With the league restructure announced early in the season, the tier was thrown into slight disarray, teams left with the knowledge that finishing top wouldn’t guarantee any shot at promotion, but still there was one team who lead the way throughout.
A team that one way or another demonstrated the gulf between the top two tiers, the Belles picked up from where they left off after the 2015 season, ruling the roost in their first full season back in WSL 2. A pair of early 2-2 draws showed a slight frailty but the Belles responded well, turning the heat up on their opposition, Jess Sigsworth and Kirsty Hanson ever present to punish defences.
Despite a shuffle behind the scenes with Emma Coates leaving her role at the end of October and her replacement, Katie Rowson only lasting to the end of the year before Neil Redfearn took charge. Under the ex-Leeds United man, the Belles dropped just three points [away to Brighton] as nearest challengers, Millwall fell away before Brighton came unstuck, the Seagulls having claimed second spot.
With the experience and depth to stay the course, the Belles rarely failed to dazzle on the pitch. Young players given a chance to shine in the second division as former Notts Country pair Sophie Bradley-Auckland and Sophie Walton tapped back into their pre-pregnancy form, the team harmonising all the way to the title.
Brighton and Hove
Kicking the season of right, the Seagulls had back-to-back wins in their first two outings before finishing on the wrong side of a 4-3 scoreline in London. With the southern side strengthened following the arrival of former England manager, Hope Powell, they began to find more consistency on the pitch, dropping points but learning from their mistakes.
With an eclectic team that still boasted players from their WPL days as well as a few names more than familiar to WSL 1 fans, the Seagulls rarely strayed into the bottom half of the table – a stark turn-around from their Spring Series campaign that saw just two wins from nine. Though it wasn’t until mid-May that Brighton finally found themselves back in the top two after winning five on the spin, displacing Millwall in the process. Four points shy of the Belles with two matches left of the season, Albion finally came off of the boil, conceding four and three to Durham and Millwall respectively.
With 12 wins in the can for the season, the Seagulls finished in a respectable second place, their end of season capitulation leaving them ten points adrift of the Belles, though a successful bid had already confirmed their top-flight status.
On an unbeaten run that stretched back to March of 2017, the Lionesses manged to get through their first 12 matches of the season with a loss, dropping just four points in the process. A young team that had only been coming along leaps and bounds since Lee Burch took over in 2016, there was no hyperbole in suggesting that at the start of the season, it looked like it would be a dog-fight between Millwall and Doncaster for the top spot.
Deducted three points early in the season for fielding an ineligible player, Millwall were another side who knew the reward for finishing top might only equate to a piece of silverware with no progression to WSL 1. Snapping at Doncaster’s toes all season long, financial turmoil off of the pitch shone a dark light on the league as the Lionesses took to Twitter to crowd-fund in hopes of finishing the season and not pulling out early with mounting debt.
It wasn’t until the end of April that final, Millwall’s unbeaten league run came to an end at the hands of a superior Durham side, two more defeats before the season ended – to Sheffield and the Belles – enough to knock the Lionesses down to third. Confirmed a spot in the second tier for the forthcoming season, a cloud of doubt still hangs over whether or not the club will be able to compete.
Having finished fourth in 2016 and fifth in the Spring Series (two points off of second), there was no question that the Wildcats would be another team to watch out for over the 2017-18 season. With a team built over the last few seasons, there were few tweaks made by Lee Sanders as Durham let their football do the talking, New Ferens Park only seeing seven points dropped by the hosts all season.
Picking up from where she left off, Beth Hepple continued to be the talisman for her team, the return of Zoe Ness on guaranteeing more goals for Durham with Nicki Gears, Jordan Atkinson and Emily Roberts all finding the back of the net at least five times. Steady at home, Durham’s story on the road was a different story, the team struggling with those in and around them in the standings. Brighton, Doncaster and Millwall all claiming victory over the Wildcats before Spurs hit their visitors for six in an incredible nine-goal thriller.
Once again falling just short – finishing a point off of third and two off of second – Durham seem unable to take that final step to lift them to the top, though they’ll be granted another chance next season.
