In their second season in WSL 2, the Blue Girls once again fell just short of promotion back to WSL 1, but where did Everton drop those valuable points and what does it mean for next season?
The future, today
With the off-season retirement of Lindsay Johnson experience was at an even higher premium in the squad, the youth players of the highest calibre in England the team predominantly composed of England youth internationals. Michelle Hinnigan, Kelly and Vicky Jones the experienced heads on the pitch, three of the most consistent throughout the year.
2016 started for Everton as every other WSL 2, with the early rounds of the FA Cup, routine wins over Stoke City and Nottingham Forest set them on their way before a tight 1-0 loss to Aston Villa ended their cup run. Righting a wrong, the Blue Girls started the league season on the right foot four days later with a win over the Villainesses, a draw at The Den three days later was the first points they dropped this year.
Relaxed wins over Watford (3-0), London Bees (5-1) and Aston Villa (2-0) put the Blue Girls back on track before they came unstuck at the hands of Millwall for the second time of the year, a draw in Widnes not the best – although not the worst – way to head into the mid-season break.
The next three games, Everton’s most unhappy run of the year. A shock 2-1 loss in Berkhamsted left them shaken but they rallied well against local rivals, Liverpool falling to a slight 1-0 loss in the league cup. Their first meeting with Sheffield an unhappy one as the league debutants claimed yet another big scalp.
Pulling out of their apparent tail-spin, the Blue Girls found themselves back on course with a commanding win over table-toppers Yeovil, 3-0 in Widnes the shot in the arm their promotion push needed, a win at the Northcourt following the next week. But again when everything looked peachy Everton came up against two concurrent brick-walls, Sheffield and Durham both showing their mettle to leave the Blue Girls with just two points from two games.
Dash for the finish
The season was winding down and whilst the Toffees were still very much in the race they had some ground to make up, a tense 1-0 at the Stoke Gifford bolstered their chances of promotion and a 3-0 over Oxford kept them fighting with a healthy goal difference. Another tight affair at Huish Park left the top two pulling away but once again the Blue Girls recovered well, dominating Durham at New Ferens Park to scoop all three points going into a crunch game.
The maths for Everton was easy; lose to Bristol and the Vixens would take one of the promotion spots and Everton would need help from Yeovil’s last two opponents, a draw would have similar outcomes – Bristol a shoe-in to best Oxford in their last game of the season. Nothing less than a win would do, a win against Bristol then one against the Bees would see them finish the season on 37 points, the Vixens incapable of earning more than 36.
It was do or die for the hosts in Widnes, seven months since the start of the season and their year rested on one result – and the hosts played as if it was the most important game of the season. Thoroughly dominant from the off, overrunning their opposition it was a wonder that the hosts didn’t take the lead, twenty solid minutes undone with a sublime curler from Claire Emslie but a tussle in the box resulted in a spot kick for the home side.
Back on even terms Everton kept pushing for the goal to give them the edge, resigned to go in at the break level. As the hosts had dictated the first-half so they had the second dictated to them, Bristol sparking into life after the break, it wasn’t long until they were back on-top, a careless error from Megan Finnigan granting Millie Farrow time to nip in and steal the ball before firing pass Kirstie Levell.
As they had done in Berkhamsted so they did in Widnes, suddenly jumpy the Blue Girls lacked the calm focus to pull themselves back into the game, launching bodies forward and caught out by Emslie again. In a complete departure from her first, Emslie still made a case for goal of the season, with her a-plus run, nodding the ball on beyond her marker before weaving around any blue shirts in her path, her shot from the edge of the area another fine strike to leave Levell beaten.
The hosts rather calmed down late in the game, a scrappy goal five minutes from time the tonic to give them a much needed second-wind, a controversial stoppage time penalty enough for a draw but Claudia Walker’s spot kick was all too similar too her first, Caitlin Leach able to read it and claw the shot away at the death.
The errors that littered the game littered Everton’s season, silly mistakes that cost them valuable points. A loss here and a draw there not the end of the world but cumulatively enough to see them held in WSL 2 for another season.
The Blue Girls did well to put the disappointment of a home loss behind them and finish the season on the right foot, overcoming a 3-1 deficit to steal a 4-3 win at the Hive – a game for pride that was another nod to what they did right and what they do wrong.
With such a young set-up at Everton – Andy Spence and his backroom staff all on the younger side – it’s hard not to suggest that experience could be the key next year. There’s no question at the Blues were bolstered by the loans of Chloe Kelly and Rosella Ayane the London pair contributing in a big way in their time with the Widnes based club.
The players will continue to grow and develop as they already have, time away with the England squad will only further their growth but the squad is crying out for more balance. With a poorer goal return than last year (despite the extra games), Spence’s moves for Kelly and Ayane were justified and with the team weighted more in attack it’s a pleasant surprise to see that their defence was slightly meaner than last year (again, despite the extra games), seven of the 18 conceded over the season coming in their last two games.
One of the biggest problems for Everton could be retaining their players, the advent of the Spring Series only giving other teams more chances to swoop in and poach their stars. Although those at the club are fiercely loyal to the badge the nature of the game dictates that even if the Blues Girls were able to win promotion at the end of the 2017-18 season, the squad would have gone through wholesale changes by the start of the next season (August 2018).
The good news for Everton is the Spring Series does also give them a chance to flex their muscles once more and give new personnel a chance to integrate, a test run to work out the kinks before once more going to promotion back to the top flight. The Blue Girls a shadow of the team they once were, promotion would come with its’ own headaches.