Bristol City Fans Forum with Lauren Smith and Grace Williams

On International Women’s Day (Wednesday March 8th), Bristol City head coach Lauren Smith & general manager Grace Williams took part in a Fans Forum at the Bristol City Supporters Club & Trust bar at Ashton Gate Stadium. Here is the transcript of the questions that fans asked plus the responses that were given.

Lauren, it’s been a really positive season so far. Are there any key moments that have stood out to you as particularly enjoyable?
LS: The most recent one has to be Coventry [United]. For those that were there, we didn’t expect to be in that situation in that particular game; to be going into the last few moments of the game coming away without any points would have been a shock to everyone. And then the change in the team at the time; to be able to pull out two goals like they did – I think we’ve not had that situation before in the whole two years [I’ve been in charge] where we’ve actually won a game in the last moments, by throwing the kitchen sink at something. That was something like a real moment at the end which I loved because I thought “Ah no, we’re not going to win this league if we can’t beat Coventry”; that’s what was going through my head. “Uh oh, this is not going to be what we want it to be” and then 10 minutes later it was like the complete opposite feeling. That’s the first one this season – I’ll go backwards.

I think the FA Cup game against Southampton in the snow, and that was more of a club-wide feeling, because… a couple of days before, we were talking about how much congestion there is after Christmas and if we had to rearrange; if the snow was going to call off the game; and there’s a quite a lot going on. We really wanted to play, we felt in a good place, we had lots of players fit, and it was like a really good time. And then everybody just got together, made it work, got the groundsheets down, got ground staff & coaching staff shovelling the pitch to make sure that game went ahead. Then for the players to put on a performance in the way they did helped make one of the really special moments of the club coming together.

Grace, how do you assess the progress that’s been made on & off the pitch in the last two years?
GW: Lauren’s mentioned it a few times, but when she started; and it wasn’t long after that I started; we had two contracted players & around three staff members. Although that’s quite daunting it’s a brilliant opportunity to be able to rebuild a club, a culture. What we needed to do after being relegated from the WSL into the Championship; which I don’t think was a negative thing, looking in hindsight; we were able to re-establish our identity as a club, and rebuild our philosophy of what we wanted to do, and that means on the pitch playing, and off the pitch too.

The progress has been brilliant; when you look at that we play at a new ground that’s…a brand-new training ground but also somewhere that hasn’t had fixtures in before, and I think that’s been a great success & we’ve seen that grow and progress through two seasons. Along with the attendances there, we’ve moved full time into the RHPC, where we play alongside the men’s first team & the academy; that’s been a great progress for me off the pitch alongside attendances, commercial income, and a lot of other things that I see, but the exciting stuff on the pitch as well; sitting on top of the table

Lauren, how pleased are you with the way your squad has gelled this year, particularly when you consider the fact that you signed seven new faces in the summer & a further three in 2023?
LS: It was always kind of a risk, because the first season I was here we had that good feeling in the squad; it was a good group of players that worked together but ultimately, we had to lose some of them to make sure that we could fulfil progression & ambition as well. You know that some things are going to have to change; you know you’re going to lose some players & have to recruit & make sure that the squad was in a place to be able to push where they are now. So, the risk was there but then it’s really important in our recruitment that we kind of check on all of those things; maybe coaches that have coached them before, people that have known them; just to make sure that they’re the type of person that fits our culture, the way we like to do things. And if that’s a no, then the conversation doesn’t go any further. There was a risk, but we really had to back ourselves in our recruitment…so it’s not just can they score goals for us, but can they score goals & be part of the team. And when you get the full circle, you end up with a squad that are in a really good place.

It’s the same in January. Although it’s different because it’s initially for the second half of the season (with those signings anyway), those questions are still important because they can make or break you. The three that we have brought in have been excellent on & off the pitch. Three different characters as well, but you need a bit of variation in the squad. I’m really pleased in who we’ve brought in, and the staff’s job to make sure we have the right people. If we get a gut feeling that a signing may not be right, we won’t do it.