A season of two halves would probably be the most adequate way of describing the 2017-18 season for Sheffield, recovering from a poor Spring Series, the Yorkshire side claimed two wins in their first three matches. Four league outings without a win followed before the hosts came out on top after a 4-3 over Spurs, two consecutive losses a stumbling block before Sheffield found top gear for the season.
The Dronfield team netting 15 goals in their next four matches, goals raining in before they dropped five points in their next two, finishing the season with a flourish, bagging another nine goals in their last two. Finding their form in the league, Zoe Johnson’s team only went from strength to strength, harnessing their potent attack, ably lead by Melissa Johnson, the clinical striker reaping the rewards in the attacking side.
Like a handful of other teams in the second tier, the Bees were going into the new season with a new manager, and it would be fair to say it’s wasn’t all smooth sailing for Luke Swindlehurst. Without a win in their first five, the Bees could have let their heads drop as they finished a goal short on three successive occasions before they finally found their first win of the season, at home to Oxford.
The three points were their last before the winter break, the side gelling to pick up another four points from their first two at the start of the new year, the arrival of Katie Wilkinson from Aston Villa a big boost for the London side. A loss in Brighton preceded a run of six league matches that only saw the Bees drop five points, as they slowly climbed the table and pulled clear of the bottom three. A loss to the rampaging Belles at the end of April their last of the campaign as they wrapped the season up with two draws, finishing sixth with ground clearly still needing to be made before the new season.
A 2-1 loss in Durham was Spurs’ first taste of WSL life, the WPL South champions who had earned their spot through besting Blackburn Rovers in the summer play-off, embarking on a learning experience. Seven points from their next three matches suggested the team were well capable of competing, a run of four losses taking them back off of the boil, leaving them eighth.
With a team virtually unchanged from the one that ransacked the league the previous season, Karen Hills’ Spurs proved they just needed longer to acclimatise to their new opposition, the team not quite as fluid in front of goal as they may have liked to have been. But again, the wins began to come, the Londoners claiming 12 points from their next seven matches.
Never getting past the half-way point in the table, the Lilywhites missed out on the chance to go one (or two) better at the end of the season, drawing their last three matches and consigning them to a seventh-place finish. Maybe not quite what they’d have been hoping for but a side showing nothing but promise in a season when so many slipped up.
Two weeks into the season, the U’s were top, three weeks in they had dropped to third, from there they continued their descent down the table, the young team’s back-to-back wins followed by successive draws. Three losses preceded their last win of the season, a 3-1 over Aston Villa at the end of January, their last ten matches of the season following without a win and just one point picked up.
The troubles mounted for Andy Cook and his young team, the coach stretched by out off the field matters like others in the tier, the results only heading south for Oxford over the course of the season. The U’s, to their credit, did all they could to hang in match after match, consistently scoring but unable to balance out and stop the goals from flying in at the other end.
After a few middling seasons, it was all change for Villa, Joe Hunt replaced with Iain Sankey and a handful of starters leaving, either for American universities or other WSL teams. The changes too much for the Villainesses to handle, the Midlands team fumbling their way through the season, never quite finding the right fluency.
Following four consecutive losses, Villa finally looked to have found some form when they finished the year with a hearty win over Watford, their first outing of the new year a high-scoring draw at home to the Bees. Another four successive losses followed before another victory over Watford before back-to-back 2-1 losses in London. A win over fellow strugglers Oxford their last thee points of the season in April before three losses and a home draw to Spurs.
It hasn’t all been bad new for Villa however, the emergence of free-scoring teenager Ebony Salmon something for the faithful fans to cheer.
After a Spring Series that seemed to set Watford on their way, the Golden Girls were derailed by off the pitch developments, the club opting not to go for a new WSL 2 licence, the players left in their droves, manager Keith Boanas making a swift exit too.
With little for the fans to cheer, a home draw against Spurs at the end of October their first point of the season, it wouldn’t be added to until mid-May. The side up against it every time out, Armand Kavaja didn’t taste success as a coach until the team travelled to Oxford, Simona Petkova’s goal after the hour enough for three points after Helen Ward had cancelled out a Fran Kitching own goal (the loanee goalkeeper, the undesputed star of Watford's season). The win to be Watford’s only of the season, taking their tally to four points from 18 matches come the end of the season, another last place finish well confirmed, the lowest scoring team (eight) also the most porous (57 conceded). The season another to forget.