Impetus‘ Ben Gilby (BG) spoke to D-M Withers (D-M), Shahan Miah (SM) and Nat Brown (NB) from Bristol City Vixencast – the weekly podcast featuring all things Bristol City Women – about their thoughts on a tough season last time round and their thoughts about the new Championship campaign.
BG: Last season was tough, obviously. There was a spell when it looked possible that Bristol City might just stay up. Was it simply the fact that it took so long for the team to pick up points that meant it was, ultimately too little, too late?
DW: I think it was too little, too late. Things looked optimistic, especially after the magnificent 3-2 victory against Reading at Ashton Gate in March but we really fizzled out of energy at the season’s end. Ultimately, getting relegated was probably a blessing in disguise. We needed to rebuild, radically, and now we have an almost totally new team to charge at the Championship with. I’m banishing the memory of last season, for now!
NB: Yes, we needed to have picked up some points much earlier in the season. That said, even though performances picked up after Matt Beard’s arrival, we still didn’t manage to win the games that we really needed to. Perhaps a change earlier in the season would have helped us out, but things have been tricky in the WSL for a couple of seasons now, so time to rebuild a squad and coaching team is what we need.
SM: Not just that, but it was the fact that Aston Villa, Birmingham City & West Ham United all got thrown in to the relegation battle as well, leaving everything to the last day, which was exciting from a neutral perspective, but stressful for fans of all the teams affected!
BG: Ebony Salmon and Sophie Baggaley took the headlines for Bristol City last season, but who else stood out for you in tough circumstances?
DW: Gemma Evans, always brilliant. I wish Ella Mastrantonio had played more. I’m giving a shout out, though, to one player who is still wearing Bristol colours: the teenage centre-back, Naomi Layzell. Joining other academy players Brooke Aspin, Maddie Wilde, Jasmine Bull & Erin Foley, Naomi is training with the first team squad this season, and I can’t wait to see her – and the others – kick on.
NB: Of course Baggers and Salmon took the plaudits, but some players looked excellent under difficult circumstances all season. As D-M said, Gemma Evans was in the best form we’ve ever seen her in – and played that well every week, and Ella was a joy to watch. Flo Allen deserves credit for playing consistently well all season and being hard to drop. Unfortunately, although some players had excellent spells during the season, few were consistently uninjured and in form.
SM: One name that hasn’t been mentioned is Faye Bryson, who I thought got better this season, was key in defence, and it was great to see that wonderful 18-yard screamer she scored against Aston Villa. She’s since been sold to Reading (where Gemma Evans has also been joined), and deserve to be playing at the highest level.
BG: Last season’s tough times were experienced without fans at matches, overall how did the fans react to the campaign?
DW: It’s hard to tell. It was painful, it was sad and, on the whole, we weren’t able to share that sadness with each other. We all knew it was coming, and maybe fans felt relief when it was finally confirmed – albeit in wretched circumstances on the final day of the season.
NB: I have no idea as I don’t use social media, but Shahan and D-M were obviously disappointed by how the season played out. It was the hope that killed us, but after watching just one pre-season friendly, I’ve totally forgotten about last season’s miseries.
SM: As the weeks went by and the results were coming in, it got harder to remain optimistic. There were even times during games where I would check with D-M & Nat to see if we would still be OK to record our episode right after the game, or delay it depending on how we felt.
Combining my experience with being a supporter of the men’s team as well, who had a very difficult season in the Championship, was not the best feeling, I’d admit. Even though I’ve felt relegation before from the men’s team, I feel the one this year hurt a lot more as I’ve become more involved with the team in terms of fandom, and doing things like the Vixencast.
BG: Last time we spoke (https://impetus885775742.wordpress.com/2021/01/07/impetus-speaks-to-bristol-city-vixencast/) we asked you about your feelings about the move to Twerton Park. The club now have another new home ground, tell us about it and what you make of it.
DW: The Robins High Performance Centre, BS8. The loveliest, well-clipped pitch in the Championship. The stadium has a lovely, intimate feel. There is one seated stand and standing capacity elsewhere. The acoustics are brilliant and potentially a great resource for us at home. During the pre-season friendly against Lewes, played in front of supporters, there was a fantastic roar when Abi Harrison scored two goals in quick succession to bring us level. It’s going to be noisy, and that’s something that never happened at Stoke Gifford Stadium, where any crowd noise seemed to get sucked into the weird, ever-present winds that blew there. I like it!
NB: I totally agree. It’s a really great place to watch football. Everybody we spoke to there was really happy, so that made the place feel inviting as fans.
SM: I think it’s great that the team are playing back in Bristol once again (sorry, Bath!). The RHPC was only open in March, mainly as the new training facility for the men’s, women’s & academy teams, & I’ve already been there for the Player of the Year awards that were presented by the Bristol City Supporters Club & Trust (for whom D-M & I are now board members representing City Women fans). Unlike Stoke Gifford, there is no athletics track & a permanent stand, so the atmosphere should be better. Also, there is no nearby train line, so fans (mainly me) won’t get distracted by that.
BG: What’s your view of the ins and outs over the summer both in terms of players and Tanya Oxtoby?
DW: The exodus of players was massive and dramatic. You can count on one hand who stayed. But I’m pleased with the players who have stayed. All good characters who clearly want to be there. I am also delighted with the players we’ve brought in. There’s some real quality there, and from the brief glimpse I had of them at the pre-season friendly, it looks like a fun, entertaining team. Loads of potential for goals: Simran Jhamat, Melissa Johnson, Jess Wooley, Abi Harrison. And I have a feeling the Bristol supporters will soon be chanting ‘you’ll never beat Brooke Aspin’ – she’s an exciting talent. One of our own!
