Liverpool FC Women correspondent Lauren McCann reflects on a memorable campaign for Matt Beard’s title-winning side…
As the dust finally settles on a remarkable season for Liverpool Women it is time to sit back and reflect on how the Reds managed to achieve their prime aim of promotion in emphatic fashion.
Whilst statistics are not everything in football, Liverpool’s numbers as they strolled to promotion reflected the fact that we were lucky enough to witness one of the most consistent and best teams to have ever played in the second division.
They ended the campaign with 52 points, winning sixteen of their twenty two league games and losing just two all season, the first and last fixtures of the campaign against London City and Lewes, the latter when the title had already been wrapped up.
The Reds kept 14 clean sheets and netted 49 goals, including hitting Blackburn and Sheffield United for six, whilst also putting four past Bristol City and Crystal Palace as they romped to promotion, finishing 11 points clear of second-placed London City.
It seemed like it would be a tall order after that first game of the season way back in August when the Reds suffered a disappointing home defeat to the Lionesses.
It would end up being the only loss they experienced at home in the league, as the Reds managed to make Prenton Park a fortress – aided in no small part by the return of fans, after the pandemic prevented them from attending games last season.
The supporters have really adopted the mantle of the ’12th man’ making long journeys up and down the country to cheer on the team when they needed it most.
They helped to break attendance records away at Sheffield United, Durham and Bristol City as well as the final home game of the season where they were duly rewarded for their loyal support by seeing the champions lift the league title.
After a few years of fractured relations between disillusioned supporters and those who ran the club, due to the direction in which it was going, this year has helped bridges to be built and old issues to be put to bed.
There is now renewed optimism that supporters will continue to turn out in their numbers next season with the Reds back in the big time and given that the club kindly provided free travel for many home and away fixtures this season to draw large crowds of supporters.
The return of fans to make Prenton Park a fortress is just one of five key elements which enabled the Reds to mastermind their return to the top flight after a two-year absence.
Another of those has been the recruitment by the manager of a raft of summer arrivals and a crucial January signing. The Reds have brought in the right players at the right time to help transform the team.
Whilst last season they could only name three players on their bench at times due to a crippling injury list, this season they have a well stocked squad capable of blowing away opposition regardless of whether the starting 11 is not full strength.
All the players signed in the summer have played their part at crucial times during the season. Leanne Kiernan has been a revelation, finishing as the Reds’ top goal scorer with thirteen goals and consistently performing well even when she went through a barren spell without scoring.
Yana Daniels returned from Bristol City and made the right wing spot her own with her excellent crossing ability, at times towards the end of the season even playing at right wing back to help the team.
Megan Campbell’s long throws are the envy of everyone, potentially even Rory Delap, but her calmness on the ball and astute defending after battling back from injury made her a great addition, especially given her WSL experience, which will be crucial next season.
Jasmine Matthews was arguably the Reds’ best signing alongside Kiernan, helping to strengthen what was already a solid defensive foundation and ensuring it became rock solid.
She also contributed some vital goals along the way and deservedly scooped the league’s Player of the Month award for March.
Keeping her fit for the majority of next season alongside Campbell will enhance the Reds’ chances of staying up, undoubtedly their prime goal next term.
Carla Humphrey proved a valuable rotation option, impressing in the short amount of time she got on the pitch, which was attributed solely to the good form of Missy Bo Kearns, Ceri Holland and Rachel Furness in the centre of the park.
Rianna Dean’s campaign was unfortunately blighted by injury but no one will be forgetting the blistering start she made to life on Merseyside, with her brace against Watford. Now that she is nearing a return to full fitness it will be interesting to see how the former Tottenham winger adapts to life back in the top flight.
Charlotte Wardlaw arrived on loan late in the window and whilst Dean endured some injury struggles of her own, her performances, for a 19 year-old, have been hugely impressive, as she has enjoyed a real battle with Rhiannon Roberts for that right wing back berth.
At times Roberts played in the back three to accommodate both the Welshwoman and Wardlaw in the same team, and the Reds will be hoping Chelsea allow her to continue her development on Merseyside for another campaign next season.