As it’s International Women’s Day today, how proud of you that a large percentage of the backroom staff at Bristol City are women?
GW: I’ll always celebrate women being successful, however it comes down for me that the best person for the job is the person who gets the job regardless of their gender or how they identify as. You work in women’s football; you don’t have to be a woman. Working in men’s football; you don’t have to be a man. Looking across Bristol Sport & the Bristol City men’s team, there are a lot of strong females that are advocates for Bristol City; and for Bristol Bears’ & Bristol Flyers’ teams likewise.

I’m really proud of the women that have come in to the club, but even the men that I work with are brilliant advocates who empower the women themselves. As long as you have the right person on board, that’s what you have to look out for.

Photo: Ryan Asman

How important is it that you’re able to produce homegrown players?
LS: It’s really important & it’s a big thing about our club, and it’s the reason I wanted to coach here again. It’s something that we have that’s really special. I love putting young players on the pitch; it was great to see [16-year-old] Fearne [Slocombe]’s debut here against Man City, Mari [Ward] & Tianna [Teisar] being able to do that this year as well. And if they’re good enough, they’re old enough – I will always stand by that. What I really enjoy is seeing them do it day in & day out in training, and then be able to step up on the pitch, be themselves & enjoy what they do.

I do trust our young players; and from a question before, that’s really important in our recruitment & for players that aren’t homegrown. To accept the fact that they come into a club that the majority of the players ae young; they’ve come from Bristol or the surrounding areas; they need to get that that’s a big part of what we do. And if that’s not part of what they want, then we won’t be the right fit for them.

If winning the league & promotion is achieved, what are the next steps?
GW: My answer would be a little bit different to Lauren’s, in the sense that Lauren needs to take each game as it comes, and probably planning for promotion after the last game against Birmingham. Whereas I’ve had to try plan it almost from when I started the role as to what the transition plan looked like. You can’t just jump from the Championship to the WSL overnight, regardless of your money & resource. It’s a slow building process, and that’s what we discovered when we both got employed & we both set out what we need to do here. We want to be playing in the top tier of women’s football but we just don’t want to be there for the status. We want to be able to compete, be sustainable.

The next steps are what do we look like & who are we in the WSL, what do we want to achieve & how do we do that. I’m very proud of what we’ve put together this season in how we operate. We’re a full-time professional club, we’re ready & want to compete; we just don’t want to come back down again.

A few years ago, we had that reset & ethos of a community club. And now the WSL; when you look at it; is increasingly full of teams with Premier League backing. Do you see that as a reconcilable gap?
LS: I think you need to be realistic & it’s a difficult one. Since we were there before, lots has changed – commercially, talent-wise, what the league attracts. We’ve got to make it for Bristol in how we go up. We’d still have to do what we did this year; there’d have to be some change in players obviously. That’s not a whole big refit, I think we’ve got some players ready to play at that level. Would I still give young, homegrown players opportunities? Absolutely. I wouldn’t think twice about that. We have to stick with our values, and then fit the rest around that. It isn’t going to be an easy job; [being a head coach in the WSL] is something I haven’t done before. I’m really excited to go & do that, if we get there. But I do think we can do things differently; we’re not suddenly going to be a Man City or Man United, Arsenal etc. You can look at teams like Spurs & go “Something’s not quite right there”. You’ve got the financial backing but something else isn’t right. And you can look at a team like Reading, who have probably over-achieved for a number of years. We’re going to have to find a model that fits; I don’t have the answer of what that looks like.

For those of you that enjoy how we play now, there’s still elements of that that I want to stick to. I love being a high pressing team. I don’t think we can high press a team like Arsenal; but there may be points when we can be competitive.