NB: I wasn’t surprised by the exodus. I actually think we needed that many people to leave in order to attract good quality replacements. Coming to Bristol in the Championship now looks, to me, a more exciting prospect than joining in the WSL last year. The new manager and squad look great. Competition for places will be fierce in all positions- which is new for us!
SM: I was sad to see a lot of the players move on; however most of them were out of contract & understandably would have wanted a new challenge. It’s interesting to see players though that have moved to teams who are in the Championship, such as former captain Jasmine Matthews back at Liverpool, and Megan Wynne at Charlton Athletic. I am impressed with the various experience of the new additions to the squad; who know the Championship well, and in the cases of Melissa Johnson, Fran Bentley & Lia Cataldo, were in Championship-winning teams! As for Tanya Oxtoby, I feel her departure was a year too late, based on the 2019/20 season, and I feel results weren’t much of an improvement in the first half of the 2020/21 season that she was in charge. I sadly didn’t get to see most of her first season in charge. I wish her, her partner Alice, and their son all the best for the future.
BG: What do you know about your opponents in the Championship this season? Who do you expect to be the toughest opposition?
DW: Well, we’re familiar with a couple of teams because most of the players used to play for Bristol – Liverpool, Charlton Athletic. To be honest, though, I’m not very knowledgeable about this league. I always fear Durham, as we played them in the FA Cup on a few occasions and they were tough! What I’m most excited about is watching some competitive football matches again. For all the talk of the WSL being the best league in the world, it’s incredibly unbalanced. If you support Chelsea, happy days, but if you support Birmingham City, it’s likely to be an awful season, although I obviously hope it isn’t for them!
NB: We had Palace, London Bees and Lewes in our Conti Cup group last season, so we know a bit about them. We’ve also played a 2-2 draw against Lewes in pre-season friendly. However, I’m not sure how much that will tell us about the season to come and how our opponents will play, or how we’ll fare. If we play as well as we did in the friendly, we’ll be fine, because no team in the league looks so obviously on their way up as Leicester did last season. Bring it on!
SM: I am aware that there are some teams that are still semi-professional, so may have different resources/finances than a fully professional team like Bristol City would. I am aware of teams that have become fully professional, such as Coventry United and Charlton Athletic, and have made decent signings at this level. I don’t know what to expect from Watford or Sunderland as they return to elite football, but am glad that the Championship has an even number of teams once again. I think Liverpool may be the toughest opposition, as they are the team that probably want a WSL return the most, and Bristol City didn’t win a game against them in the WSL in the 2019/20 season.
BG: What are your hopes for the season? Are you expecting promotion back to the Super League at the first attempt? Why?
DW: I think from the club’s perspective, bouncing back first time is not the number one priority. The aim is for some stability. But it may happen by accident, and Lauren Smith has recruited a team full of quality players who look hungry to express themselves, and fight for each other. You never know…
NB: It’s not something I’m expecting. If it happened, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised as there’s something about this squad that might be able to pull it out of the bag. I’m not sure I want another WSL season quite yet though – unless the issues around parity in the league are addressed. I’m just looking forward to a season of going to our lovely new ground, visiting Championship grounds on away days and all the new songs we need to get ready for our freshly-assembled squad!
SM: I am hoping for a high finish but realistically do not expect promotion at the first opportunity. It will also be interesting to see what happens with Lauren Smith beyond the season, as she was initially brought in as maternity cover, but with Oxtoby now gone, this could be an opportunity to get the job permanently. Also, when Bristol City were last in the Championship in 2016 (or WSL2 as it was known then), they weren’t champions but got the second promotion. Sadly there is only one promotion spot this time around, unless play-offs are introduced – which I highly doubt!
BG: How do you see the club’s longer-term prospects – what are Bristol Sport’s commitments like, consistent? Changeable?
DW: With the move to the RHPC, it signals the biggest integration to the club we’ve ever had. It feels more like a Bristol City team than it ever has. There is great emphasis on developing youth and nurturing players but the big money will never flow in our direction. Given how elite women’s football has developed over the past ten years, although it may change if a new regulator is brought in following the Fan-Led Review (led by Tracey Crouch MP), Championship is likely to be our ideal level. But the commitment to maintaining a professional team, and bringing new talent up through the RTCs is, for the time being, secure.
NB: Being a fully-professional team in the Championship for now looks to be the most likely scenario. Unless City Men sort themselves out, we’ll never get a huge influx of money into the Women’s side of the club. As D-M said, an RTC we can be proud of and a stable, enjoyable and competitive Championship life look most likely.
SM: As the only one out of the three of us that is also a fan of the men’s team, I am all happy with the integration, with City Women appearing in promotional material with the men, and using the same media. Gavin Marshall, who has been on the Bristol Sport board for years & looks at all the various football & rugby teams, has just been announced as the new Chairperson at City Women, and I am hoping he can help with the integration & make City Women become successful again.
BG: What Bristol City players should we keep an eye out for this season?
DW: I’ve mentioned a few but I am looking forward to seeing Chelsea loanee Aggie Beever-Jones play after meeting her and her Mum at the pre-season friendly. Satara Murray too!
NB: Abi Harrison could have a goal glut- that would be fun. Any of the academy recruits will be worth watching as they’re so young but already look very comfortable playing for the first team.
SM: In terms of representation, I would say Simran Jhamat, as she’s the first South Asian player to represent any Bristol City team, which I think is inspirational to those of certain BAME backgrounds and can be a role model for them to get into football. However, as of writing, there may be one more arrival who could be another goalscoring machine!
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