Katie Stengel’s arrival in the winter window was another inspired signing, with the American hitting the ground running, easing the goalscoring pressure on Kiernan and adding another dimension to the Reds’ attacking play.
She ended her half season on Merseyside with eight league goals in 12 games, a remarkable feat for a player who had been without a club since leaving Valerenga in November before the Reds snapped her up a month later.
All of those signings would have been impossible without Beard, who proved to be an inspired managerial appointment despite some early skepticism. He sold the players a dream and certainly delivered it, achieving his remit and more by getting the Reds promoted by playing an attractive brand of football.
His vast experience and previous stint in charge of the Reds no doubt helped, and whilst he will savour the glorious season the Reds have just had, especially following the sad passing of his father, he will already be planning for how to beat the drop next season.
Beard also brought back goalkeeping coach Joe Potts, who was at the club when they won the WSL title in 2013-14, and he has seemingly elevated Rachel Laws to a level which didn’t seem possible, given the amount of terrific performances she produced for Liverpool last season.
Some of the saves she has pulled off for the Reds this season have been magnificent, and she is certainly up there with one of their players of the season. Her cat-like reflexes will be tested even more next season in the top flight, but it is a challenge she will no doubt relish.
The manager’s decision to change the formation to a 5-2-3 proved to be the catalyst for Liverpool’s long unbeaten run as it really brought out the best in a number of individuals.
It provided the basis for defensive solidity, with the three centre backs, and gave the wing backs and wingers license to roam forward without the fear of being caught out, allowing forwards and midfielders to make late darting runs into the box to get on the end of crosses from out wide.
Taylor Hinds and Melissa Lawley in particular thrived in this system. Both had been good players for the Reds in an underwhelming campaign last year, but this campaign they were crucial to everything Liverpool did well.
Tying Hinds down to a new long-term contract in January was crucial for the Reds and it will be interesting to see how she handles the step up to the WSL after two seasons as a regular in the Championship.
Lawley, meanwhile, provided the consistency she, like most of the squad, lacked last season – contributing two goals and eight assists, and becoming one of their talismanic players with her dazzling displays on the left wing.
Whilst many individuals contributed to Liverpool’s success this season, it was the squad’s collective ability to not only win against their nearest rivals but do so comfortably which really set them on their way to glory.
Whilst last season they stumbled against Leicester and Durham, losing twice to the Foxes and suffering a defeat and a draw against the Wildcats, they were unbeaten against the latter as well as Bristol City and Sheffield United this season.
They showed the consistency they lacked last term when their title ambitions were over in January after a damaging defeat to leaders and eventual winners Leicester. Their incredible unbeaten run, which was ended on the final day of the season, included all the ingredients associated with a title-winning team – from dazzling displays to gritty performances, hard fought draws and last minute winners, the Reds always seemed to find a way not to lose.
A huge factor in their success was also their ruthlessness in front of goal which was severely lacking last season. Rachel Furness was Liverpool’s top goal scorer in 2020/21, with five goals, as the Reds finished third in a campaign in which they drew too many games as a result of missing too many clear cut chances.
That has simply not been the case this year, as the Reds have taken the opportunities presented to them and punished any mistakes, scoring 12 more goals than last term and massively improving from set piece situations, enabling them to romp to league glory.
Evidently all the factors aforementioned are the hallmarks of a title-winning team, so it is no surprise that all of these have combined to enable the Reds to have such a stellar campaign.
Whilst anything other than promotion would have been deemed a failure this season, the way in which it was delivered gives renewed optimism to Liverpool fans ahead of what is going to be an immensely difficult season back in the WSL.
The Reds will want to avoid the fate which has befallen Leicester, who enjoyed a similarly great season in the Championship before struggling badly in the top flight and suffering relegation.
With Beard’s and many of the players’ prior experience of the division, the fans, and some more clever recruitment in the summer, however, there is hope that this promotion is only the start of the Reds’ long road back to the top of the WSL.
Whatever happens next, supporters and players alike will fondly remember this season as the one in which the love of football and Liverpool Women was restored to the red side of Merseyside after a number of difficult years.
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