GW: Realistically, we’re not an Arsenal, Chelsea or Man City, but do we want to be, necessarily? As you said, from going away from being a community club, I think Bristol City’s men’s team are great at that, and we can take things from it. We don’t want to differ or go away from our values or philosophy of what we want to do. We need to take strengths from some clubs & strengths from others. We need to find our identity & what that looks like in the WSL. I don’t think that we’re like a Chelsea, Man City or Arsenal, but I don’t think that we’re like a Reading, Leicester, or Brighton, for example. We haven’t got there overnight; we’ve been building on over the last two seasons. The facilities that we have & what we’ve doing off the pitch I don’t think differs much currently from those clubs competing in the WSL.

LS: It’s changed a lot over the two years, since Matt [Beard] & Tanya [Oxtoby] were leading the team respectively. Our staffing has increased & developed. We are at a professional training ground now with our own office. We are already in a place that is a better fit than before.

Will we able to stay at the RHPC if we get promoted?
GW: I can’t give you a definite answer on that, I’m afraid. We’re working with the FA. There are a number of requirements we need to fit if we are to play in the WSL. We are figuring that out, with support from the FA & Bristol Sport as to what that looks like.

LS: The RHPC is great for us right now, but personally I want to outgrow it as well. I want there to be thousands of you week in & week out cheering us on. I don’t think that’s an option at the RHPC.
That being said, we love it there, but I also think that there’s lots of stadiums you can look at in the WSL that people are outgrowing already.

Are there any players who are already under contract for next season, or are having negotiations with the club for new contracts?
LS: We’ve got a couple who are on contracts longer than a year; Shania [Hayles], Fran [Bentley], Elysia [Boddy].

GW: Plus, Abi [Harrison] & Aimee [Palmer], whose extensions can be triggered if there is promotion.

LS: And then we’ve got a couple of options on quite a lot of players if we’re in the WSL. That’s the bit we’re waiting for; we’re not going down contract negotiations just now because there’s so many things in the balance. To be fair, the players are very focused on Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. There’s a few of them that we may be able to hold onto if we do get promoted.

Photo: Ryan Asman

When you brought in someone such as Rachel Furness, that was a good shock for everybody. Is she the kind of direction that the club are heading in?
LS: I actually wanted her to come here before, but she got injured & stayed with Liverpool. She’s definitely the type of player that fits with everything that we were talking about before. So, when we were talking to her & her agent, it was a lot about how she can also give back to the game. She’s an older player who wants to play for as long as she possibly can & you can see that in everything she does. She’s one of those people that will do everything for themselves, but she also wants to help others & be a mentor; those two things come hand-in hand. The players have learned; I’ve learned so much from having Rachel come through the door. She’s blown everyone away, and stepped into a captaincy role within the first 24 hours. She does make an impact in the right way.

It was a very busy day; that last day of the transfer window. We thought it was gone, because it went really quiet for a few days, and then on the last hour of the last day, her agent rang and said “Let’s get it done”. We were up against a few of our rivals in getting here, I’m really pleased that she chose us. And the same for Grace Clinton, I’m pretty sure that Southampton wanted her, but she chose us instead.

Compared with our nearest rivals, I don’t think anyone recruited in the same way?
LS: We had quite a thin squad at the start of the season, I’d say. We did make the seven changes; but it was making sure we had the right quality over quantity. Then we got to Christmas and carrying a little bit of injuries. You’ve seen the likes of Ffion [Morgan] & Chloe Mustaki were all out for longer than a week. If that were to carry on, we’d be struggling to put out a strong XI every week. Everybody that ran their socks off allowed us to get a few through the door to make sure that we keep our momentum.

What is the fitness situation across the squad?
LS: Aimee Palmer is hopefully going to be in the squad this Sunday; her injury was a short term one – a small groin tear. I think she’ll be on the bench. Chloe Mustaki is still ongoing, hopefully we’ll see her before the end of the season but I’m not 100% sure on that. She’s got a deeper groin injury than what Aimee had. She is back in the gym now & if all goes well, she’ll be back training on the pitch soon. Brooke [Aspin] is a different situation; she’s back in training now, playing in games with the academy.

