We take a deep dive into the reigning FAWNL Northern Premier Division title holders Wolves ahead of the new season.
With the new season just a matter of days away, we caught up with Nick from The Wolves Women Podcast to get the low-down on all things Wolves. Covering everything from the team’s move to New Bucks Head to Nick’s hopes and expectations of the new season.
From the little you’ve seen or what has been communicated by the club, how do you feel pre-season has gone?
We’ve not heard much from the club on pre-season, bar the last game – communication has been poor.
However, what we have heard on the WoSo grapevine is that we have done well against teams we should be doing well against (for example, Northampton Town and Stourbridge) and struggled against the teams we should be struggling against (e.g. Championship promotion contenders Bristol City).
Overall, I’m happy with the position we are in considering everything going on.
So, is there a sense of frustration and a missed opportunity with regards to how quiet the club has been during the close season, with limited information being made available and games being played behind closed doors?
Huge frustration – especially when you look at the wave Women’s Football is on since the Lionesses success. The club has barely published anything since the Play-Off Final on social media but what they have done on the club website (a great series of articles on players) hasn’t been pushed – a huge missed opportunity!
A prime example is the announcement of the stadium move [to New Bucks Head] which was announced via fixture announcement by the league before the club statement.
With that in mind, what would your message be to the club and what changes would you like to see in the future?
What I would say to the club is every time you make a decision ask yourself “would you do the same with the Men’s team?” if not, why not?
There might be genuine reasons but if not then revert to the same as the men’s team. For example, the men’s team played a Behind Closed Door friendly against Burnley – we got pictures and updates after the game of scorers etc; so do the same for the women’s game.
The match against Ipswich Town was the only chance you had to watch Wolves during pre-season – what are your thoughts on the game and who, if anyone, stood out?
I wasn’t at the game unfortunately but talking to those who were at the game we weren’t at our best. We are still getting back going after the close season (holidays etc) whereas Ipswich are clearly ready and raring to go due to their professional/semi-professional status but once we are back at full fitness I expect that it will be a more even contest.
As the majority of players were those that we knew it was the new signings that stood out as they were adding something different to the players we already had.
ON TRANSFER BUSINESS
How would you assess your club’s transfer dealings?
Well, when I first started answering this we had got zero transfers in…. We now have some additions (Destiny Toussaint and Lizzie Bennett-Steele) and bar fringe players (Nyah Edwards – Boldmere St Michaels, Kenz Haydn-Jones – WBA, and Leah Burridge – Oxford United) departing we have kept the majority of last season’s squad together going into this season.
So overall I would give it a 7/10 so far – that might change if Macca [Dan McNamara] springs another surprise or two between now and the start of the season.
What areas, if any, do you feel still need to be strengthened?
With Leah Burridge leaving for Oxford United (best wishes to her) and Shannie Jennings still out with injury my big concern is central midfield (assuming no further departures from the first team squad) but I’m hoping that this will be a breakthrough season for Katie Johnson (KJ). She was on loan at Leafield Athletic for a large part of last season and came back to help us out at the end of the season and she could really grow into the team this season.
Which new signing you are most excited to see more of?
The two signings that dropped just before that Ipswich game are the only new signings so far and both demonstrated what they can offer in that game. The standout signing has to be Destiny [Toussaint] as she comes from Coventry United via Blues and London Bees, so brings both Championship and WSL experience with her and is clearly a statement signing by Macca.
Which player do you wish you could have kept hold of and why?
It would have been good to have seen more of Leah Burridge but she lives closer to Oxford than Wolves and can see why she left for them – I hope she does well there. It would have been good for some of our Reserves to have been given more game time in the first team, but they were not yet ready for Tier 3 and had outgrown reserve-team football.
ON THE SQUAD
Who do you feel your key player(s) will be this season?
If Maz Gauntlet is back to full fitness (last season she was recovering from a long injury layoff) she will be lethal; Amber Hughes was our top goal scorer last season on 25, and in midfield, Tammi George and Summer Holmes will be dangerous alongside whoever they line up with (most likely Helen Dermody). Also, it’s worth noting that Shan Turner was part of the Northern Ireland squad for the Euros and she will want to get the Golden Gloves award again this season.
Who is your most underrated player? Someone whose contributions don’t always get the credit they deserve.
Our midfield and attacking players get the plaudits but we had one of the tightest defences in the league last season, so the “three” most underrated players are Anna Morphet, Emma Cross, and Kelly Darby.
What players do you think might breakthrough and establish themselves in the first team this season?
KJ is my immediate pick as she was on the cusp of the first team at the end of last season and rightly so. She is a year or so younger than Tammi George so the thought of them playing for Wolves in midfield for the next few years is tantalising!
