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Southampton Women’s journey from rebirth to Championship in six years

The success of the Lionesses this summer marked a seminal moment in women’s football but at a local level, Southampton have been laying down the groundwork for years.

In a boom period for the game — reflected in an unprecedented 45 per cent uptake in season ticket sales at the club — the women’s team are ready to capitalise and fulfil the ambitions set upon their revival in 2016.

Spearheaded by one of the sport’s main drivers, former England international Marieanne Spacey-Cale, Southampton have taken an incremental approach to growth — one that is not dependent on one-off results but on long-term planning.

It was announced in May that the women’s programme would turn professional for the 2022-23 season, with all home games played at St Mary’s.

“We spoke to the board and said if we’re going to go into the Championship to compete, then being full-time is the best model to have,” head coach Spacey-Cale tells The Athletic.

“They totally supported us. Discussions first took place early last year. The beautiful thing the board said was regardless of what happens with the team, this club needs the women to be full-time.

“The backing we had meant that even if we didn’t win promotion, we would be full-time anyway.”

Southampton Women

Marieanne Spacey-Cale is overseeing a revolution at Southampton (Photo: Getty Images)

Back-to-back promotions and the development of state-of-the-art facilities — Southampton have one of only four tier-one “regional talent centres” (RTCs) in the country — are marks of the club’s progress.

Earlier this month, it was confirmed Southampton had been given a licence to run a new emerging talent centre, aimed at girls aged between 10-12. Talent identification sessions took place earlier this week before the programme’s launch. The RTC now comprises sides between under-10 and under-16 level, with older age groups forming part of the regional talent academy.

Spacey-Cale has overseen the operation since 2018, with the club hoping improvements in infrastructure cultivate a pathway to the first team.

“The environment Marieanne has created is definitely the best one I’ve been in,” says new signing Katie Wilkinson. “It makes you want to be better every single day and it comes from the culture Marieanne wants.

“Everyone across women’s football has kept an eye on Southampton — just how professional the environment is and working with someone like Marieanne, who is so respected in the women’s game.”

Wilkinson has Women’s Super League experience, making her debut in the top flight as a teenager at Birmingham City. She also had spells at Aston Villa, London Bees and Sheffield United, where she won the both Championship player of the season and Golden Boot for two consecutive seasons. Southampton regard the striker’s acquisition as a major coup, with Wilkinson’s grounding in the full-time game key to what Spacey-Cale calls the “adjustment phase”.

“We broke this pre-season down into three phases,” she says. “We have an adjustment phase, preparation phase and competitive phase. The adjustment phase has been about settling in and using the facilities. Even the little things like walking around the campus and knowing where you’re going at what time, what room to be in.”

Spacey-Cale’s side work at different times to the men so that sessions and use of Southampton’s Staplewood campus facilities are staggered. They do, however, come into contact with Ralph Hasenhuttl’s squad “most days”, whether it’s walking past each other or being in the same place on the campus. It is a similar case with academy age groups, too.

“We’re all different teams but it’s one big family,” Wilkinson adds. “I’ve been a part of a few Premier League clubs but I’ve never been at a club where it is all just one family.”

The next phase Spacey-Cale focused on was preparation, with the professional programme enabling the type of marginal gains needed at a higher level. Workshops were carried out in pre-season, educating players on recovery, nutrition, diet and psychology.

“They have to see it as a profession,” says Spacey-Cale. “We want the players to be as professional with us as they are when they’re not with us. It’s a big change and that’s why we had to break into phases. Adjustment is key.

“If we play a game and they’re not in the next day, it doesn’t mean it’s a day off. They can’t be thinking they can go around the shops for however long. When they come back to us, they have done everything they can, even if it is going for a bike ride. Being professional is about players embracing different things that will help them perform better because they’ve recovered.”

Spacey-Cale advocates the “one club, same vision” strategy, where every team inside Staplewood — female and male — is aligned. This involves working closely with Southampton’s director of football Matt Crocker, who she describes as her “sounding board” and someone who is “heavily emotionally invested in the team”.

The pair meet formally every month but keep in contact every week. Spacey-Cale is also in dialogue with managing director Toby Steele and chief executive Martin Semmens, and sits on the club’s girls and women’s board. Those meetings also take place monthly.

Together, they run through logistical issues and field any updates on the playing side. Spacey-Cale insists those discussions are geared towards making the right decisions at the right time, reflecting the incremental growth policy.

“It’s all connected. We want to make everything look as seamless as possible. So when the players wake up and come in, they can play at the highest level. Everything is set out to build towards the game at the weekend.”

