So here we are, a brand-new season is under way. We are already four games into the new Barclay’s Championship campaign, and the first round of Conti Cup games have just taken place. It is a season that has felt like no other in regard to women’s football. A huge reason for that, was our superb Lionesses bringing football home this summer, setting all sorts of records on route to being crowned European Champions for the first time ever. The deserved success has certainly had a positive impact on the domestic game, with WSL, WC and NL games all seeing bumper, record breaking crowds. It has also seen some clubs take more of an interest and put more investment into their women’s teams. As I sit and write this, I do so just days away from watching the Lionesses versus USA at a sold-out Wembley Stadium, what should be a record 90,000 crowd in a friendly, yes friendly, that sold out in less than 24 hours! Remarkable, and another highlight of just why this season feels more special than previous ones.
There is also a personal reason for that extra special feeling about this season. After finishing our record highest Championship position of 4th last season, the part time cat among the full-time pigeons as it were, this summer saw us at last move full time, along with which came a huge squad overhaul as 15 new faces walked through the door. The changes brought with it a swell of excitement and anticipation for the season ahead, in a league which is looking set to be the most exciting and competitive it has ever been. Now, those who have followed my work these last four years will know that I love to bring you interviews with our players, to provide an opportunity for fans to get to know more about those who wear our colours with pride. I view these interviews as an opportunity to bridge the gap a little between player and supporter, and I aim to bring as many as possible this season.
So, with fifteen new arrivals to the squad, that would naturally provide many fresh interview opportunities, yet it is not with any of those players who I have chosen to start. Instead, I have opted for a player who was a part of last season’s record-breaking performance and has so far been one of the absolute stand outs in our opening four games. That player is Isabella Sibley. As those who know me well will tell you, I am a creature of habit, and my interviews are no different, because I always like to start at the same place…where it all began. Just how did Isabella become interested in football, and when did the passion begin?
“Growing up I was full of energy, so I always had a ball at my feet. My earliest memories of playing football were in the back garden with my dog and dad. It would be a 2v1, my dog and I vs my dad.”
Now I know what all of you readers are thinking. Who would win, and what position did the dog play in? Ok, so maybe it’s just me who immediately thought that! Just in case I am alone in that curiosity, my next question was less about the dog’s Fifa stats, and more about what were Isabella’s first steps into playing the beautiful game?
“My primary school PE teacher asked me to go to a gifted and talented day in which I got scouted for Middlesex Centre of Excellence FC and this was the beginning of my football career. I was fortunate enough to get selected and had great exposure to girls football.”
So, we now know that Isabella’s playing days started at Middlesex Centre of Excellence FC, and we know that currently her career finds her wearing the famous red and blue of the mighty Palace. But what was the path of her career between those two clubs?
“As said above, my first all-girls football club was Middlesex Centre of Excellence and I spent 4 years there. After Middlesex, I played for Chelsea for 5 years in which I was exposed to some first team training and action. I made the decision in 2018 to attend University in America to continue my education and play at a high level. I attended West Virginia University.”
That is quite some pedigree for a young player, given the high status of women’s football in America, as well as Chelsea’s current dominance of the WSL and cups here in England. It would certainly explain a hell of a lot as to the high level of performances we have been seeing from Isabella. Now that we know the path her career has taken, I wanted to know who, if anyone, had inspired her so far?
“Growing up, Kelly Smith(Arsenal & Lionesses legend who had huge success in the USA) was a big inspiration for me. I remember reading her book when I was little, I didn’t put it down until I finished it. She was the name everyone knew in Women’s Football.”
It is hard to think of a more iconic name for women’s football(prior to this summers Euro Glory) than Kelly Smith, and I imagine Isabella is not alone in looking up to the legendary player as she began to cut her own path in the footballing world. Just like Kelly, Isabella spent time in the US, playing for West Virginia University as she already told us. It has been knowledge for years that women’s football in the US has been far bigger and more popular in comparison to other countries, including the UK. So, what was it like for Isabella, coming through the American system?
“The American system focuses a lot on athleticism. A lot of work is in the gym and throughout the summer we would have sometimes 3 sessions a day, 2 being fitness and the other in the gym. It was a very professional environment; it was like being a full time professional as well as a full time student.”
The next natural question, is what, if any, are the differences between football in the US and over here?
