Liverpool have to negotiate bumps on the road to Women’s Super League


Show caption Liverpool Women celebrate their promotion to the Women’s Super League after the defeat of Bristol City. Photograph: Liverpool FC/Getty Images Liverpool FC Women Liverpool have to negotiate bumps on the road to Women’s Super League After one defeat all season Matt Beard’s side have been promoted but it has not been an easy journey Louise Taylor Sat 9 Apr 2022 12.00 BST Share on Facebook

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The statistics paint a straightforward picture. After one Championship defeat all season, Liverpool have been promoted to the Women’s Super League with two games to spare. Given that they are on a 19-game unbeaten run, their record suggests an imperious procession to a title secured at Bristol City last Sunday, but the reality was slightly different.

Along the way Liverpool have coped with the life-threatening car crash that left their goalkeeper Rylee Foster with her neck broken in seven places. Meanwhile, the assistant manager, Paul McHugh, suffered the death of his parents.

“It’s not easy to go 19 games unbeaten in this league,” says their manager, Matt Beard. “I’m incredibly proud of the players and the staff. This isn’t an easy league to get out of but we have a great group of people here and we’re all there for each other.”

During his first stint as Liverpool’s manager, Beard led the team to the 2013 and 2014 WSL titles but after his departure to the United States in 2015 to take charge of Boston Breakers things began to unravel on Merseyside. An Anfield board fixated on the highly successful men’s side started cutting costs and corners when it came to the women’s squad. As managers and players came and went, complaints about poor facilities, infrastructure and substandard club housing increased. In 2020, the men won the Premier League but Liverpool Women were relegated with considerable unrest on the part of disgruntled senior professionals.

Matt Beard’s side have gone 19 games unbeaten in the Championship. Photograph: Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

When they finished third in the second tier last season, 11 points adrift of promoted Leicester, there was a recognition things had to change, that without significant investment Liverpool would never be able to compete with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City at the top of the WSL.

Beard was tempted back to Merseyside and the club’s off-the-field game upped appreciably. Dr Francesca Champ, a performance psychologist, was hired to help hone mindsets and Russ Fraser was poached from Leicester to become the first managing director of the women’s team. Both are integral elements of the “family culture” fostered by Beard.

On the pitch, the eight summer signings have made the desired impact, with the acquisition of the 22-year-old Republic of Ireland striker Leanne Kiernan from West Ham proving particularly inspired.

Such changes have been applauded – loudly – by Jürgen Klopp. “Liverpool in the last years was not famous for treating or dealing with women’s football outstandingly well,” he said last week. “They didn’t go down to the Championship for no reason. I’ve met a lot of the girls in the last two or three months and it’s wonderful they’re promoted. I’m really happy for the girls and Matt.”

Rachael Laws of Liverpool Women during a training session at Solar Campus this week. Photograph: Nick Taylor/Liverpool FC/Getty Images

Significantly, Klopp and his players are becoming accustomed to appearing alongside their female counterparts in joint commercial and promotional campaigns. The German and Meikayla Moore, the women’s centre-half, were recently filmed chatting happily together as they fronted a Rainbow Laces campaign for LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Rachael Laws, Beard’s first-choice goalkeeper, is delighted by the dramatic difference this season. “Things have changed tenfold,” she says. “We get treated very, very well by the men now. And Matt’s been fantastic. He’s a very good manager on the pitch but he’s even better off it, he gets the best out of you by treating you as a person.”

Laws still misses having Foster challenging her for a starting place. In October, the Canada youth international was on holiday in Finland with friends when the hire car they were driving towards Helsinki span out of control in horrendous weather conditions. Foster emerged with multiple neck fractures and was pronounced lucky to be alive but is now optimistic about playing again next year.

Niamh Fahey after scoring Liverpool Women’s first goal against Bristol City, to set them on their way to the win that secured the title. Photograph: Liverpool FC/Getty Images

She is already sufficiently recovered to join in the celebrations planned for 24 April, when a team 14 points clear of second-placed Bristol City before the weekend’s games will collect the Championship trophy after their game against Sheffield United at Prenton Park, the home Liverpool share with the men’s League Two side Tranmere.

It promises to be quite a party but, behind the scenes, preparations for next season have started with a five-year blueprint to return to the top of the English game already drafted. “First and foremost we need to consolidate ourselves in the WSL,” says Beard whose side, contentiously, remain based at Tranmere’s training ground rather than moving in alongside Klopp’s squad at their £50m base in Kirkby. “We need to be competitive. There’ll be some changes in the summer but our aim is to be sensible and progress each year.”

Women’s football graphic Moving the Goalposts Illustration: Guardian Design

For now, captain Niamh Fahey, is content to enjoy the moment. “Liverpool’s a huge club but we’ve had tough times in recent years,” she says. “To have some positivity back is a welcome change. We’re looking forward to competing at the top again.”