[Since the Fans Forum, both Aimee Palmer & Brooke Aspin made their returns to the squad in the game against Durham on Sunday March 12th]

If we get promoted, would ticket/season prices be competitive?
GW: There’s no price structure stipulated by the league, that’s completely managed by us & the team at Bristol Sport. There will be increases, and I hope you’d expect that in valuing the product. I would expect that regardless of what league we’re in. I think we’ve always had low, reasonably priced ticketing – we don’t change our pricing at Ashton Gate either, to keep it consistent.

We constantly have this battle in women’s football with “give away comps”, “give away tickets so you can fill up the stadium” etc. I think we’ve gone past that stage now; if someone wants to come & give it a go, it only costs several pounds for a ticket.

Photo: Ryan Asman

With the London City Lionesses game in January that eventually got postponed, who’s idea was it to delay the kick off by 45 minutes in minus temperatures make the pitch playable?
GW: That was a difficult day. With games being called off, I never ever want to call a game off, and want to wait as late as possible before I can. One reason is fixture congestion for the players on the pitch, and there being no Sundays left, forcing games to be played on Sunday-Wednesday-Sunday-Wednesday; which I think has an impact on our league integrity. Also, I don’t want to postpone a game as people have come to see a game of football & we’d try to put it on for them. However, there’s a point when you can’t leave it too late due to fans travelling. We also have to think about the opposition, who had travelled & stayed overnight. They’re not my priority, but from an operational view they have to be considered too.

As for the 45-minute situation, we had a pitch inspection at around 11am & another one at 12pm. The thawing in that time was dramatic, the sun was on the pitch & it was starting to defrost. The premise was that if kick off was delayed, it would give more time for this. However, there was one part of the pitch where the gantry is that the sun did not have access to, and the only area that was deemed unplayable. The refs assessed everywhere else & this passed the inspection, which justified the decision to delay kick off as it was thought that this one area would pass an inspection, but sadly it did not.

Lauren, do you give [men’s manager] Nigel Pearson advice? Do you talk to him quite a bit?
LS: I can’t remember a situation where I’ve given him advice. We’ve had lots of conversations about what’s going on. He did give me some advice at the start of the year about a starting XI, because I was thinking about one or two players to use & I wasn’t sure which one to pick. He didn’t make the decision for me but we were on our way to get coffee one day & it came up.

He’s a great ally to have in the building, we have each other’s back especially when there’s pressure mounting. He’s got some great stories that he shares. I’m on a course with some ex-professional footballers & I’ve been asked what he’s like, as he has some sort of schoolteacher/headmaster image apparently. And I just say to them that he’s not like that at all.

GW: A great example is that we recently moved offices in the HPC; we’re essentially growing as a staff, we’re recruiting more people. As we moved in, he said a few bits to Emma [Joliffe, operations manager] on how to make it nicer. He then got in his car, left the HPC, came back half an hour later & brought about five houseplants for the desks. That is the perfect example of who he is. I first met him when we were both at Watford & I have him to thank for helping me join Bristol City.

Lauren, how do you manage the players, expectations & decisions you make?
LS: A lot of what we do is always about we as a group of staff. I personally could not manage 24 female footballers on my own. It goes down to every member of staff that we are on the same page on what we do. I’ve been in other coaching environments where that’s not the case. I talk about what you learn from people, but it’s also what you learn not to do. You can’t have one person at the helm to make all the decisions, because it just falls down & then everyone would be waiting on you. We all manage the players constantly. If a player’s whinging one day, that’s not on me to deal with. If it’s something medical, they can speak to our physio Becky [Hughes] for example.

When it comes down to game situations especially in busy weeks, I’m pretty open with the players. Every team we select is to win that game. Every team selected we believe is the best XI for that start. If some players aren’t in there, there’s a reason for that. Sometimes it’s because of this or that, sometimes it’s because another player is doing really well, and I can’t shift them out just to get someone else in. We’ve got a great squad and rotation is key. When we’d come out of busy weeks where we’d play Man City then Lewes, we can go face Crystal Palace still flying, not tired. It’s a lot of planning which I really like doing.