“Personally, it is a lot more technical and tactical in the UK compared to America. In the US, their main focus is on the physicality side, a lot of time is spent in the gym.”
There is no doubt that West Virginia’s loss has been our gain, but some of you may not be aware of just when it was that Isabella became an Eagle. With so many new arrivals in the summer, it would be easy to assume that she was one of them, but as mentioned at the start, Isabella was with us last season. Currently, not enough coverage is given to the transfer windows in the women’s game, especially below the WSL, so many of our fans may not be aware that last January saw two new additions to the Place squad. Alex Hennessy came on a loan deal from Arsenal until the end of the season, while the other addition was Isabella on a reported 18 month deal. So, what were Isabella’s first impressions of the club?
“I was welcomed with open arms. It was my first professional contract, so the nerves were there, but the girls allowed me to settle in and to this day I am still soaking in information.”
Having already been at English giants Chelsea, and in the US, what were Isabella’s career expectations having made the move to Palace?
“I wanted to join a team where I knew I could grow as a player and as a person and CPFCW was definitely the perfect fit for me.”
Isabella joined us while the team was on its best ever league run at this level. We were seven unbeaten, with four wins in a row. Her debut would come at the end of January when we played host to runaway league leaders Liverpool. Isabella came on as a second half substitute in a 4-0 defeat, a game that saw us second best from the first whistle. I asked Isabella what it felt like to make her debut, and how she found doing so in such difficult circumstances that game?
“Of course, it was a big moment for me but for the team getting the result we did was frustrating.”
Isabella looked solid when she came on that day and would continue to make appearances as a sub for the next few games, until we travelled up to Eppleton for our re-arranged fixture with Sunderland. We went there on the back of three heavy defeats in four games, and the tactical change was made that’s aw us switch from the 4-3-3 we had played all season, to 5-3-2 using wing backs. Isabella got her first start that day in a much needed 1-0 win. I asked her when she first became aware she was starting, and how it felt to make her first start for the team?
“It was very exciting being told I was starting. We got told the day before allowing us to mentally prepare. I was more excited than anything that I was starting, and I really enjoyed playing the wingback role in that game.”
The tactical switch had come about to bring an end to the run of heavy losses that had threatened to derail what had been an incredibly positive season to that point. Having played 4-3-3 for so long, I asked Isabella what the preparations were like for that game, and how did the team find it making the switch?
“Like any other game, we prepare thoroughly. The week leading up to the game, we were told about the switch of formation and spent a lot of hours on the pitch and hours watching analysis as well to help us prepare.”
Isabella became pretty much an ever present for the rest of the season, starting five of the last six games and coming on as a sub in the other. I asked if she had felt confident that if given the chance, she could become a regular starter?
“The starting 11 for every game is based on how well we are individually training in preparations for the game. Of course, the goal is to start as many games as possible but that all comes down to how well we are training during the week.”
There is no doubt that the change of formation certainly had a positive impact on the team and performances. Narrow loses came against Coventry & Lewes courtesy of injury/covid absences and us going down to ten in both games. But from there, we would pick up three consecutive victories and a final day draw to end in our highest ever position of 4th in the Championship(behind third place Bristol on goal difference). I asked Isabella how much of a buzz there was among the squad with how the season finished?
“Oh, we were buzzing. Finishing 4th was a massive achievement. The hard work throughout the season paid off and was a big accomplishment for us.”
One of the key things we knew about last season, having been told by several players and the staff, was how much of a tight knit group they were. The squad had really come together and clicked from early on, which could have been tough for someone to come into halfway through a season. I asked Isabella what it was like to join such a tight knit bunch, especially when the first few results were some tough losses?
“As we know in football, sometimes you don’t get the results you want or deserve. I was soaking up any and every crumb of information from players to staff. The atmosphere was still very positive as we knew what we had to do to get the results we wanted.”
With the majorly successful season behind us, as mentioned at the start of this article, the summer saw massive changes at the club. Loans ended, two players retired, and others moved on elsewhere, while fifteen new faces came in, giving us a squad of 25 for the very first time. I wanted to know, how had the summer been for Isabella as she prepared for the opening game, and had to adapt to the major changes going on around her?
“Yeah, a lot of changes were made this summer. We had 6 weeks of preparation leading up to the opening game, allowing us a lot of time to build relationships. The best thing about this team is we have all gelled very quickly and it’s a very good environment to be in every day.”