ON NEXT SEASON
What are your hopes and expectations for the league competition?
At the start of last season, we all predicted on the Podcast that last season was the consolidation season… We consolidated at the top of the pile – so the target has got to be that again and in our recent preview podcast, we all predicted that we would win the league. However, I think it will be a lot tougher this season.
Last season your first and Reserve teams won their respective divisions but fell a little short in cup competitions – how important is a solid run in the FA and FA WNL Cups to your aims this season?
As fans, we would love to have a good run in both Cups (and the County Cup again). Whilst this would be lovely, I would personally take promotion over a cup run – if we can have both then that would be perfect. I think good runs in the cups would be a minimum of Quarter Final in the League Cup (though I see no reason why we couldn’t win it in theory) and Forth Round in the FA Cup.
However, I do feel that the plan from the League to have the whole of November and December dedicated to cups does have issues as we won’t play any league games for 2-3 months and that could mean if we lose in cups then we’ll play no competitive games between early November and early January which doesn’t help grow the game. It is disappointing that the League isn’t trying to use the break in the men’s game to have regular league fixtures at that point with the cup games spread more throughout the season.
Last season Dan McNamara downplayed the club’s prospects of winning the league whereas this season you will be most people’s favourites. How do you handle the weight of expectation?
It’s always going to be tough – a downside of the lack of promotion for winning the league. Whilst I obviously don’t want to lose in the first couple of games, I do think there will be a benefit to getting the loss over and done with sooner rather than later to take the target off our back.
As to the wider expectation, I think there is always pressure on the team with the investment from the club, but I think they thrive on it. One of Macca’s great abilities is to manage the pressure on the players, and I think he will continue to do well on that side of things.
West Brom are your biggest rivals but who do you consider your biggest title rivals to be this season?
I anticipate that Fylde and Derby will be back up and around the top of the table again. Burnley have brought Jonathan Morgan in as manager and with his experience in the WSL/Championship and the investment in their setup/squad, they should be in the mix. I think Notts Forest underperformed last season so anticipate they will want to kick on this season. I would add that the likes of Huddersfield and Brighouse Town will be in and around the edge of the pack, which shows how tough the Northern Premier Division is.
Who do you think will end the season as Wolves’ top scorer?
Amber Hughes scored 25 goals last season and I can’t see past her being the top scorer again this season. However, I expect that Maz who got 9 goals last season (8 of those in the last 9 games in all competitions) will add to her tally and get into double figures this season. In addition, I expect that Beth Merrick and Tammi George will contribute 20 plus goals between them.
What fixtures are you most and least looking forward to?
Can’t look past the Black Country Derby fixtures against WBA as the first fixtures to look forward to especially having scored 9 against them last season (including beating them in the County Cup Final). All the games are tough in the Northern Premier, so there are no fixtures that I particularly least look forward to but if I had to pick one it would probably be Brighouse Town away because they are a tough competitive outfit who know how to cause an upset.
How do you feel the move to New Bucks Head has been received by the fan base and how will it benefit the team in the long term?
From a fan base perspective, the biggest upset about the move has been the fact that it is outside of Wolverhampton. In general, otherwise, it’s been acknowledged as a positive move and should hopefully be better (facilities, etc).
I look at it that it was inevitable that we would have to do it if/when we get promoted, so it’s better to do it now so that we are used to the stadium etc once we’re in the Championship rather than trying to get used to the division and a new stadium, as such in the long term it should be beneficial.
I wish that it was in Wolverhampton but also that the club had engaged in some consultation with fans beforehand – you wouldn’t find out that the men’s team were suddenly playing somewhere else with the release of the fixtures by the League so why is it acceptable for the Women’s team/fans?
How important do you feel it is to make a quick return to Molineux next season?
I’m not always convinced about the benefits of playing in an “empty” main stadium has the benefit for the players/game/fans. So, I think whilst I anticipate a return next season to the Molineux, I expect it will be late on in the season and probably once there is nothing left to play for in terms of the title as this takes the pressure off the players and enables them to enjoy the occasion. As such, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s arranged for the last home game of the season against Derby.
Any final thoughts?
More needs to be done for the Reserves – we dominated the league and won it comfortably, but they are back in the same league, facing the same teams and not progressing/developing. As such it’s not in the players’ interests to stay at the club and develop but to go and get first-team football at a lower level elsewhere. The FA need to look at the structure and find a way to feed into a more structured league with promotion and relegation. I welcome the additional WSL teams in the Reserves structure, but I wish they were actually in the appropriate leagues and entering the cups to give a bit more competition.
This season needs to be the end of the dreaded Play-Off Final – we need two teams down and two teams up to help support the growth of the game. This will make the leagues more competitive, especially if the leagues expand to 14 teams.