So how did it come to this? Seven years after guiding Liverpool to a second successive Women’s Super League title, Matt Beard is back on Merseyside on a mission to extract his old club from the Championship.
“It’s not going to be easy,” says a manager who left north-west England for the east coast of America only for his new employer, Boston Breakers, to fold. He returns – via subsequent stints at West Ham and Bristol City – to a club in reduced circumstances and facing intense competition from, among others, Durham and Sheffield United to escape an increasingly professionalised second tier.
“It’s probably going to be the toughest Championship season ever,” says Beard, whose side are at home to London City Lionesses as the newly expanded 12 team division kicks off on Sunday. “But I’ve come back to get us promoted.”
After those title successes in 2013 and 2014, Liverpool’s parent men’s club not only lacked the appetite for the sort of investment Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal were pouring into their women’s sides but failed to fund the facilities needed to support the WSL’s switch to professionalism in 2018.
Few were surprised when they were relegated or even when they finished behind promoted Leicester and second-placed Durham last spring. Since then Beard’s arrival has been augmented by a strengthening of the infrastructure and some decent signings, most notably the former West Ham striker Leanne Kiernan.
Yet if the mood music has undeniably changed for the better, Liverpool still share both Prenton Park and the Solar Campus training base with League Two Tranmere rather than the state of the art Kirkby weekday HQ which houses Jürgen Klopp’s men.
Beard’s side start as title favourites but he will be keeping a particularly close eye on Durham. Lee Sanders’ squad enjoy excellent backing from the local university, benefiting from the multimillion pound investment made in its sport centre at picturesque Maiden Castle.
Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle used to train at Maiden Castle watched by a young fan called Martin Herdman and the bad news for Beard is that Herdman has returned as Sanders’ principal coach after a stint working with Vancouver Whitecaps in Canada.
Given that his brother, John Herdman, coached Canada’s women before taking over the national men’s team, he comes with considerable pedigree. “I’m really excited about how good a coach Martin is,” says Sanders who appears to have made another excellent full-time appointment in Julie Twaddle.
She becomes Durham’s head of performance after fulfilling the same role with Manchester City and the England women’s rugby union squad. Her aim is to maximise the ability of a squad offering not only a certain streetwise edge but genuine talent in the shape of attacking midfielder Beth Hepple, Albania international forward Liz Ejupi and Netherlands youth international Iris Achterhof.
Neil Redfearn quit Liverpool in disgust at broken promises following a brief stint in Beard’s shoes in 2018 and now, like Sanders, the one time Leeds United manager is out to pip him to promotion.
Redfearn’s Sheffield United have been bolstered by the signing of the former England winger Jess Clarke from, of all places, Liverpool and have their hearts set on a WSL place. Such ambitions are shared by Sunderland and Watford but, for this season at least that pair will probably be happy to consolidate after benefiting from the Upward Club Movement Process.
That may sound like a particularly unpleasant medical procedure but with the last two third-tier National League seasons terminated by Covid it allowed teams with high recent points per game averages and suitable infrastructure to apply for promotion.
In Sunderland’s case there is a definite sense of a wrong finally being righted by the FA. In 2018 Melanie Reay’s side finished seventh in the WSL but were demoted two divisions after their parent men’s club failed to meet the financial criteria necessary to obtain a licence to play in the top two tiers.
With Sunderland’s current owner, the trust fund billionaire Kyril Louis-Dreyfus, keen to return the women’s side to the WSL and Reay possessing one of the most exciting young talents in the game in the 20-year-old Malta attacking midfielder Maria Farrugia the eagerly anticipated Wearside derbies with Durham should be intriguing.
The same goes for Liverpool’s dates with a Bristol City side Beard very nearly saved from relegation last season while serving as maternity cover for Tanya Oxtoby. With Oxtoby having since stepped down from the post, City have a new manager in 33-year-old Lauren Smith, 11 new players and now share the top class Robins High Performance Centre with Nigel Pearson’s men.
“I’m really excited to be part of one of the world’s most competitive women’s leagues,” says Smith. “Let’s hope we can bring some of the good times back here.”