“A lot of the kit staff we have are on the men’s side as well,” says Paige Peake, who signed from Ipswich Town this summer. “It’s all one club and they are willing to help us out. We’ve got our separate staff, but some come across. From talking to other players at other clubs, it’s a very unique culture.”


Paige Peake joined the club from Ipswich this summer (Photo: Southampton FC/Southampton FC via Getty Images)

Still a teenager at the time of signing (she celebrated her 20th birthday two weeks ago), Peake decided to up-sticks and leave Ipswich, where she trained with the under-18 boys and worked as an analyst for the men’s first team. The impact of Southampton turning professional, she says, was a determining factor.

“At Ipswich, there is one entrance to the training ground. Here, you’ve got three,” says Peake, an England youth international. “When I first came down to look, I came in the wrong door — I remember thinking this place is very big and I wasn’t used to it. When Marieanne showed me around, I was amazed by Staplewood. It’s unbelievable.

“The main difference (of turning professional) is the mentally. You’ve got a lot less to think about. Your whole focus can be on playing. I used to do gym sessions really early in the morning or late at night because that was when I could fit it in.”

So what does a typical day look like for Peake now?

“I get ready and come in at about 10am. I’ll do some recovery work to begin with before having lunch. Then we train, eat again and end with a gym session. When I go home I’ll chill out and do some extra recovery bits. I honestly love doing the same thing every day.”

Despite the progress, the revived side have some way to go to match the achievements of Southampton Women’s FC. Set up by fans but unaffiliated to the men’s side, Southampton Women’s were dominant in the 1970s, winning seven FA Cups in nine years.

In the ongoing battle for equality, Southampton FC started several phoenix teams. Southampton Saints Girls & Ladies were one of the more notable examples, formed in 1979 before later becoming known as Red Star FC.

In 2001, Southampton absorbed the trophy-laden women’s team into the club but four years later, withdrew their support due to financial concerns. The men’s team had just finished bottom of the Premier League. 

In 2016, as the profile of female football grew in the UK, Southampton recognised the need for a competitive women’s side again. The club have been subsequently prepared to match investment with progress.

Southampton Women FA Cup win

Southampton Women’s celebrate their 1971 FA Cup win (Photo: Jimmy Wilds/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A case in point came this summer as the squad underwent significant turnover in personnel. They recruited seven new players, including Peake and Wilkinson.

Aspirations have been elevated. Players have been let go, with ruthlessness becoming a necessary evil to compete at a higher level. Players with experience in the top two tiers have been targeted, ensuring Southampton go into the campaign with a degree of familiarity.

“It’s never a nice time (to let players go),” says Spacey-Cale. “But you’ve got to know what your ambition is. We’ve always said, regardless of what division we are in, we want to be a WSL club. We’ve always said that there will be players with us now that might not be with us then”

Championship teams are not obliged to be full-time (although several players are keen for the FA to change those rules) so Southampton’s professional model could give them an edge.

“We’re not going to come into the league and just exist,” says Wilkinson. “The club’s got an ambitious plan to play in the WSL. We’re not saying that’s going to happen this year, but we want it to happen in the near future.”

Spacey-Cale adds: “The minute the final whistle against Ipswich went (in last season’s promotion play-off), we had people contacting us via email, WhatsApp and phone calls. All sorts of players were available if we wanted them. We had already targeted some players, but we knew there would be more offered to us. 

“We had gone through the plan months beforehand, knowing what the structure was (if we were promoted) and the type of player profiles we were looking for. We had to be patient so we could get who we wanted and if there was a nice surprise along the way, then even better.”

The manager’s support staff has only grown by one since promotion, adding a kit and equipment officer to the existing set-up. Spacey-Cale is keen to ensure the group, even as they scale up, remains tight-knit.

“As things get bigger, they become grey. The smaller the number, everyone is aware of what their job is and valued for what their role is.”

“We are fortunate to have a really good strength and conditioning coach, Laura (Bowen),” says Wilkinson. “Individually and as a group, we get so much support. She has been unbelievable this pre-season in getting us fit and providing the support we need, whether it be through fitness, in the gym or nutrition. A lot of the players are the fittest they’ve ever been.”

The team begin their season at St Mary’s on Saturday (August 20) against Charlton Athletic. Season tickets are priced at £50 ($56), but supporters who have bought a men’s season ticket are given a £10 discount. The price for under-18s is just £10.

Having turned full-time this summer, Southampton’s women are levelling up. But with ambitions to play in the WSL sooner rather than later, they are a long way from being finished yet.

(Top photo: Southampton FC/Southampton FC via Getty Images)0

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