So, football is back, yet in some ways it has felt like it hasn’t left. With Covid preventing fan attendance for all of the 2020/21 season, our TV’s were loaded with football, with every Premier League game shown live. Then, as the league season ended, Euro2020 began, and with England reaching the final, it had our attention until the very end. As that ended, preseason started, and on top of that, there was Team GB competing in the women’s event at the Olympics. All in all, it has been wall to wall football. However, on the flip side of that, Team GB aside, it has felt like an eternity since I got to watch women’s football.
I was lucky enough to be at Hayes Lane as a ball retainer for the Leicester home game in October 2020, but otherwise, the couple of times we made it onto the FA Player has limited my viewing pleasure, as with all fans of the women’s game. The good news though, as I write this, is that on the 29th August the new Women’s FA Championship season begins, and I will be at Hayes Lane to watch my beloved Palace play against Bristol City. Oh, and it will also be my birthday!!
Now, my last article was a review of last season, so it seems fitting that I return with to writing action with a preview of the coming season. So, first and foremost, let me address the change that has taken place, and it’s an important one. Ever since the current form of the Championship was created, there has only been eleven teams in the league. It doesn’t sound much of an issue, but trust me, it has been incredibly frustrating! It would be gutting when matchday would roll around, only for your team to be the odd team that doesn’t have a game. For us, it seemed to fall on every special event weekend, in which all games were made available to watch amid celebrations of the game. This season, at last, that has changed, as the league has increased to twelve teams. For me, this is a big victory. Not only does it mean that all teams play every round, but it just makes it look more professional. When you are trying to push and promote the women’s game, and so many involved in all the clubs are working so hard to be their best, I felt the system let them down by having an odd number of teams, because it made it look a little more amateur. The fact is that sadly, there are still so many sexist, backwards mindsets out there in football land, who look for any excuse to put the women’s game down, and when the second tier can’t even manage an even number of teams, it just gives these trolls ammunition. So, switching to twelve teams is a positive step, plus it totally appeases my OCD!
So, who makes up the twelve? Well, nine of the teams have stayed the same. They are Crystal Palace, Durham, Sheffield United, Charlton, Lewes, Liverpool, London City Lionesses, Blackburn and Coventry United. Last season, having gone full time, Leicester won the league and got promoted to the Women’s Super League. They have been replaced by Bristol City, our opening day opponents, who were relegated from the WSL. At the other end of the table, with relegation a factor for the first time last season, London Bees finished bottom and dropped down into the National League. They have been replaced by Sunderland and Watford, with both teams promoted up into the Championship. This summer has seen Charlton and Coventry both turn full time professional, joining Liverpool and Bristol City in having that status, as those latter two had been WSL, which requires it. I also believe that the Lionesses and Durham, while not quite full time, have more training sessions a week then the rest of us. So, the league remains unbalanced in terms of status, which I will admit, is frustrating. My hope had been that with Steve Parish bringing the academy up to Category 1, as well as restructuring the senior men’s team, he would have also wanted to do the same with the Women’s team and turn them pro. The fact that the Charlton owner has done this, and Parish hasn’t, is rather gutting. With Coventry and Charlton turning full time, that’s two of the teams that had been behind us. The longer we are left part time, the more risk there is of falling behind. Afterall, the league is basically won every season by a team who is full time.
However, we are blessed at Palace with a manager, staff and group of players who work their socks off, full of drive and determination to overcome the varying status of the clubs and be the best they can be. That has always been a real positive, and it is the positive I want to focus on.
The 2020/21 season was ground-breaking for us. In 18/19, we were a squad playing catch up, in a tier higher than we had ever been before. Having prepared for the National League, thrust into the Championship with three weeks to go meant that it was a season of adaptation and learning, especially given the crippling injury problems we had. The 19/20 season saw a huge rebuild, which took time to get going, and just was we started to click, Covid ended the season. Last summer was the first time we were able to really set out our stool. The key core of the team remained, while some new additions like Coral Haines and Chloe Morgan from the WSL were added. While there are still some teams we are yet to find the winning touch against, there were some performances to truly be proud of against very tough opposition. For the first time since promotion, we found the scoring touch, finishing fifth highest in the ‘goals for’ charts. We managed our record high points total of 20, and a record high natural finish of 7th. We reached the Quarter Final of the Conti Cup for the first time in our history, narrowly losing 1-0 in the 86th minute to runaway league leaders Leicester. On top of that, we brought our rather long and unwanted winless home streak to an end. At last, Dean Davenport and his players were getting to see some pay-off for all their hard work, as we begin to look like an established Championship team.