I was at the Crystal Palace game last Sunday. Looking at the team sheet, I couldn’t understand it as thought I can’t see who was clearly in midfield; I assumed it was Ella Powell. Then the game started and Abi [Harrison] was in midfield. Was that a necessity or a bit of brilliance?
LS: What we’ve learnt about Abi over the years that she’s been here is that she’ll do anything for the team. At the weekend, Rachel Furness was out with illness & Aimee Palmer was out with a groin injury, so we were a bit lighter in the midfield. Not that we didn’t have options; we’ve got Chloe Bull who could have stepped in; but what we needed to secure the game was the defensive mentality of midfield, and I think Abi showed that excellently against Man City. She showed she could hold down that type of role to stay in position, to work with others around her. As a proper football watcher, she watches & assesses like a coach, and knows what’s going on. She’s brilliant on the ball, she unlocks passes for Shania to get onto; for Grace Clinton to get onto. Abi Harrison as a midfielder, she took it well. She joked that she’ll be a centre back next week!

Photo: Ryan Asman

In regards to the youth set-up, I was really impressed with Mari Ward on the weekend. She’s one of those players that completely come out of nowhere, with an amazing technique. Is this how she ended up in the first team so soon?
LS: She’s so strong, so athletic, she runs and runs and runs. She gets on the ball and faces players up straight away. She’s both footed so makes it really difficult to defend against. We signed her this year for the academy at SGS from Plymouth, who we’ve got a relationship with; almost like a feeder club. We do a lot of work their younger age groups; we’ve got a good relationship with their manager. He recommended her, and so her & her family actually moved up. She was a great coup for the academy, but didn’t last very long there.

Grace, how do you see Bristol City fitting in the future of women’s football, particularly with Karen Carney leading her review & the Professional Working Group (PWG) looking in a newco that would soon run the leagues?
GW: When you look at women’s football, it’s got a different identity amongst different clubs. You’ve got clubs like us that have strong links with our men’s club who are in the EFL. You’ve got clubs that have strong links with their men’s clubs in the Premier League. You’ve got clubs like Coventry United & London City Lionesses that are investor-led. You’ve got clubs like Durham who are led & funded by a university & Lewes who are a fan-owned club. It’s really difficult to understand what looks like if there are going to be changes following the review. Karen Carney has a big job on her hands, we’ve already had a few meetings with her individually & as a club. One real challenge she does have is the Championship, where it’s so different & unique. Do all the clubs realistically have the passion & progression to go up to get promoted? It’s a really exciting & positive time, especially with the impact the Lionesses have had

As for the newco, we’re the only professional league that is run by its governing body. But the FA are at a point now where a newco can come in & take over. There’s been conversations about the Premier League or other investors taking over that we’re not privy to, but that’s not the case. The takeover also keeps getting pushed back as well. I think it’s an exciting but also challenging task to take over the women’s game. We are not a carbon copy of the men’s game & we don’t want to be. There’s a lot of things we can take from the men’s game in what to do & what not to do. But as Lauren said earlier just as the club are growing, so are the leagues. The reason it took so long is the FA wanting to ensure that any takeover is done properly, and clubs are very much involved in that. Realistically with our values such as home-grown talent & sustainability, we’re not going to be able to go up to the WSL & start spending millions of pounds, investing in overseas players. Every club is unique in what they look like, but I don’t think there is a club more integrated like we are.

Bristol City have announced a new kit partnership with O’Neills, and Chloe Mustaki doing the voiceover in the video announcement. Fran Bentley, Shania Hayles & Lia Cataldo have also been involved in other kit reveals. As the men have already started wearing the kit, when can you expect the women to do so?
GW: It’s essentially down to supply at the moment. It’s on its way, and we will play in it before the end of the season. It’s just about when it comes & getting it all out in time.

[Since the Fans Forum, the team made wore the new home kit for the first time in the game against London City Lionesses on Sunday March 19th. You can look at our Photo Diary here]

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