In January of this year, Isabella had joined the club as one of two newbies joining a settled group. By July, she had become a stalwart, one of the few who had remained, welcoming in a whole new bunch of newbies. It’s not often you see such a change so quickly, so I asked Isabella if she felt that she needed to pass on her experiences of the club to the new arrivals?
“Yeah, when I joined everyone made me feel so welcome, so it was only right to make the newbies feel as welcome as I was.”
The opening day of the season saw us travelling to Dartford to take on London City Lionesses. The match was a huge test for our new squad, playing their first competitive game together against a team that not only finished second in the league last season(beating us home and away), but that we had not beaten since they broke away from Millwall to become LCL. It was a tricky game at times, but also one that saw some sublime play from us, as we run out 1-0 winners to set a marker early in the season. The goal was scored by Isabella, her first for the club. I asked her how it felt to get her first Palace goal?
“Oh, it was amazing! It was a big game for us, and it was good for us to start our season on such a positive note. Hopefully many more goals to come.”
We could tell be the celebrations after the game, just how much the victory meant to the team. I asked Isabella what it had been like so far, being part of this new group?
“Like I said previously, it’s one of the best environments to be in. We are all on the same page and we all learn so much every day. It’s amazing how much we have gelled as a team already and it is only the start of the season.”
While it was a huge win for the team, on a personal note, Isabella had a storming performance, also hitting the post and going close on a separate occasion. It was a performance that saw her pick up the Player Of The Match award, be nominated for Barclay’s Player of the Round, and get picked in the Team of the Weekend. She must have been buzzing.
“Yeah, definitely buzzing! It was quite overwhelming. It’s what you want as a player, scoring and playing in games.”
Isabella was once again one of our standout performers a week later, as we picked up a 3-0 win at home to Coventry. She has been playing in the left wing back role, but what has stood out has not only been her defensive work, but her attacking play. At times she gets so far forward like an out and out winger, it causes defences all sorts of problems. To me, it feels different to how she played the role last season. So, I asked Isabella if she had been given more freedom in the role this year?
“Yeah, I’m definitely attacking more this season than last. I see myself as quite an attacking wingback and being able to link with the attacking midfielders and centre forwards has helped in getting me higher up the pitch.”
At Palace, we have seen Isabella mostly play in a wing back role, although it felt like last season her first couple of appearances were more as a winger. So, I asked, just was her favourite role?
From a fan perspective, we are seeing a very different player in Isabella this season compared to last season. I don’t think we realised just how good a player we had, and the performances have been a joy to watch. I asked Isabella if she had noticed any differences in her performances, and if so, if there was any reason for it?
“Yeah, I’ve seen some differences from last season to this season. I think gaining some confidence and also finding out what I’m good at and working on that is important as well. I love to dribble so I have been working on that a lot recently. A big thing for me was the players and staff around me helping me to become a better player.”
With things going so well at the start of this season, where does Isabella hope to be carer wise in five years’ time?
“A regular starter and hopefully be involved in the England Senior team.”
In the second half of the Coventry game, we broke out with a first every rendition of ‘Isabella Sibley Runs Down The Wing For Me’, a second put together during the first half and practiced by Phil and I at half time!! The big question is, did Isabella here it?
“I hope everyone heard because I definitely did!! It put a massive smile on my face!”
Well that certainly brings a smile to my face knowing that, as the creation of my ‘Be The 12th’ campaign is designed to push player songs to show our support at anther level! With most aeras covered, it leaves one final question that I ask in every interview. That question, is if there was one thing she could change in the women’s game to improve it, what would it be?
“A lot has changed in women’s football over the years and especially from the Lionesses winning the Euros. I think the more coverage women’s football receives the more exposure it will get. So hopefully, they can continue to televise women’s football games on mainstream TV.”
There you have it; our interview is at an end. I personally feel that Isabella has been the perfect start for what will hopefully be a season packed full of interviews, and I hope it has been as enjoyable for you to read as it has been for me to write. I would like to take this moment to thank Isabella for taking part in this interview and wish her all the best for the rest of the season. It has been an absolutely phenomenal start for her on an individual level and I fully expect that to continue! As I bring this to its close, I feel there is no better way to end it than this…
‘ISSY…ISABELLA SIBLEY RUNS DOWN THE WING FOR ME!’
*All Photos Courtesy of Stephen Flynn Photography*