It was another season of relegation struggle and managerial turnover for Leicester last term. A terrible start under Lydia Bedford– who failed to get a single point on the board – led to Willie Kirk, then director of women’s football, taking the reins in November.
Despite improved performances, results remained hard to come by before the winter break and, with a seven-point deficit to overturn, Kirk’s team looked down and out. Astute signings and increased confidence turned things around with safety finally sealed on the final day.
Kirk has used this summer to enforce a squad overhaul and make his own mark on the team. Sixteen players have departed for a variety of reasons while his nine signings bring quality and experience to the squad.
Firstly, retaining the impressive Janina Leitzig and Courtney Nevin on permanent contracts was crucial. “We never thought we would be able to get Janina,” Kirk said. “But she wanted to stay, which made it easier. Bayern Munich were open to selling and it was just about agreeing a price to get her here.”
Experience has arrived in the form of Lena Petermann and Janice Cayman while Jutta Rantala and Julie Thibaud provide options at either end of the field. The acquisition of the Canada international Deanne Rose shows Kirk’s recruiting power. The 24-year-old is an electric forward who has a point to prove after injury in the opening game curtailed her season with Reading last year. In addition, the Dutch No 2 Lize Kop provides competition in the goalkeeping department while the midfielder Aimee Palmer is looking to kickstart her career away from Bristol.
Pre-season has provided a chance for Kirk to get time on the training ground with the squad before a busy campaign. A 3-2 win against Everton and 2-2 draw with Manchester United were the standout results while a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool showed there is still work to be done.
The Foxes’ evolution under Willie Kirk is well under way. Their “great escape” was a clear sign of the respect his players have for him. A clear possession-based identity has emerged since November, something that was previously lacking. “I remember standing in front of the team and saying we would dominate the ball,” Kirk said. “We averaged 40% possession and the players looked at me as if to say: ‘He’s lost the plot.’ By the end of the season, we had more of the ball in six of our last seven games.”
Hannah Cain is one of the most technically astute, and perhaps underrated, players in the league. Her vision and ability are key, while she has an eye for goal from any distance. After making her comeback from a long-term injury last season, the Welsh forward played an integral part in Leicester’s fight for survival. The 24-year-old signed a long-term deal with the club over the summer and will be looking to remain injury free and have a strong influence on the Foxes’ attacking play.
High-profile summer signing
The German goalkeeper Janina Leitzig quickly established herself among the top WSL goalkeepers of the 2022-23 season, despite only featuring in the second half of the campaign. A strong shot-stopper, her saves caught the eye; her impressive loan spell was crucial to the team staying up and led to interest from several clubs. Persuading her to sign permanently in the off-season was a massive coup for Kirk. The same applies to Nevin, with the young full-back another to watch this season.
World Cup 2023 delight/heartache
The full-back CJ Bott was a constant presence for the co-hosts New Zealand. She played in the Kiwis’ impressive opening win against Norway in front of a record Auckland crowd. The rest of the tournament did not go so well, however, as they failed to emerge from the group. Meanwhile, Nevin featured in her first World Cup for the co-hosts Australia. She came on as a substitute in their bronze-medal match, a 2-0 defeat against Sweden. Kop, the new goalkeeper, was an unused substitute for the Netherlands.
Social media status
As one of the WSL’s newest teams, Leicester City are still building their social media with some of their players more established than the club. For example, Cain has a larger following than the team on Instagram. The women share TikTok and YouTube channels with the men, with content present but infrequent.