Following a disappointing 2015 that saw then relegated from WSL 1 with a dismal eight points - and only five going into their last match of the season - many were worried about Bristol’s ability to bounce back. However, Willie Kirk’s Vixens took relegation in their stride and readied themselves for the trials of WSL 2 life.
The division drop also saw the Vixens heavily reduced as key players such as Jade Boho-Sayo, Sophie Ingle, Mary Earps, Angharad James and Caroline Weir all opted to stay in WSL 1. The traffic however, was not all one-sided and Kirk brought in a number of new players – with youth a key component – Caitlin Leach, Chloe Arthur and Ellie Wilson three of his new signings that would prove crucial to in their first season in WSL 2. The shrewd loans of Chelsea trio, Millie Farrow, Jodie Brett and Rosella Ayane were another boost for the west country side – as well as the summer singing of Claire Emslie, the young Scot eventually being a huge influence in the second-half of the season.
Before the season started, the Vixens' flirtation with the FA Cup was cut short in a veritable monsoon at home to Yeovil, the Glovers advancing by way of penalties – a marker for the closeness for the two West Country teams in 2016. When the season officially kicked off a month later, Bristol were once more entertaining the Somerset side, a dominant first-half carrying the hosts through even after the visitors staged a second-half come-back. Three days later the Vixens were left shocked at home after being held to a scoreless draw at the hands of WSL newcomers, Sheffield.
Picking up steam
A month passed before Bristol were back in action, a timid first-half at the Hive had echoes of their last outing before three goals inside of ten minutes wrapped up all three points, as well as boost to their goal difference. Two more commanding wins, first 2-0 at home to Aston Villa and 2-0 away to Watford followed over the next week before the Vixens tasted their first league defeat; who else but Yeovil? Three days later they were on the road again and got hit with another loss (their only back-to-back losses of this year), Sheffield the thorn in their side once again.
The mid-season break saw Ayane return to Chelsea and the aforementioned Emslie sign up, the intelligent attacker marking her debut with a goal in a comprehensive 4-1 over Oxford. Finishing June with a competitive draw at Coles Lane the Vixens were duly dumped out of the Conti Cup at the hands of familiar opposition, Sheffield. 2-1 wins over Millwall bookended a scoreless draw in Durham and another 3-0 win over the Bees as the season hastily moved into August, a tight 1-0 loss at home – their only home loss of the year – to Everton their only action of the month. The loss saw the promotion race grow increasingly tighter as Everton made ground, Yeovil began to drop points and Durham kept touch, a fine 4-1 win over Watford not enough for the Vixens to make any real headway although a surprise defeat for Yeovil saw their points advantage dissolve away.
Eyes on the prize
The Wildcats dropped away from the top three after a narrow 1-0 loss at the Stoke Gifford, Yeovil’s similarly tight win over Everton kept them top on goal difference alone, the Blue Girls in need of a win against the Vixens in their next time out. The game in Widnes was a swinging pendulum, the hosts on top for the first-half but a sublime goal – and ultimate WSL goal of the season winner – from Emslie thoroughly against the run of play and the Blue Girls equalised almost immediately from the spot. For Bristol the win wasn’t a necessity, but Everton could almost certainly kiss their promotion prospects goodbye with a loss. The second-half belonged to the visitors, a mistake from the Everton back-line gifted Farrow a goal before Emslie hit the hosts for a second, her goal sheer brilliance and arguably better than her first. Nodding the ball on before carrying it around anyone in her way, the pitch fast eaten up as she danced forward, a shift and a shimmy to create space in front of the box before blasting the ball beyond Kirstie Levell and wrapping it just inside the post, the net rippling and the Vixens WSL 1 bound. The hosts became frantic and found a goal to reduce the deficit, a stoppage time penalty smartly saved by Leach the party beginning early for Bristol, Everton not as fortunate.
With one job done, Willie Kirk was left to eye the WSL 2 title, a Yeovil win at the Hive the following day took the Glovers back to the top of the tree, once again goals difference all that could separate the two. Needing at least six goals to surpass Yeovil – should they have won at home to Sheffield – the Vixens made a strong attempt away to Oxford on the last day of the season, five goals just not enough as the Glovers confirmed their silverware with a 3-0 win. Yeovil, the best in the West, but marginally.
With near identical stats; 12 wins, three draws and three losses a piece, both with a league low of 16 goals conceded as well as being first and second in terms of goals scored too it was near impossible to crown a clear winner. Their three meetings this year ended in a league win a piece and Yeovil winning a cup shoot-out; two teams that are worlds apart in terms of personnel and experience but reminiscent of each other on the pitch, one of the greater things to have come out of their dual triumphs is the West Country derby will continue in WSL 1.
The work done by Kirk off of the pitch this year can not be underestimated, a manager that has instilled the deepest belief in his players. Unlucky with injuries all year long, every experienced player side-lined at one point or another as well as star-striker Farrow out with two dislocated shoulders, his younger players spending their share on time on the treatment table too. There have been multiple points this year when the Vixens could have waivered or come a cropper, huge pressure on young shoulders but time and time again they rose to the challenge, one of the best conditioned sides in WSL 2, Kirk readied them for every game to make them the best they could be. The success has always been a team success, not attributed to one individual but all working in sync, experienced or inexperienced, in positon or out.
There is nothing lucky about Bristol’s return to the top tier, from throwing off the “Academy” tag and becoming affiliated with Bristol City after their relegation, every possible step has been put in place to make the Vixens the best they can be, the team set for promotion now the team readying themselves for the step [back] up to WSL 1, a new experience for many. Much work to be done between now and when the season starts in August, the Spring Series the yard stick for how this young side with cope with the trials of the top flight.