Bridges can be things of beauty and architectural brilliance or a little bit rickety and, sometimes, downright makeshift. They can connect communities, spark relationships and facilitate economic growth or serve as strictly temporary crossings, only to be used in emergencies.
To Women’s Super League aficionados, the new first division Spring Series, which kicks off this weekend, falls into the latter category. The bridging planks used to span the awkward transition involved in moving the WSL from a summer to a winter competition are firm enough but the lack of relegation and the brevity of a campaign concluding in early June have diluted excitement levels.
A six-week, 10-team programme in which the WSL 1 sides face each other just once is designed to fulfil two purposes. It serves primarily as a warm-up for Mark Sampson’s England squad for this summer’s European Championship in the Netherlands and partly to fill the 10-month hiatus between full domestic seasons occasioned by the switch to winter combat.
After finishing third in the 2015 World Cup in Canada, Sampson aims to win Euro 2017. Like his employers at the Football Association, England’s coach believes that, without a successful national team, the domestic women’s game will struggle to prosper.
This bigger picture view of things is widely endorsed but there are those who believe the Spring Series might have been more interesting had Sampson not already named his Euro 2017 squad.
Emma Hayes, whose Chelsea side were WSL 1 runners-up to Manchester City last season, feels it has removed a certain competitive edge from the coming weeks. “I think everybody’s surprised the England squad was named so early,” Hayes says. “I guess this wasn’t put to the league coaches when we were asked to support England through this process.
“I’ve got players from Norway, Sweden etc and I say to them: ‘You have to play well here and then you’ll get selected for your countries this summer.’ Then I turn around to the English players and they say to me: ‘You can’t say that to me, because it doesn’t matter what I do here.’ That’s tough. It’s tough when form doesn’t matter. It’s tough when hard work on a daily basis doesn’t matter. Do we not value our league? This makes it feel like the WSL doesn’t really matter.”
Everything will be very different when the next domestic season proper – the first to be synchronised with the men’s calendar – begins in September but for now club fans must make do with this top-tier stopgap.
It begins on Saturday when Bristol City welcome Reading for the opening fixture. Sunday sees three more matches, most notably Liverpool’s trip to newly promoted Yeovil Town, but Nick Cushing’s Manchester City – otherwise engaged with a Champions League semi-final against Lyon this Saturday – and Chelsea do not embark on Spring Series action until the following weekend.
All eyes will be on City’s star signing, the USA captain and midfielder, Carli Lloyd, while Chelsea have a US international import of their own to show off in Crystal Dunn. Hayes should also expect strong performances from her striker Eni Aluko and left-back Claire Rafferty, following that pair’s controversial omission from Sampson’s Euro 2017 squad.
Elsewhere Arsenal will trust that Beth Mead, the prolific striker signed from Sunderland, can enable Pedro Martínez Losa’s side to reassert themselves towards the top. With the outstanding Jordan Nobbs in the heart of midfield, Arsenal look real contenders.
Buoyed by the signing of the former England winger Jess Clarke from Notts County, Liverpool, too, will want to prove resurgent but County and Sunderland both harbour problems. Quite apart from losing Clarke to Liverpool and their England striker Ellen White to Birmingham, the Lady Pies are facing a winding-up order over club debts to HMRC.
While it all makes for unsettling times within a County team built around the very real talents of Carly Telford, Laura Bassett, Jo Potter and Jade Moore, Sunderland must cope with their reversion to part-time status and the departure of the team’s former manager Carlton Fairweather. Melanie Reay, Fairweather’s successor, may do well to remain in front of last season’s fellow strugglers Reading as well as the newcomers, Bristol City and Yeovil.
If that pair’s joint elevation reflects the female game’s growing strength throughout the south-west, Birmingham City might just prove a surprise success story. Bolstered by White’s arrival, Marc Skinner’s side have not only beaten Chelsea to reach next month’s FA Cup final – where they face Manchester City at Wembley – but, in Freda Ayisi and Aoife Mannion, possess two of the game’s brightest emerging talents.
Maybe Ayisi and Mannion can join Lloyd, Dunn, Mead and company by confounding Hayes’s doubts about the Spring Series and helping bridge the potentially yawn-making gap between domestic seasons?