So, with a record-breaking season behind us, what can we be hoping for or looking to achieve in the new season? Well, being realistic, promotion is probably ruled out. While I will still dream of it, with four full time teams in the league, it will be incredibly difficult to get that one promotion spot ourselves. So, what then? Well for me, the first aim is to surpass last season’s 20 points tally. That alone would be a good marker of progress, because it would mean we have taken points from teams that until now, have seen us draw blanks. In terms of league position, if we could finish between 5th and 7th would be fantastic. It will be tough, incredibly tough, but why not aim high? With four full time teams, as well as the likes of Durham and Sheffield United who are strong every season, if we could breach that top seven, it would be job well done. What we don’t want, is to be embroiled in a relegation battle. I believe we have the fire power to avoid this, but we will need to lower our ‘goals against’ figures, as this has certainly hampered us in our previous three seasons.
Dean and his team have certainly not stood still this summer. We have now moved to the new CPFC Academy to train, which will hopefully be a big boost to the players and preparations and is most definitely a positive step forward. I am told a new formation is being worked on, and our player recruitment has been aimed at this specifically. The end of the 2020/21 season saw several departures from the club, some of which we will be up against this season. The following players have departed: Amber Stobbs(Watford), Amy Goddard(Bridgewater), Georgia Clifford(Watford), Emma Gibbon, Ffion Morgan(Bristol City), Amber Gaylor, Ashleigh Goddard(health reasons), Leeta Rutherford(Southampton), Ashlee Hincks(AFC Wimbledon), Cherelle Khassal(Portsmouth), Andria Georgiou, Amy Taylor, Grace Garrad and Aoife Hurley. Of those departed, Amber, Cherelle, Ffion and Leeta had the most game time last season, with them all reaching double figures for appearances. Cherelle on top of that is a huge loss, as she was joint second highest scorer with five goals and was such a tricky player for defenders. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all these players for everything they contributed during their time with the club. They will always be welcome back, and for Ashleigh, I want her to know that we are all rooting for her and are so impressed with her bravery and fighting spirit.
So, quite a few departures, which to be honest is quite common at this level currently, due to short term contracts. However, the majority of the team’s core has been retained. Chloe Morgan was an ever present in goal last season, while Captain Annabel Johnson will be set to embark on her third successive season at the club. Lizzie Waldie and Hannah Churchill showed great progress as they became key starters last season, and Shiv Wilson will once again get to terrorise defences in the red and blue. Leigh Nicol will be keen to put injuries behind her and make her mark this season, as will Kate Natkiel, while Coral Haines will be looking to add to her five-goal tally from last year and cement her place as a key attacking component of the team. The biggest relief of them all for fans, will be to see that Bianca Baptiste will be lining up for us for a third season. Last season, Bee was quite simply the girl on fire, scoring eight times in the league to be the 4th highest scorer in the competition, and 6 times in the Conti Cup. Her goals were invaluable, and we will all be looking to her to go again this season, and perhaps push for that Golden Boot! It is something that I have no doubt she can achieve, and if it happens, will hopefully mean a fantastic season for the team!
Despite the core being retained, incomings have been a must, given so many departures. Two of those who have come in, are familiar faces. Midfielder Kirsty Barton joined us on loan from WSL side Brighton last January and made ten league appearances. She has now signed permanently, ridding herself of the Tesco bag shirt for good! Centre back Gracie Pearse joined from Arsenal’s academy in January, and established herself at the heart of defence, making six appearances. This summer has seen her sign for WSL side Tottenham, but then join us on a season long loan.
Another five players have joined us so far. Defender Leanne Cowan has made the switch across London from the London City Lionesses, having previously played against us in the Championship. Another player to make the cross London switch is Charley Clifford. The midfielder joins us having made over 270 appearances for Charlton, meaning she knows exactly what it is like to play at this level and brings a wealth of experience with her. On the opposite end of the experience scale, 20 year old Aimee Everett will also be joining our midfield, looking to establish herself as a first team regular having been unable to do so at Leicester. She is not the only player to join us from last season’s champions, as forward Millie Farrow has also made the move to Hayes Lane. Described by the LCFC Women’s Supporters Club as ‘tenacious’ and a ‘real character’, Mille found her chances limited at the Foxes and comes here looking to show just what a lethal force she can be in this league. She is not the only new striker addition, as Molly-Mae Sharpe has made the move down South from Durham to bolster our attacking options.
For me, one of the real standout factors to all of these signings, is where they have come from. We have picked up players who know this league and have been part of some top set ups. It shows how far we have come in such a short space of time, with players at a high level wanting to come and be a part of what Dean is building.
There may be more additions before the season starts, there may not, but either way, we have a squad that is looking to hit the ground running. Relegated Bristol City is a very tough opening fixture, but at the same time it gives us the perfect opportunity to see where we are at, and possibly lay down quite a marker for the season ahead. I for one am excited to see what this group of players can achieve this season, and I am super excited to finally get to see it in the flesh again, and actually cheer them on. These players deserve the support, and it will be great for them to hear the singing from the terraces once more.
So, I urge everyone to get down to Hayes Lane on the 29th of August and be a part of something special. Let’s have a bumper crowd for the opening game and show just what a difference fans can make. Who knows, we may just be cheering the women on to three precious points!
I look forward to seeing many of you as the season unfolds, so please come and say hi!
*Photos Credited to Tara Hook Photography and the CPFC Website*