger, so some ‘know-how’ has definitely come in handy to foster an upturn in results.
Signing (just turned) 24-year old goalkeeper Kirstie Levell from Everton doesn’t readily suggest the kind of long-in-the-tooth custodian that a club with promotion aspirations would look to bring in, but she made over 40 appearances for the Toffees after coming through their youth system – including an ever present 2018/19 season – and would have been busy in a team that was struggling with every Super League opponent they faced.
Since Levell’s arrival, the Foxes’ goals-conceded-per-match average has reduced from 2.33 last season to 1.18 and she will, no doubt, have aspirations to get that down further. In fact, take out the anomalous and quite inexplicable 1-4 defeat to the London City Lionesses back in early November and that average drops to 0.9 which runs much closer to her high performing peers.
Midfielder and captain, Sophie Barker, was part of the Sheffield United side that finished 2nd last season and will be facing her old side this coming weekend. One of the oldest players in the group at 30 – and let’s be honest, that’s really not old – Barker is a wise defensive head and a natural leader who offers the kind of versatility that enables her to play anywhere across the back line as well as through the middle.
Next to Barker in midfield is combative former Reading stalwart Remi Allen – going back to the club where it all started for her in 2008. A veteran of nearly 200 senior appearances (domestically) it looked for all the world like the 30-year old Welsh international would sit deep in midfield, protect the central defenders with some characteristically robust tackling and spray the odd WSL-standard pass around. But not a bit of it. She’s started every game, going box-to-box and has chipped in with five of Leicester’s 32 goals.
Leading the line is former Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City striker Natasha Flint (pictured below). She’s on a hot streak at the moment with 12 goals in all competitions from just 13 appearances, and like all good forwards she’s happy to take on the responsibility (and pressure) of being team penalty taker.
Flint’s season is not going unheralded either. This week the division’s top markswomen won the FA Women’s Championship Player of the Month award (December) after scoring four goals in three games and helping the Foxes reach the Quarter Finals stage of the Continental Cup for the first time – where they will meet FAWC rivals Crystal Palace.
Manager Morgan has balanced the 24-year old’s penalty box assuredness with a desire to create space and pull defences out of shape for team mates Lachante Paul, Paige Bailey-Gayle and Millie Farrow to forge opportunities of their own. It’s working. To the tune of 23 league strikes between the four of them.
“The link-up play between us is starting to set up and the girls are starting to understand each other a bit more, so hopefully we can keep performing like that. From a confidence point of view, that will keep us sky-high at the minute. Don’t become complacent, but be confident that if we play our game efficiently, we can produce a performance like today. All five strikers came on the pitch today and all five scored, so that’s fantastic.”Jonathan Morgan, Leicester City Manager, talking to LCFC TV following a 9-1 demolition of Coventry United
And here’s the rub, Leicester have goals in them. Lots of goals. They’ve been able to steal ahead of the chasing pack through the sheer firepower in the squad. Nobody has shut them out in the league so far. And only two sides have held them to a solitary strike.
They’re certainly fun to watch. Three or four goals per match is common. And they have enough quality on their subs’ bench to help change a game when things aren’t going to plan – both Durham and Sheffield United were on the end of late equalisers.
Before the turn of the year, Morgan was able to name an unchanged starting eleven in four straight matches suggesting that he knows his best side and doesn’t needlessly rotate even though the resources are there to do so.
It also demonstrates that his key players are avoiding niggles and playing consistently at a high level – which is particularly impressive given the age of some of them.
Paige Bailey-Gayle and Lachante Paul (pictured above) are just 19 and 18 respectively. Both came through the development system at Arsenal with Bailey-Gayle playing a handful of games for the Gunners’ first team. Both joined the Foxes in the summer of 2019 and haven’t looked back.
Bailey-Gayle, who received a November player of the month nomination, has pace to burn and nimble, quick feet which cause all sorts of problems for defenders, especially in and around the penalty box. Never afraid to have a pot-shot she’s accurate from distance with both feet.
Paul extended her term with Leicester over the summer and went on to be nominated for the October player of the month. She comes alive in the 18-yard area and has an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time when the ball breaks, showing excellent composure for such a young player and contributing important goals.
The two have generally set up either side of centre forward Flint, but I’ve seen the team described as more of a ‘Christmas tree’ 4-3-2-1 than a rigid 4-3-3. This suggests that Paul and Bailey-Gayle (or the other attackers in the squad) have some licence to play a freer role where they can rotate and interchange with one another.
Another former Arsenal youngster Charlie Devlin supplements the attack from midfield. Signed in 2020 following a short, slightly underwhelming spell at Charlton Athletic, Devlin was previously part of the Manchester United side that won the FA Women’s Championship in 2019. She’s picked up just a couple of strikes to this point but is regularly in the starting line-up. Plus, as already noted, Remi Allen has contributed more goals than were perhaps expected. Former Everton attacker Hannah Cain is now recovered from injury and will feel (almost) like a new signing to give Morgan more options – and more selection headaches – if she hits the ground running.
Versatility has become ever more important in the modern game. Other players such as Libby Smith and Esme de Graaf have proved that they are capable of playing attacking or defensive roles to a high level. Recently both have been starting along the back line but can pick a forward pass or bomb on with confidence to ramp up pressure on the opposition.
This adaptability throughout the squad has enabled Morgan to keep his formations fluid and somewhat unpredictable, having also used 3-5-2 and an orthodox 4-4-2 during the campaign.
A Healthy Outlook
So, it’s an exciting time for a club that looks like it’s building aggressively to join the ranks of the Women’s Super League sooner rather than later.
Certainly Durham fans (in particular) will feel that they’ll have a massive say in whether that happens this year – they meet on Valentine’s Day incidentally.
But with significantly improved training facilities, a healthier playing budget and direct access to the knowledge and resource within the city’s successful Premier League club, Leicester surely won’t be long in forging their way up to the top flight of women’s football in England…
Earlier this year, we charted on the Feedspot Top 40 list of Women’s football blogs. No one was more surprised than us here at D2B Towers; there’s so much other good stuff out there. Anyhoo, check out the link above or our new Links page, there’s a heap of great blogs and websites written by people who really know their stuff and have an infectious passion for the women’s game…